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What imposter syndrome really feels like
Illustration by Kevin Yu

6 min read

What imposter syndrome really feels like

Understanding Imposter Syndrome: Learn about the psychological pattern that causes self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud, and find out the triggers and steps to cope with imposter syndrome.

I’m a writer. At least, that’s what I tell the world. But inside? I’m pretty sure my writing sucks, and the people who tell me they like my writing—well, they’re not writers, are they? They don’t know I’m nothing but a fraud, but I’m positive they’ll figure it out soon.

What you’ve just read is an example of imposter syndrome—also known as imposter phenomenon. This is a psychological pattern where a person doubts their accomplishments, skills, and abilities to the point they’re fearful of being exposed as a fraud, even though there’s evidence to the contrary.

Many people who suffer from this believe they don’t deserve the success they’ve achieved. And they often attribute any success to luck or some other external factor other than their own competence.

Imposter syndrome can occur in any area of life, including work, education, relationships, and personal endeavours.

It’s important to understand what imposter syndrome feels like. For one thing, being able to recognize it can allow an individual to identify what they’re experiencing, and this self-awareness is the first step towards addressing and managing these feelings. 

It’s safe to assume that most of us—excluding anyone with the giant ego—occasionally doubt our abilities. This is actually normal and quite healthy. Imposter syndrome is the exact opposite.

The experience of imposter syndrome 

Imposter syndrome can be experienced by anyone regardless of their social or professional status. It’s particularly common among high achievers, although it does also manifest itself in students, academics, or professionals in a variety of fields.

Feeling like a fraud

This could be characterized by a persistent belief that you’re not as competent as others perceive you to be. And even though you may have achieved success or received accolades, you attribute this to luck, deception, or other external factors—anything but your own skill, knowledge, or competency.

Fear of being “found out”

Since you feel as though you’re a fraud, you’re constantly worrying about being “exposed” or “found out”, as if you’ve tricked others into believing you’re more capable than you really are.

Self-doubt and insecurity

Naturally, since you think you’re a fraud and you’re eventually going to be exposed, it can lead to chronic self-doubt and insecurity. Ironically, the reverse is also true. Self-doubt and insecurity can lead you to the belief that you’re a fraud who will be eventually exposed. It can be a vicious cycle.

Comparison to others

Since you lack confidence in yourself, you continually compare yourself to others—and you’ll always come out the loser in any competition.

Negative self-talk

If you’re suffering from imposter syndrome, the negative self-talk can be relentless, since they often go hand-in-hand. Thoughts like "I'm not good enough," "I can't do it," or "I always mess up" are common.

Physical symptoms

Eventually, imposter syndrome and the experiences listed above will manifest themselves physically. You can begin to experience symptoms of anxiety, stress, low self-esteem, and even depression due to the constant worry of being exposed and the pressure you put on yourself to meet unrealistic standards. Before long, it can affect your overall well-being and mental health.

Triggers of imposter syndrome

So what leads a person to think they’re an imposter? The triggers could be internal and external—you could be setting yourself up for it and others could be pushing you to it.


This one may be entirely on you or others in your life may have or have had a hand in it.

Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by a relentless and often nonsensical pursuit of being flawless—even though no-one is flawless or perfect. People set extremely high standards for themselves in their work or performance and hold themselves to them rigidly, even though they’re unattainable. Ultimately, it’s a recipe for disaster.

High expectations

This isn’t as extreme as perfectionism, but expectations may still be unreasonable. They can be self-imposed or perhaps someone had or has parents who set high standards and expected them to be reached. This can lead someone to feeling overwhelmed, eventually pushing someone to fear and self-doubt over not being able to meet the standard.

Pressure to succeed

In environments where success is highly valued or expected, and when individuals are pushed by an intense need to achieve, the pressure to succeed can eventually lead to imposter syndrome.

Stereotype threat

Stereotype threat is when “individuals fear they may confirm negative stereotypes about their social group.” Essentially, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy—you think you suck at your job; therefore, you will suck at your job. Or whatever you’re trying to achieve.

Past experiences of failure or criticism

We all know that past experiences can shape us—shape our futures. For anyone who has been faced with failure or criticism in the past, it can deeply impact their self-perception. And if they’ve internalized it, they can end up believing they’re inadequate or incapable, which just sets the stage for imposter syndrome.

Coping with Imposter Syndrome

Now that we’ve identified imposter syndrome and outlined the triggers that can lead to it, what are the steps to cope with it?

Recognizing and challenging negative thoughts

I know you’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating. The first step is admitting you have a problem. 

Identify self-doubt and negative self-talk when it begins to arise but do so without judging yourself. Instead, question these thoughts—challenge them by seeking evidence that supports or contradicts them. Are the thoughts based on facts or are they based on assumptions?

Celebrating successes and accomplishments

If you have had achievements or successes, recognize and appreciate them no matter how small they may seem. Document any positive feedback or milestones—this gives you something to refer back to as a reminder of your growth. 

Remember that you can celebrate more than the end result; you can also celebrate the effort and dedication you put into a project. This can help build your confidence and your sense of self-worth.

Seeking support and validation

If you’re suffering from imposter syndrome, it’s important that you share your feelings with friends you trust, mentors, or ultimately, perhaps a mental health professional. Their valuable perspective can provide you with validation and guidance in how to deal with the problem.

Practicing self-compassion

How would you treat a friend or colleague who was dealing with negative feelings? Hopefully, you would treat them with kindness and understanding. So do the same for yourself. Acknowledged that anyone can make a mistake, and that everyone faces challenges.

Addressing underlying issues

Remember those triggers that can lead to imposter syndrome? Think of them as a flight of stairs—destroy the stairs and you have no way of reaching another level.

Identify whatever triggers and patterns contribute to your feelings of being an imposter. If necessary, consider therapy or counseling to help you develop coping strategies and build self-esteem. And if perfectionism and unrealistic expectations are your problem, work hard at letting go of them. Understand that embracing mistakes and learning from them is an opportunity for growth. 


So let’s recap. Imposter syndrome is more than the feelings of inadequacy we all deal with at times. It’s a real psychological phenomenon where, despite evidence to the contrary, people doubt their accomplishments and abilities, to the point where they fear exposure as a fraud.

These individuals are full of feelings of self-doubt and insecurity, which they compound by negatively comparing themselves to others and beating themselves up over their perceived inadequacies.

Typically, imposter syndrome doesn’t just happen. It’s often people who already have issues that should be dealt with that end up in this state. Those issues could include:

  • Perfectionism
  • High or unreasonable expectations
  • Pressure to succeed — either internal or external
  • Past experiences with failure or criticism

Fortunately, someone who is experiencing imposter syndrome isn’t doomed. Let’s say there’s something of a five-step program they can follow:

  • Recognize and challenge any negative thoughts that creep in
  • Address any underlying issues
  • If necessary, seek professional support or at least, talk to a trusted friend
  • Learn and practice self compassion
  • Celebrate your hard work and achievements

If you’re suffering from imposter syndrome, remember that you’re not alone. It’s a challenge that many face and while your doubts and fears are valid, they don’t define you.

Every journey is unique and most of us take a few missteps along the way. Recognize that both successes and setbacks contribute to growth, personally and professionally.

If you have a tendency to focus on what you perceive as shortcomings, it’s within your power to rewrite your narrative. You can decide that you’d prefer to celebrate your strengths.

And finally, surround yourself with the right kind of people—people who believe in your abilities and will help to remind you of your accomplishments whenever doubt starts to creep in.

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