What causes Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter on wooden tiles on a bright orange background.

Do you ever worry you are going to be found out for being a fraud? That the successes you’ve had were down to luck over judgement and that you don’t deserve the praise you have received?

Welcome to the imposter syndrome club! A ‘fun’ place of self depreciation and crippling fear that makes you question yourself constantly. What’s not to love?

Well, on the plus side, based on the 7,100,000 results on Google when you search ‘imposter syndrome’, you are in exceptional company. Even Maya Angelou famously remarked: “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”. Any club Maya is in, is clearly the cool place to be.

So what has led to the phenomenon of so many (incredible) people doubting themselves, despite some serious evidence to the contrary?

What causes imposter syndrome?

There may be evolutionary advantages to having self doubt in order to keep us safe and being able to be a part of the ‘tribe’. But there may also be individual factors that affect our susceptibility to imposter syndrome. According to Dr Suzanne Imes, who coined the phrase, it is caused by being unable to internalise success. Anything that suggests we are successful is immediately rejected by the brain and reframed into self depreciation.

To put it another way, think of your brain as an automatic sorting machine that rejects anything that doesn’t fit into its rules. This is a super handy device for an energy draining super-computer like our brains, as it means that new information can be dealt with quickly. Our brains continually sort the world around us in this way, identifying objects, people and enemies quickly, telling us how to react and navigate through the world. Something red and round on a tree? Ooh, food. Something with big teeth and sharp claws? Might want to run away from that. Quickly.

Where this system falls down however, is if you have a filter that says you are not very good at what you do. Any evidence that contradicts this is immediately dismissed and your brain very cleverly provides you with reasons why it was rejected. You got a promotion? It was only because you’ve been here the longest, not because you’ve earned it. Won an award? Clearly they had a low standard of entries this year. Did a great pitch? That was just luck – even a stopped clock is right twice a day. And what makes these filters especially potent, is that they will direct your attention to the things you have done badly in order to reaffirm the underlying belief. In other words, you will think far more about the things you’ve done wrong, than the things you’ve done right, actually making you feel worse about yourself.

So what causes this filter to exist and stop us embracing the awesomeness that is, well, us? According to Ines, sufferers often felt there was an emphasis on achievement when growing up, or they were given mixed messages of over-praise and harsh criticism. Add to the mix societal pressures of high achievement and you have a perfect breeding ground for self doubt. If you are told often enough that you are not doing as well as others, or that no matter what you do it isn’t good enough, the imposter syndrome filter will come into existence and BOOM! Daily self doubt.

Perfectionism and Imposter Syndrome often go hand in hand too – sufferers believe that a task must be done perfectly and that asking for external support is a sign that they are not good enough. So we struggle on, feeling as though everyone around us knows more than we do. Even though they probably feel exactly the same as us.

So what are the real effects of imposter syndrome (apart from feeling a bit rubbish sometimes)? Why should we care about it?

What are the effects of imposter syndrome? 

Well, it can lead to excessive time on a task in order to make it perfect, wasting time when there may be things that your time would be far better spent on. It can also go the other way, and you start finding ANYTHING to do other than the job at hand, because what is the point if you are only going to do it badly anyway?

When it comes to your life, this means that imposter syndrome can seriously hold you back – either by making you spend far too much time on things that don’t need that level of attention, or by procrastinating and stopping you from taking the necessary steps toward success.

If this sounds familiar, there things you can do to help you overcome the anxiety and you will start to see the results in your own happiness and in the work you are doing. It can free you up to achieve more and feel content in what you are doing. It can make you work more efficiently and cut yourself a break so you can have some much needed work-life balance.