Imposter Syndrome: The Silent Struggle of High Achievers

January 17, 2024   •  Posted in: 

Have you ever felt like you’re somehow “tricking” everyone around you into believing you’re competent? You might feel like, any day now, you’ll be uncovered for the fraud you are. Everyone will realize you don’t deserve any of your accomplishments – that you’ve simply skated by on luck.

These feelings are often described as imposter phenomenon or imposter syndrome. Although this isn’t technically a diagnosable syndrome, it is usually a very distressing experience.

Imposter syndrome is more common than you might realize – some reports show up to 82% of people have experienced this at some point[1]. Ironically, imposter syndrome is even more common among high achievers or well-respected people who have accomplished much.

This article will explain the link between high achievers and imposter syndrome and ways to overcome it.

Understanding imposter syndrome

The term imposter syndrome was first coined in the 1970s by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. These female psychologists initially used the term to describe professional women who lacked internal recognition for their extensive accomplishments[2].

Today, we understand imposter syndrome affects people of all genders and ages. People with imposter syndrome doubt their abilities no matter what they’ve achieved. They often feel they don’t deserve their accomplishments, which makes them feel like a “fraud” or a “phony.”[3]

If you have imposter syndrome, you might worry that someday, someone will discover your terrible secret – you aren’t that great after all, or you don’t belong among your highly accomplished peers.

Even if you’re highly accomplished, well-respected, and have succeeded, you can’t shake the feeling that it’s not enough. You feel like, somehow, you’ve “faked” your way up to where you are now, and any minute, it will all come crashing down around you.

How do you know if you have imposter syndrome?

On the one hand, humility is an admirable quality. You might feel being humble about your accomplishments and successes is a strength. But imposter syndrome is about a lot more than humility.

Humble people may not like to brag externally about their accomplishments, but they can feel proud of them internally. People with imposter syndrome lack internal recognition; they think they don’t deserve their achievements.

Some signs you struggle with imposter syndrome include:

  • Perfectionism: Setting exceedingly high standards or aiming for perfection in everything you do. You’re terrified of making mistakes and often view anything less than perfect as a failure. This mindset can lead to procrastination and chronic dissatisfaction with your work.
  • Self-doubt: Doubting your abilities and competence, even when evidence proves otherwise. Regardless of your accomplishments, you may have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.
  • Attributing success to luck: Downplaying your achievements, often attributing them to luck, good timing, or assistance from others rather than acknowledging your skills and efforts. This habit diminishes your self-esteem and confidence.
  • Fear of failure: Being paralyzed by the thought of failure to the point where it prevents you from taking risks or pursuing new opportunities.
  • Discounting success: Downplaying your successes, finding reasons to minimize or explain away your accomplishments. This tendency can erode your self-worth and prevent you from acknowledging your capabilities.
  • Overachievement: Constantly pushing yourself to surpass expectations or working tirelessly to “prove” your competence – to the point of burning out.
  • Fear of exposure: Living in constant fear that others will eventually discover you’re not as competent as they believe you to be. You may have anxiety that any mistake could “expose” you for being a fraud. This fear can cause stress and anxiety in social and professional settings.
  • Difficulty accepting praise: Struggling to accept compliments or positive feedback makes you feel uncomfortable or undeserving. You may think others only give you compliments because they’re unaware of your (perceived) inadequacies.
  • Comparing yourself to others: Routinely measure your success against your peers, even if you are doing well objectively. You constantly feel inferior or like you’re falling short, which can severely impact your self-esteem.
  • Hesitancy to ask for help: Finding it difficult to seek assistance or guidance because you fear doing so will reveal your supposed inadequacy. For example, you might not ask a question about something because you feel you’re “supposed” to know the answer already.
  • Multi-tasking to prove worth: Overloading yourself with multiple tasks to demonstrate your competence and value – but no matter how much you take on, it never feels like enough.
  • Persistent anxiety: Battling ongoing anxiety related to your performance, achievements, or the fear of being exposed as a fraud. This constant anxiety can take a toll on your mental and emotional well-being.

