The Paradox of Imposter Syndrome

And the science behind it

As humans we experience up to 60’000 thoughts per day. that is according to Dr. Fred Luskin at Stanford University (1). These thoughts vary from the mundane, to the intrusive and the outright ‘negative’. We can go through our day and experience a lot of ‘psychological noise,’ and part of that noise is our internal monologue. So, what does this have to do with Impostor Syndrome? Well, Impostor Syndrome (IS) flourishes in negative and self-doubting thoughts. It makes us feel as though we do not have any confidence or skill, however untrue that may be. It can affect the perception of self-worth and can end up dictating what we do and don’t do, whether that is in our personal life or at work. It has also been estimated that nearly 70% of people will experience signs and symptoms of IS at least once in their life (2). Furthermore, searches in Google UK for “imposter syndrome” have risen by 511% since 2016 (3), which is why it is imperative that organisations understand the gravitas of this and the ripple effect it may have on all areas of a business.

In 2020, KPMG produced a study that found 75% of female executives across industries having experienced IS in their careers and roles (2), which manifests as a feeling of inadequacy and self-doubt that makes them continuously question if they are qualified enough for the job. Other research on IS also shows that high achievers from underrepresented backgrounds often find themselves confronting the challenge, doubting their skills and achievements, or fearing being exposed as a fraud. Women, people of colour, and people with a disability may be more likely to feel they don’t fit in, they’re not welcome, and they don’t belong. One reason that minority groups are more likely to experience the impostor phenomenon is also that they may face added pressure to “prove their worth” in an environment where they may already feel marginalised.

IS may be one of the most ironic psychological phenomena. This is because the majority of people who experience IS are usually high or overachievers, with a solid track record of growth and success. However, what one may portray on the outside to the external world is not always an accurate reflection of what is happening on the inside. IS can be incredibly debilitating, as it is classified as a cognitive distortion, which means that the premise of the thought is derived from a place of irrational thinking.

Someone experiencing IS may have recurrent thoughts of being a ‘fraud’ or being ‘found out’. As coaches and therapists, we know that the mind will seek information and data that correlates with your inner beliefs and stories. If someone is putting belief into the thought ‘I am a fraud’, the mind will seek out experiences and scenarios that prove that to be true, whilst in reality, the very opposite is true. Something that we are not taught as children is that not all of our thoughts are facts. The issue is that when we ‘feel’ a certain way, we default to making that feeling or thought ‘true’ rather than challenging the ‘proof’. Again, the irony of this is that IS can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if we are not aware of what is happening within the mind. IS can also sound like an internal bully; berating us, denouncing our worth, and chastising us. It is the ultimate nag that causes us to forget who we actually are and what we are genuinely capable of.

The experience of IS is paradoxical and this is why:

  • The Cambridge dictionary definition of IS is ‘a person who pretends to be someone else in order to deceive others.’ The paradox here is that the one who experiences IS will feel as if they are deceiving others, but in reality, one is deceiving oneself first and foremost.
  • ‘Not deserving’ and ‘feeling like a fraud’ are common feelings and thoughts that someone experiencing IS can relate to. This too is also a paradox, as there is a correlation between people at the top of their field with a proven track record of success experiencing more IS than other people with less of a substantial track record.
  • What we know about neuroplasticity is that the brain has the ability to create new pathways, despite how entrenched the old pathways are. When we respond to our thoughts differently, we are re-teaching ourselves. The IS thoughts need to be challenged; however, the more we are convinced that the thoughts and voice are true, the less likely we are to challenge them as they look very convincing. The way out of IS is through proving ourselves wrong; however, the nature of the feeling makes us want to stay small in our comfort zone.
  • To conclude, the ultimate paradox of IS is the fact that the ones who are more likely to suffer with it, are the ones who objectively have no reason to.

IS can also be intrinsically linked to the belief system one holds about themselves. Our belief system drives our behaviour and as humans we can be blind to our ‘limiting beliefs’ that can hold us back in many areas of our life. Someone may choose to overwork themselves to compensate for the imposter style thoughts. This can lead eventually to emotional and physical burnout. Overcompensation can be a bi-product of someone trying to counteract the feeling of being an imposter. This is why healing the root of it will always be more effective than accommodating the feeling.

Dr. Valerie Young categorises 5 types of Impostor Syndrome (5):

  1. The Perfectionist
  2. The Superwoman/man/person
  3. The Natural genius
  4. The Soloist
  5. The Expert


Let’s break these down further:

The Perfectionist doesn’t just value the completion or achievement of completing a task or project, it has to be better than before. For a perfectionist, the benchmark of ‘enough’ is always changing.

The Superwoman seeks security in validation, therefore tends to take on more than what’s reasonable or manageable.

