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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Buckland

Exploring the Roots: Unmasking 5 Causes of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome symptoms, also called fraud syndrome or perceived fraudulence, are prevalent among high-achieving or well-respected individuals who doubt their abilities and fear exposure to fraud even when successes or admiration. It was first named by psychologists Clance and Imes in 1978 and gained widespread attention. However, despite many of us relating to the experience, it’s not recognised as an official condition.


What causes Imposter syndrome?

There are many theories for why imposter syndrome arises:

  1. Childhood Experiences: when positive attention is mainly emphasised on achievement, this may lead to the belief that worthiness is tied solely to success.

  2. Personality Traits: Traits like perfectionism and fear of failure contribute to setting unrealistic standards and can fuel feelings of inadequacy.

  3. Societal Expectations: Cultural norms prioritising achievement can worsen imposter syndrome symptoms and drive us towards the constant need to prove our worth.

  4. Comparison and Competition: Social comparison and pursuing unattainable standards can develop self-doubt and reinforce feelings of fraudulence.

  5. Internalised Beliefs: Negative self-talk and a lack of self-compassion contribute to imposter syndrome symptoms by undermining confidence.


Failure and mistakes are inevitable, but for those of us trying to understand the meaning of our imposter syndrome experiences, exploring these underlying causes can be the first step toward learning how to overcome imposter syndrome and building self-confidence.

 

How these causes develop imposter syndrome symptoms over time

We normally receive praise for our achievements from parents at home or teachers at school growing up. This positive attention can support building confidence, but when compared to others, praise that is linked exclusively to success and failure is unacceptable or shameful, and it can have detrimental effects. In such cases, failure feels like a devastating blow, and continual achievement becomes a means to avoid painful experiences. It's not just a setback but a threat to our identity. We may worry that others will see us as unworthy or incompetent unless we disguise aspects of ourselves that we fear will be rejected by others. As a result, we become hyper-vigilant in our efforts to maintain a false persona that we perceive is more acceptable to those around us.

 

Perfectionism and a drive for high achievement often accompany imposter syndrome symptoms, intensifying its impact. These traits can develop as coping mechanisms, shielding us from the fear of failure and the underlying belief that we are unworthy. Setting unrealistic standards like "always be perfect" or "always be helpful" may temporarily alleviate feelings of inferiority or low self-worth. However, the constant effort to maintain unrealistic standards can result in chronic stress and burnout. Even minor setbacks can reinforce the belief of not being good enough, fuelling feelings of phoniness, self doubt or inadequacy.


 

How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome:

People often come to us describing imposter syndrome at work or in relationships. It can have a devastating impact on our ability to live freely without constant self-criticism. Overcoming imposter syndrome is possible, but we must look deeper into the underlying causes.

 

Recognising the signs of impostor syndrome is the first crucial step towards initiating change. However, it's not always easy to identify as signs can become ingrained habits that operate on autopilot. Once we've acknowledged these patterns within ourselves, the next step is to commit to practising new habits daily. This process can be challenging, requiring patience and perseverance. There are many self-help tools, but having another perspective can help us with those inevitable parts of ourselves we don’t see. Asking someone we trust and finding a decent therapist or coach can be effective ways to help us navigate the complexities of imposter syndrome and build resilience.


Help with Workplace Imposter Syndrome

If you are seeking to support your teams in the workplace experiencing signs and symptoms of imposter syndrome, and you'd like more support and information, please reach out to a member of our team who will be able to help. At WellBe, we offer the Adult Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course in Bristol on a monthly basis, or we can deliver mental health awareness training at your place of work. If you and your team are facing specific challenges, our psychologically informed workplace trainers can create a tailored package for you to address specific needs.


Contact us today!


References:

Bravata DM, Watts SA, Keefer AL, Madhusudhan DK, Taylor KT, Clark DM, Nelson RS, Cokley KO, Hagg HK. Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. J Gen Intern Med. 2020 Apr;35(4):1252-1275. doi: 10.1007/s11606-019-05364-1. Epub 2019 Dec 17. PMID: 31848865; PMCID: PMC7174434.


Leary, M.R., & Tate, E.B. (2010). Self-criticism and impostorism. In J.E. Maddux & J.P. Tangney (Eds.), Social Psychological Foundations of Clinical Psychology (pp. 26-27). New York: Guildford Press.

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