Why does imposter syndrome affect high achievers?

Ironically, imposter syndrome tends to target those with the highest achievement level. But why is this?

Part of the irony lies in the traits that fuel high achievement. For example, high achievers often inherently have a drive for excellence, perfectionism, and an insatiable hunger to conquer their goals. These traits are partly why they’ve succeeded in life – but they can also inadvertently set the stage for imposter syndrome to sneak in.

Plus, the fear of slipping up worsens when you’re used to setting the bar sky-high (and then consistently clearing it). In some ways, it’s like you’re putting more and more pressure on yourself with every achievement. People’s confidence in you will also naturally grow with every achievement you attain, so the sense that you’re an imposter may grow larger and larger. The nagging thought that you’re just one mistake away from being exposed as a fraud can be unnerving.

To make it worse, the very humility that often accompanies high achievers can be a breeding ground for imposter syndrome. Because you’re humble, you’re more likely to attribute your accomplishments to external factors – luck, good timing, a supportive team – than your capabilities, which you could dismiss. This never-ending cycle of self-doubt can put a dark cloud of uncertainty and anxiety over your achievements.

Even though the world sees your victories (or perhaps because they do), imposter syndrome tricks you into believing they were all just strokes of luck or that you somehow deceived everyone. It’s a struggle – an internal war between your accomplishments and the anxiety that someday, someone will expose you as an imposter.

How to overcome imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome can have severe effects on your professional life, relationships, and mental health if you ignore it. Although it can feel all-consuming, there are ways to overcome imposter syndrome and feel more confident in your abilities.

Share your feelings

So many of us struggle with imposter syndrome on our own. But this can make these feelings of shame and inadequacy grow even larger. You might feel you can’t ask for help because you feel that will uncover you as a fraud. But the longer you feel this way in silence, the worse the fear becomes.

Choose trustworthy people in your life, and share these feelings with them. You might be surprised to find they’ve had similar experiences.

Be intentional about recognizing your accomplishments

Remembering your strengths and achievements is easier said than done – if it were easy, you wouldn’t be struggling with imposter syndrome. But there are ways to be intentional about recognizing your accomplishments, even when they don’t feel valid or earned.

Every day, think of one thing you accomplished – big or small. It’s okay if you don’t feel proud of these accomplishments yet; simply acknowledging them can be enough. It may help to write them down. The idea is to compile evidence to combat these negative thoughts.

Understand the context

Acknowledging the cultural, historical, and societal context in which imposter syndrome occurs is also essential. The term “imposter syndrome” was originally, and often continues to be, used to describe professional women. But these feelings aren’t just “in your head”; it’s been well-documented that women genuinely do face disadvantages at work, including being paid less than their male counterparts. The same goes for people of color.

It’s no surprise to feel like an imposter when you live in a society where you may not be as externally valued as others. Some people find reflecting on this context helpful because it helps validate and understand the origins of feeling like an imposter.

Allow emotions to be present

Pushing your feelings aside or judging yourself for them will not likely make them disappear. It may even make you feel worse. Learn to notice when feelings of imposter syndrome arise and allow them to be present without judging or interacting with them. Simply accept them and observe them without becoming attached.

Seek support for imposter syndrome

Lastly, many people have benefited from seeking professional mental health support to help deal with imposter syndrome.

At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we use a Whole Person Care approach to mental health treatment. We understand that mental health symptoms don’t happen in a vacuum. The way you feel about yourself in one area of your life affects the way you feel in other areas of your life. If you’re feeling like an imposter, that’s important to address.

We also offer a specialized, highly confidential, and exclusive treatment program for high achievers and executives needing more privacy and security. We can help you battle imposter syndrome and become the leader you know you can be.

Contact us to learn more about our different programs and treatment approaches.

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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