The Natural Genius tends to not put in as much effort as one could, which is a self sabotaging cycle. Behaviour traits such as leaving things to the last minute and believing everything should come easy, means that they don’t push themselves outside of their comfort zone as much as they could, which is not conducive to growth.

The Soloist tends to be reluctant to ask for help, as they want to be perceived as knowing exactly what to do at all times and asking for help can bring up a level of vulnerability that is incredibly uncomfortable for them.

The Expert believes that they need to have all the knowledge before trying something. This can be incredibly hindering, as they are restricting growth by not trying.

Our “Top 5 HumanOS Tips” for understanding and managing IS for the individual are:

  • Get to know the ‘Imposter voice.’ Become aware of when it tends to get louder and when you can hear it the most.
  • Understand and cultivate awareness of the narrative you have about what’s enough and your own success.
  • Look at the evidence. Keep a proof list of all your achievements and areas of growth. This can be really helpful to refer to when the IS voice is shouting louder.
  • When you hear thoughts such as ‘you’re a fraud’ or ‘you don’t deserve this,’ ask yourself questions like ‘why could this be untrue?’, ‘what if the opposite may be true here?’, ‘what would self-compassion look like in this moment?’ and ‘what do I need to think in order to feel and act differently here?’.
  • Understand how your own cognitive distortions play a role in the suffering. Again, it can be very helpful to speak with someone to identify these.


Our “Top 5 HumanOS Tips” for organisations to decrease IS within their workplace are:

  • Actively promote diversity and equality. IS is heightened among individuals from underrepresented backgrounds build environments where everyone feels a sense of belonging to reduce any feelings of isolation and inadequacy. Implement policies and practices that ensure fair representation, equal opportunities, and a culture of inclusivity for all. Initiatives such as mentorship programmes, diverse hiring practices, and diversity training support individuals from all backgrounds, creating a more equitable workplace and leading to lower attrition and turnover, especially in minority groups.
  • Fostering an environment of open communication within teams. This can be cultivated by employees openly discussing their learnings and wins in team meetings so that there is a shared learning environment, and less of a blame/shame environment. Ensuring there is a culture of trust and safety is crucial for open communication.
  • Educate your individuals – offering masterclasses, workshops and 1:1 coaching around IS. It is incredibly helpful to speak to an expert like a coach about IS, so that you can break free from it and go further in life.
  • Having trusted mentors or advisors within the organisation that employees can speak with when taking over a new role or progressing upwards and can provide the necessary support and guidance. Studies found that when asking employees which dynamics within the workplace were most valuable to help reduce feelings of IS, 47% said having a supportive performance manager (2).
  • 29% said feeling valued and being rewarded fairly (2). So our last tip is to think about how does your organisation show true appreciation for your teams? What does valuing an employee look like? How can you implement more of this?


If 70% of people will encounter IS, there needs to be more education of what it sounds like and how to not live into the imposter feelings, so that they do not dictate growth. IS can turn out to be debilitating; both mentally and emotionally which becomes a drain on your energy and attention. The link between IS and burnout in the workplace is becoming increasingly more apparent and organisations need to take IS seriously. IS also robs people of their potential, directly impacting the performance of the business. There is a quote that bodes well with the nature of IS:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us”.

If organisations and individuals took a more holistic approach to mitigating IS there would be a chance to create real systemic change, which would only radically benefit employee health and wellbeing workplace culture and the organisation as a whole.

If you would like to find out more about our HumanOS masterclasses on this subject or any of our services that support you in reducing IS in your organisation, book a complimentary consultation here.

Olivia, HumanOS Personal Development Coach

References

  1. Comaford, C. (2012). Got Inner Peace? 5 Ways To Get It NOW. [online] Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/christinecomaford/2012/04/04/got-inner-peace-5-ways-to-get-it-now/?sh=6ab25c0c6672 [Accessed 4 Mar. 2024].
  2. Sakulku, J. (2011). The Impostor Phenomenon. The Journal of Behavioral Science6(1), 75–97. https://doi.org/10.14456/ijbs.2011.6
  3. MacNaught, S. (2022). Imposter Syndrome Statistics UK 2022 – How Many People Have It? [online] Micro Biz Mag. Available at: https://www.microbizmag.co.uk/imposter-syndrome-statistics/.
  4. KPMG (2020). Advancing the Future of Women in Business: A KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit Report. [online] KPMG. Available at: https://womensleadership.kpmg.us/summit/kpmg-womens-leadership-report-2020.html [Accessed 4 Mar. 2024].
  5. Young V. Chapter 6: The Competence Rulebook for Mere Mortals. In The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. Crown Business. 2011. [Google Scholar]