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Battling Impostor Syndrome at Work: Causes, Symptoms, and Examples

If you’ve ever felt like a fraud at work, you’re not alone. Impostor Syndrome is that nagging voice in your head that tells you that you don’t deserve your accomplishments, that you’re just faking it, and sooner or later, you’ll be exposed. It’s a tough battle, but understanding its causes, symptoms, and real-life examples can help you take the first step towards overcoming it.

What is impostor syndrome?

Impostor Syndrome is like an uninvited guest at the high-achievers’ party, one that lingers in the shadows and whispers doubts in your ear. This phenomenon often goes unnoticed because it thrives on the overachiever’s constant pursuit of excellence. It’s the cruel mirage that distorts your self-perception and sabotages your self-esteem.

At its core, Impostor Syndrome is a gnawing self-doubt, a feeling that you are merely masquerading as a competent, accomplished professional. You suspect that you’re an imposter, not because you lack the qualifications, experience, or skills, but because you can’t quite accept that you truly deserve your achievements. With impostor syndrome in the workplace, you see your accomplishments not as the result of your hard work, expertise, and dedication, but rather as products of pure luck, timing, or external factors.

Imagine this: You’ve landed a dream job, aced a difficult exam, or received recognition for your work, but instead of celebrating, a nagging voice in your head chimes in, suggesting that you’ve somehow managed to fool everyone around you. You’re convinced that sooner or later, you’ll be unmasked as the fraud you believe yourself to be, due to impostor syndrome at work.

Impostor Syndrome Causes

Impostor Syndrome takes its roots in various psychological factors and life experiences, which makes it a rather complex and multifaceted phenomenon. Here are some of the key factors contributing to its development:


Perfectionism is like a double-edged sword for many high-achievers. On one hand, it drives them to excel, to aim for excellence in everything they do. However, the relentless pursuit of flawlessness can be a slippery slope that leads to Impostor Syndrome symptoms. These individuals often set standards so high that they’re virtually impossible to meet. When they inevitably fall short of perfection, instead of viewing it as a natural part of the learning process, they turn inward and start blaming themselves. They interpret their inability to reach these sky-high standards as evidence of their incompetence, rather than acknowledging that the standards themselves were unrealistic.

Perfectionists often overlook their achievements because they don’t align with their unattainable goals. They are so focused on the gap between their performance and their impossibly high expectations that they fail to see their successes as genuine. This constant self-criticism becomes a breeding ground for Impostor Syndrome, where every minor misstep reinforces the belief that they are impostors who somehow deceived others.

Comparing Yourself to Others

It’s human nature to make comparisons, and in many cases, it can be a source of motivation and inspiration. However, constantly measuring your success against others can be a double-edged sword, particularly when dealing with Impostor Syndrome. When you’re perpetually gauging your progress against the seemingly superior achievements of your peers, it’s easy to fall into a self-doubt trap.

This continuous comparison often leads to a feeling of inadequacy. No matter how much you achieve, there always seems to be someone who appears to be doing better, making you question your own worth and capabilities. It fosters self-doubt and can blur your self-perception, making it challenging to appreciate your unique skills and accomplishments.


Surprisingly, overachieving, a trait often celebrated in high-performers, can contribute to Impostor Syndrome. The more you achieve, the greater the pressure you place on yourself to consistently meet or surpass those high standards. It’s a bit like running on a never-ending treadmill; the fear of not being able to keep up or maintain the same level of success can become overwhelming.

Overachievers might attribute their accomplishments to luck or being in the right place at the right time, dismissing the hard work, dedication, and skills that got them there in the first place. The bar is set so high that maintaining it becomes a source of stress and anxiety, further deepening their sense of being impostors who are just one step away from being revealed.

Early Experiences

Childhood experiences play a pivotal role in shaping our self-image and beliefs, and they can significantly contribute to the development of Impostor Syndrome. If you grew up in an environment where you were repeatedly told that you weren’t good enough or that your efforts were insufficient, these deep-seated beliefs can resurface in your professional life.

These early experiences can act as a blueprint for Impostor Syndrome, as they establish a foundation of self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy. It’s as though the echoes of these past criticisms continue to reverberate throughout your life, affecting how you perceive your abilities and your accomplishments in the present.

