Everyone faces challenges, slow periods and learning opportunities in their career, but if this is a constant feeling for you, take note: you may be a victim of imposter syndrome. This is the psychological term for a collection of patterns in which individuals feel like they’re “faking it,” like their accomplishments are never good enough and that at some point they’ll be exposed as a “fraud” unable to perform in their role. Some of these feelings are unavoidably normal, but if these patterns persist throughout an employee’s career, there’s a very good chance that imposter syndrome has invaded their ability to rationally look at their work output.

Imposter Syndrome Definition

Imagine you’ve received an important assignment for work. You look at it and you know it’s important; you can feel the anxiety creeping in. You start questioning your ability to perform this task and look back at the last few months of your career, where you increasingly feel like you’re just getting lucky and you don’t really understand what’s going on. You put on a brave face for your manager and tell them you’ll get it done as soon as possible, but the feeling persists: you obviously don’t know what you’re doing, and it’s so obvious, at some point someone’s going to catch you out at it.

Once the assignment is completed, you’re surrounded by one of two feelings. Either you feel like you rushed everything at the last minute and were only successful due to luck; or you feel like you had to put in an immense amount of work to make it happen, far more than other people might need. Either way, the success of the assignment isn’t even the point; it’s that feeling that you’re inadequate for your job, and someday, someone’s going to figure it out.

These complicated feelings form the base for imposter syndrome anxiety. It’s the combination of doubting your own work — and your own skillset — with the feeling that everyone around you expects more, and at some point, they’re going to realize you’re a fraud.

What Is Not Imposter Syndrome?

Everyone’s career gets difficult at some point. There’s always going to be a time where you may have missed the point of an assignment or project, or made a simple mistake or run up against a field you aren’t familiar with. When this happens once or twice, that makes sense; these are opportunities for learning, chances to develop skill sets you may not have had to use yet. If you aren’t challenging yourself within your career, you’re likely going to stagnate, so when these things happen along the way, lean into them and let yourself grow.

The thing that makes it imposter syndrome — which can lead to anxiety, depression and poor work performance — is that these things continue to happen, mainly in your head, and as a pattern over a long period of time. If you look back on your last six months of employment and feel like every hour of work was nowhere near enough, like you really just got lucky that no one looked at your work too closely and that you’re afraid of your next review because you feel like you’re behind everyone else, this is when you need to start looking at yourself and the brain patterns you’ve been experiencing.

Types of Imposter Syndrome

The mental catches of imposter syndrome can manifest in different ways for different individuals. Recent studies have divided the symptoms into five basic types of manifestations:

  1. The Perfectionist: This individual believes that every piece of work they submit must be perfect and often spend excessive time on details to ensure everything they’re submitting is correct; they must always be right and must produce the absolute highest caliber of work that can be offered.

  2. The Expert: These individuals feel like if they were really experts in their chosen fields, they would already know how to do every single task related to their current position. They usually feel like they have “faked” their way into their job and that they don’t necessarily deserve to be in that spot.

  3. The Individual: This employee has to do everything themselves; they’re convinced that asking for help is a weakness and refuse to find value in anything except work they’ve done with their own two hands. 

  4. The Superwoman: This individual feels like if only they were competent, they’d be able to handle anything and everything thrown at them. These are employees prone to overworking themselves, who need to prove themselves frequently and repeatedly.

  5. The Great Mind: These are individuals who have been told they’re intelligent frequently, but have great difficulty dealing with anything outside a specific comfort zone. They judge themselves on the ease and speed of problem-solving and are consistently convinced they come up lacking.

All five of these categories lead to the same result: employees doubting their work while frantically striving to meet impossible standards they’ve set up in their own heads.

Imposter Syndrome’s Impact

This pattern of doubt, self-deprecation and frustration will have a definite impact on work performance. Employees can overcompensate, working seriously long hours on too many projects, which leads to easy mistakes and missed deadlines; or they can under-compensate, resigning themselves to the fact that they’ll eventually be caught and fired and adjust to giving the bare minimum on their work since they believe termination is only a matter of time. Both of these are unhealthy adjustments, and will only go on to feed the imposter phenomenon, as performance declines over time.

Outside of one’s career, imposter syndrome can also be a doorway leading into anxiety, depression and self-doubt; all of which are serious issues to be discussed with a mental health expert.

Managing Imposter Syndrome

The key to managing imposter syndrome is to interrupt the mental patterns that produce these feelings and replace them with other, more deliberate patterns that can reframe and redefine the way individuals feel about their accomplishments. This involves a number of potential behaviors, the combination of which can eventually train the brain to reevaluate its perception when these things occur. Some suggestions include:

  • Own up. Acknowledge that this is a thing your brain does, and understand that you aren’t alone. Separate your feelings from the facts: if your manager approves your work, that means your work was good, no matter what your brain might say about the feeling.

  • Focus on the positive. When given complimentary feedback, try to accept it as someone else’s opinion, not as a "con" you happen to be pulling on your current workplace. Focus on the work you’ve gotten done, rather than its (potential) faults.

  • Fake it until you make it. Honestly, most employees have been touched by the feelings of imposter syndrome before. If you can acknowledge that, and understand that everyone has days where they feel fake and underqualified, you’ll realize you fit into the workplace better than you’d considered in the past.

Overall, the key to overcoming imposter syndrome is to understand that what’s happening is a trick your brain is playing, not necessarily the truth. Once you can recognize that fact, that recognition will provide a solid ground on which you can eventually move forward.