Imposter Syndrome: How to Identify & Deal with It

Updated in February 2022

Imposter syndrome, also known as fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon that is not an official diagnosis, but is very well-defined. Many symptoms of imposter syndrome are similar to those of other mental disorders, like depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.

This syndrome is common in people who work in competitive fields (like athletes, musicians and businessmen or women). It is also commonly seen in people with jobs where they are frequently evaluated (like health care and teaching). It frequently affects people who are insecure and internalize criticism.

Nonetheless, anyone can develop imposter syndrome and it can happen at any age. It is especially common in people who perceive they are in a position to receive judgement by others, like after receiving a promotion or starting a new project.

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How to identify imposter syndrome

People who have imposter syndrome generally present with 3 or more of the following behaviours:

1. The need to over-achieve

A person with imposter syndrome believes they need to perform at a high level, much higher than others around them, in order to justify their successes. They also want to overachieve because they believe they know less than the average person and need to compensate. Perfectionism and overworking are used to justify their performance, but it can cause lots of anxiety and fatigue.

2. Self-sabotage

People with imposter syndrome believe that failure is inevitable, and that at any moment, someone with more experience will expose them in front of everybody. For this reason, this type of person may hesitate to perform at their highest level, to avoid wasting energy on something that will, in their perception, not work out. This is a defensive mechanism to prevent judgement from other people.

3. Procrastination

Procrastinating or putting off priority tasks until the last minute is a common behaviour exhibited by people with imposter syndrome. They often tend to take the maximum amount of time possible to complete tasks, and tasks are often only completed to avoid being judged or criticized. 

4. Fear of exposing themselves

It is common for people with imposter syndrome to feel the need to hide or retreat from situations where they might be evaluated or criticized. These people will often choose professions that are more under-the-radar, where they are less likely to be assessed on their performance.

When they are, in fact, being evaluated, they often don't accept their own successes or the complements of other people.

5. Tendency to compare themselves to others

Perfectionism, expecting a lot from themselves and thinking they are less valuable (to the point of discrediting their actual capacity) are common characteristics of people who have imposter syndrome. The person often thinks they are not good enough or sufficient in comparison to other people, which can cause a lot of anxiety and dissatisfaction.

6. The need to please everybody

People with imposter syndrome often strive to set a good first impression and will play-up their charisma. They try to please everyone at all times to obtain approval, and will even set themselves up for humiliation to do so.

In addition, they usually experience intense stress and anxiety at the thought of anyone at any moment exposing them. Therefore, it is common for them to develop anxiety and depression.

How to deal with imposter syndrome

If any of the above symptoms are identified, it is important to initiate psychotherapy. These sessions can help with heightening the recognition of your actual capacities and competencies to desensitize your perception of feeling like a fraud. In addition to therapy, the following can also help to control the behaviours associated with imposter syndrome:

  • Having a mentor or a trusted, more experienced person who you can ask for advice and opinions
  • Sharing your concerns and doubts with a friend
  • Accepting your good and bad qualities, and avoiding comparing them to others.
  • Working within your own limitations, and avoiding unachievable goals or promises you can't keep
  • Accepting that everyone has flaws, and that you just need to work with them
  • Working in a field you find rewarding and motivating 

Having hobbies and participating in activities that alleviate stress and anxiety and improve your self-esteem and self-worth (like yoga, meditation, physical exercise) can also be very therapeutic for people who experience this psychological phenomenon.