5 Types of Imposter Syndrome

Deep down you know you are good at your job, but does one small mistake or mishap have you feeling like a complete failure? If so, there is a very good chance you are suffering from imposter syndrome. The psychological phenomenon known as imposter syndrome is the belief that you’re wholly inadequate and incompetent, despite hard evidence proving otherwise.

The line between self-awareness and self-loathing is a narrow one. With pressure to succeed and frequent comparison with others, it’s not surprising that many of us feel undeserving or unworthy of recognition.

Imposter syndrome is more common that you might think. Research from 2011 suggests approximately 70% of people will experience at least one episode of imposter syndrome in their lives. Some of the world’s most successful and highly regarded individuals have confessed to feeling like frauds in light of their own achievements.


“There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.”

-Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook CEO & Author of Lean In

“I had enormous self-image problems and very low self-esteem, which I hid behind obsessive writing and performing. … And I was driven to get through life very quickly… feeling so utterly inadequate. I thought the work was the only thing of value.”

-David Bowie, English singer-songwriter

“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.”

-Maya Angelou, American Author


Individuals suffering from imposter syndrome generally fall into one of five categories.  Do you recognize yourself in any of these categories? Or perhaps you’ve seen some of these traits in your co-workers. The good news is there are ways address these traits and give yourself and your colleagues the support you all deserve. Awareness and empathy for self and others will go a long way in combatting imposter syndrome.


1. The Perfectionist

Perfectionists set ridiculously high standards for themselves and feel like failures when they don’t reach them. Setting excessively high standards is a no-win situation. If they’re not achieved, it confirms their fears of not being good enough. If they are, they believe they didn’t set the bar high enough.

Is this me?

  • Have you ever been accused of being a micro-manager or control freak?
  • Do you have difficulty delegating? Even when you’re able to do so, do you feel frustrated and disappointed in the results?
  • When you miss the mark, do you accuse yourself of not being cut out for your job and stew on it for days?
  • If you receive praise and recognition for something you’ve achieved, do you tend to discount it?

What can I do about it?

  • We can all strive to be better, but it is essential to remember that if all you do is chase perfection, you miss out on other important things in life.
  • Push yourself to act before you’re ready
  • Learn to accept mistakes/setbacks as a natural part of the process. Learn from them.
  • Force yourself to own and celebrate achievements. Keep a praise journal. Write down any positive feedback you’ve received from colleagues or clients, awards/recommendations. Read it regularly.
  • Remember: a done something is better than a perfect nothing.


2. The Superhero

Superheroes feel like they have not truly earned their title so work harder and longer than those around them to prove their worth. They are workaholics, addicted to the validation that comes from working, not to the work itself.  They feel the need to succeed in all aspects of life—at work, as parents, as partners—and may feel stressed when they are not accomplishing something.

Is this me?

  • Do you stay later at the office than the rest of your team, even after you have completed that day’s necessary work?
  • Are you stressed when you’re not working?
  • Have you given up hobbies and outside interests?
  • Do you feel like you haven’t truly earned your title, so you feel pressed to work harder and longer than those around you?

What can I do about it?

  • Learn to take constructive criticism seriously, not personally.
  • Train yourself to veer away from external praise and validation and let your own sense of pride shine through.
  • Document those accomplishments that you feel particularly proud of and identify what it was about that accomplishment that made YOU most proud. Set that as your own bar for success and achievement.
  • Know your limits and draw your boundaries. Work on finding yourself and building your confidence.


3. The Natural Genius

Similar to Perfectionists, Natural Geniuses have impossibly high standards. However, they also expect to get everything right on the first try. They are typically able to master a new skill easily, feeling ashamed when they cannot. They judge success based on their abilities, not their efforts. If they have to work hard at something, they assume they must be bad at it.

Is this me?

  • Are you used to excelling without much effort?
  • Do you have a track record of getting top marks in everything you do?
  • Were you told frequently as a child that you were the “smart one” in your family? Or that you were “gifted” at school or in the sports arena?
  • Do you dislike the idea of having a mentor? Prefer to handle things on your own?

What can I do about it?

  • Accept that you’re human. And your colleagues are human too. They’re not great at everything either. Most things cannot be accomplished without hard work and effort.
  • Rather than beating yourself up when you don’t reach your impossibly high standards, identify specific, changeable behaviours that you can improve over time.Askyourself, what did I learn from this experience? Is this knowledge or a skill I can develop for the future or an area where I can collaborate with others who do?


4. The Individualist

Individualists feel the need to accomplish things on their own and refuse help from others so they can prove their worth.

Is this me?

  • Do you prefer working alone?
  • “I don’t need anyone’s help.”
  • Do you frame requests in terms of the requirements of the project, rather than your needs as a person?
  • If you do receive help, do you see this as a sign of failure or weakness?
  • Is constructive feedback particularly hard to accept?

What can I do about it?

  • It’s OK to be independent, but not to the extent that you refuse help to the detriment of the team or project.
  • Build a support network. The worst thing that people with imposter syndrome can do is to isolate themselves. Remember that not everything can be accomplished alone. Ask a senior colleague for guidance and mentoring on navigating intimidating environments.
  • Learn to accept that asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign that you know your limits and have room for growth.


5. The Expert

Experts fear being exposed as inexperienced and unknowledgeable. They will not feel satisfied when finishing a task until they feel that they know everything about the subject. They continuously hunt for new information, which prevents them from completing tasks and projects.

Is this me?

  • Are you hesitant to speak up in meetings because you’re afraid of looking stupid if you don’t already know the answer?
  • Do you avoid volunteering for anything outside of your role because you view it as a distraction that could compromise the quality of your other tasks?
  • Do you shy away from applying to job postings unless you meet 100% of the hiring criteria?
  • Despite being in the same role for years, do you still feel that you don’t know enough?

What can I do about it?

  • Push yourself to take on stretch assignments. As the name suggests, these are designed to challenge you and take your experience and knowledge to new places. You’re not expected to know all the answers.
  • Mentoring junior colleagues or volunteering can be a great way to discover your inner expert. You will be surprised by how much you actually do know, which will go some way in overcoming your self-doubt.
  • Deliberately put yourself in uncomfortable situations that help you grow.


The Imposter Cycle

To stop feeling like an imposter, stop thinking like an imposter!  Chronic self-doubt can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s part of something researchers call the “imposter cycle”. Feeling like a fraud at work makes you behave like one, which makes you feel even more like a fraud.

The impact of unchecked imposter syndrome can be far-reaching in the workplace. Recent research by Ghent University discovered that employees with strong imposter syndrome tendencies are more dissatisfied with their jobs, report less organisational citizenship behaviour (defined as volunteering for tasks outside your remit), and express a stronger intention to stay at their job only because the social and psychological cost of leaving is perceived as too high.

Whatever type of imposter syndrome you suffer from, the good news is that you have already done something about it!

The first step for people with symptoms is to educate themselves about the syndrome. Identifying with a type will help when working to manage symptoms.

And why stop there? Pay it forward and share your newfound knowledge with others; at home and at work.

Children taught that they are superior in intelligence, appearance, or talent can develop imposter syndrome when they inevitably struggle to achieve something. To counteract the mistake of praising traits, (“You’re so smart!”), praise effort instead, (“You worked so hard on that”).

It’s not who you are that holds you back, it’s who you think you’re not.


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