5 Common Impostor Syndrome Symptoms

Recognizing Impostor Syndrome isn’t always easy because it operates quietly, affecting your thoughts and emotions from behind the scenes. Here are some common symptoms of impostor syndrome at work to watch out for:

1. Self-Doubt

Self-doubt is the cornerstone of Impostor Syndrome. It’s the nagging uncertainty that infiltrates your thoughts, causing you to question your abilities, no matter how skilled or accomplished you are. This self-doubt isn’t restricted to specific areas of your life. Self-doubt is a powerful impostor syndrome symptom and pervasive feeling that you carry around like a heavy backpack, even in situations where you excel.

For instance, you might find yourself doubting your capabilities at work, despite consistently delivering excellent results. This self-doubt can become a constant companion, eroding your confidence and leaving you feeling like an impostor in your own life.

2. Underestimating Achievements

Another common symptom is the tendency to underestimate your achievements. You downplay your successes, attributing them to factors such as luck, good timing, or the help of others. It’s as if you refuse to give yourself credit for your hard work and expertise, preferring to believe that external forces are responsible for your accomplishments.

This habit of minimizing your achievements because of impostor syndrome at work can make it difficult to celebrate your successes and can hinder your ability to acknowledge your true competence. It perpetuates the cycle of Impostor Syndrome by reinforcing the false belief that you’re not as capable as others perceive you to be.

3. Fear of Failure

The fear of failure is a pervasive symptom of Impostor Syndrome at work, one that often paralyzes individuals. It’s not just a regular concern about making mistakes; it’s a profound dread that can lead to procrastination and avoidance. You might avoid taking on new challenges, even when you’re fully capable, out of the fear of not meeting your own impossibly high standards.

This fear of failure can keep you stuck in your comfort zone, preventing personal and professional growth. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the avoidance of new opportunities limits your chances of proving your competence and can further exacerbate feelings of being an impostor.

4. Overworking

Many individuals with Impostor Syndrome resort to overworking as a coping mechanism. They feel compelled to overcompensate for their perceived inadequacies by putting in excessive hours and effort. They believe that their hard work will conceal the fact that they feel like impostors.

This tendency to overwork because of impostor syndrome at work can lead to burnout and negatively impact your work-life balance. It’s an exhausting cycle that reinforces the belief that you’re not good enough and can have detrimental effects on your well-being.

5. Difficulty Accepting Praise

When you receive compliments or recognition for your achievements, you might find it challenging to accept the praise. Instead of feeling genuinely acknowledged, you may dismiss compliments as politeness, assuming that others don’t truly believe in your abilities.

This difficulty in accepting praise is an impostor syndrome symptom that can be isolating and make you feel disconnected from those around you. It stems from the underlying belief that you’re not as capable as others perceive you to be and that, at any moment, you’ll be exposed as a fraud.

Real Life Impostor Syndrome Examples

1. Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou, a legendary poet, writer, and civil rights activist, is celebrated for her contributions to literature and her impactful words. Her autobiographical work, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” remains a seminal piece in American literature. Despite her remarkable success and the admiration of countless readers and scholars, Angelou openly shared her experience with Impostor Syndrome.

She admitted to feeling like a fraud, even with numerous awards and accolades to her name. This goes to show that Impostor Syndrome doesn’t discriminate based on achievement or recognition. Angelou’s vulnerability in acknowledging her own struggles with self-doubt serves as a powerful reminder that even the most accomplished individuals can wrestle with feelings of inadequacy.

2. Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks, a beloved actor known for his iconic roles in films like “Forrest Gump,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and “Cast Away,” has a career that spans decades. Yet, he too has revealed his personal encounters with Impostor Syndrome. Hanks has confessed that he often felt like someone would eventually discover that he didn’t belong in Hollywood.

His admission highlights that Impostor Syndrome is not limited to any specific field or industry. Even an actor of Hanks’ stature, with a multitude of awards and critical acclaim, has felt the weight of self-doubt. This shows that this phenomenon can affect people from various walks of life, regardless of their fame or success.

3. Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and a prominent figure in the tech industry, has been candid about her struggles with Impostor Syndrome. Despite her significant achievements and leadership role at one of the world’s most influential tech companies, Sandberg revealed that she grappled with feelings of inadequacy throughout her career.

Her transparency is a powerful reminder that Impostor Syndrome can affect even those in high-profile, influential positions. Sandberg’s experiences underscore the idea that success and authority do not necessarily shield individuals from the persistent self-doubt associated with Impostor Syndrome.

4. Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein, the renowned physicist whose groundbreaking work led to the theory of relativity and changed the course of modern science, is a surprising example of Impostor Syndrome. Even someone of Einstein’s intellectual stature experienced moments of self-doubt.

He once expressed that he felt like an involuntary swindler, a sentiment shared by many with Impostor Syndrome. It’s remarkable to think that the mind behind some of the most revolutionary scientific concepts of our time had these moments of self-perceived fraudulence.

These real-life Impostor Syndrome examples are a pervasive and shared human experience. It doesn’t discriminate based on talent, intellect, or success. In fact, it often lurks in the minds of those who have accomplished remarkable feats, making it crucial to recognize and address this phenomenon in both personal and professional life. The acknowledgment of these prominent figures’ struggles offers hope and encouragement to anyone who faces similar challenges, assuring them that they are not alone in their battle with Impostor Syndrome.

5 Ways to Overcome Impostor Syndrome

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome at work and in life is an empowering journey, and it’s important to remember that you don’t have to face it alone. Here’s an elaboration on the actionable steps to conquer Impostor Syndrome:

1. Acknowledge It

The first crucial step in overcoming Impostor Syndrome is to recognize and acknowledge it. Understand that these feelings of self-doubt are not unique to you, and many accomplished individuals have faced them. By labeling and acknowledging the Impostor syndrome symptoms, you can separate it from your true abilities and accomplishments.

Remember that Impostor Syndrome thrives in silence and secrecy. Shedding light on it is like exposing a vampire to sunlight; it weakens its grip on your self-esteem.

2. Talk About It

Sharing your feelings of Impostor Syndrome with a trusted friend, family member, or mentor can be incredibly liberating. You’ll often find that they have experienced it too, and their support and shared experiences can help you realize that you’re not alone in this struggle. Talking about it can reduce the isolation and self-imposed pressure that often accompanies Impostor Syndrome.

Moreover, opening up about your experiences can also help create a safe and supportive environment in which others can do the same, fostering a culture of transparency and understanding.

3. Keep a Success Journal

Document your achievements, both big and small, in a success journal. This journal serves as a tangible record of your capabilities and accomplishments. When Impostor Syndrome rears its head and tries to convince you that you’re not good enough, you can refer to your success journal for concrete evidence to the contrary.

Include not just your achievements but also any positive feedback or praise you receive from colleagues, supervisors, or clients. Revisiting these moments of validation can serve as a powerful reminder of your competence.

4. Set Realistic Goals

Perfectionism is often at the core of Impostor Syndrome. Combat this by setting realistic goals that prioritize growth and learning over flawless execution. Understand that making mistakes is a natural part of the learning process and doesn’t diminish your competence.

By shifting your focus from achieving perfection to achieving progress, you’ll create a healthier and more sustainable approach to your work. Embrace the idea that success is not about being flawless; it’s about continuous improvement and adaptation.

5. Seek Professional Help

If Impostor Syndrome at work is significantly impacting your life, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Therapists and counselors can provide you with tools and techniques to manage and overcome these feelings effectively. They can guide you through the process of identifying the root causes of your Impostor Syndrome and help you develop strategies to combat it.

Professional support can offer a safe space to explore the deeper psychological aspects of Impostor Syndrome and equip you with personalized coping mechanisms.

Work with a NYC psychotherapist and overcome impostor syndrome today!

Overcoming impostor syndrome is a journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. It’s about recognizing that you are not an impostor and that your accomplishments are valid. By taking these actionable steps, you can empower yourself to break free from the shackles of self-doubt and embrace your true capabilities with confidence. If you are struggling, it’s important to recognize that each person’s journey to conquering imposter syndrome is unique, and not all strategies will yield the same results for everyone. Additionally, imposter syndrome may often intersect with other challenges like anxiety, self-doubt, or fear of failure. At Uncover Mental Health Counseling, we have dedicated therapists who specialize in helping you address and overcome imposter syndrome in your workplace. To embark on your journey to a more confident and fulfilling work life, get started with these steps:

  1. Reach out to Uncover Mental Health Counseling to schedule a complimentary 15 min consultation call.
  2. Connect with one of our experienced therapists in NYC for an initial assessment session, where you can discuss your imposter syndrome and its impact on your career.
  3. Begin receiving the guidance and support needed to break free from the clutches of imposter syndrome, allowing you to shine in your workplace and unlock your true potential.

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