Imposter syndrome: Spotting the signs and types and learning how to tackle it

A woman with glasses is at work and is looking off towards a window.

While technically not an official diagnosis, Imposter Syndrome is a phenomenon that is often accompanied depression and anxiety.

Imposter syndrome (IS), a term once whispered about in professional circles, is now being spoken about more openly as employers and employees pay closer attention to mental well-being. The feeling of self-doubt is no longer a dark secret, and the condition is very real.

While research varies wildly, one report says up to 90 per cent of working adults have experienced IS.

One thing for certain is that IS is more prevalent in marginalised communities, and women are more likely to experience it than men. 

Research by the Executive Development Network (EDN) found that LGBTQ+ people are also more likely to experience IS compared with their cis-het colleagues, with some data set suggesting that 69 per cent of bisexual and 57 per cent of non-binary people have or are experiencing the condition.

We’ve unpacked all things related to IS to help you understand what it is, where it came from, how to identify it and, ultimately, the steps that might help you rid yourself of the awful feeling.

What is imposter syndrome and where did it come from?

Originally known as the “imposter phenomenon,” the concept was coined by two psychologists in 1978 and originally focused on women who felt inadequate despite academic achievements.

In essence, IS is the persistent feeling of being a fraud or undeserving of one’s own success, despite evidence to the contrary. It’s that nagging voice in the back of your mind telling you that you don’t belong, that you’re not good enough, and that, eventually, everyone will see through the facade you’ve carefully constructed and out you as a fraud.

In a twist of irony, IS appears to be most prevalent in those who would be considered “high performers”.

A person is looking and smiling to the camera on the right side of the image. On the left side, the same person is looking away and appears sad.
Imposter Syndrome involves feeling like a fraud at work. (Getty/PinkNews)

Where is imposter syndrome most common?

New research from Solopress shines a light on the dominant presence of IS across various cities in the UK. Unsurprisingly, major urban centres such as London, Birmingham and Leeds top the list.

“Our most diverse and multi-cultural cities seem to be Imposter Syndrome hotspots,” suggests Chantal Gautier, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Westminster. 

“One contributing factor is the intricate interplay between local demographics and socio-economic circumstances. Cities with higher imposter syndrome rates might exhibit a greater representation of women and minority groups in their labour force.”

Gautier notes that the cities that ranked low in rates, such as Newport, Blackpool and Sunderland, are more known for an industry-based economy as opposed to the service-based economies of some larger cities.

The EDN’s separate research on IS found that industries such as marketing, journalism, HR, science and pharmaceuticals have high percentages of the phenomenon. Industries with the lowest amount include construction, retail, manufacturing and logistics.

The five types of imposters

People who encounter IS at work experience it in different ways. Expert Dr Valerie Young conducted extensive research and unveiled a spectrum of “competence types”, internalised guidelines that shape the behaviours of those batting confidence issues.

She distilled these characteristics into five types:

The perfectionist

This is the type of person who obsesses over “how” the work gets done and how it turns out. For the perfectionist, one minor hiccup in an otherwise glowing result is failure which leads to shame.

The expert

This type is the knowledge-based version of the perfectionist. The main concern here is on the “how much” one knows or what skills they possess. To the expert, not knowing the most minute detail is a sign of failure, then shame.

The soloist

It’s all about “who” completes the work for this type of person. To accomplish anything with success, it must be completed by “me and only me.” Needing to ask for help is a sign of fraud for the soloist, again leading to shame.

The natural genius

Much like the perfectionist, the natural genius focuses on the “how”, but success is measured in speed and ease. Having to go through the paces of learning a new process or not being able to create a personal Mona Lisa on the first go means failure, which summons shame.

The superhuman

Success for the superhuman relies on “how many” roles they can handle at any given time. Not being up to scratch in any role – manager, employee, mentor, parent, friend and partner – all conjure up low self-worth and shame because, as a superhuman, they should be able to handle it all perfectly.

If you see yourself in any of Dr Young’s versions, don’t worry: you are not alone.

It is worth mentioning that there is a notable difference in how colleagues see you as highly capable and talented while you doubt yourself. This hints that your perception of success doesn’t fully align with reality.

On the left side of the image, a person has their head on their arms leaning on a table. On the right side, the same person is leaning their head on their hand.
There are five different types of “imposters” that can help you identify your own issues. (Getty/PinkNews)

Tackling imposter syndrome

While imposter syndrome is a “feeling”, it can have tangible effects on people when it comes to their careers. In the EDN report, 72 per cent of working adults with IS feel it has held them back at work.

The most common triggers include high-pressure projects, negative feedback and the feeling of competition among colleagues. For the LGBTQ+ community, issues such as acceptance, conforming to gender norms and the feeling of being “not queer enough” can also trigger IS.

The silver lining in this self-doubting cloud is that with so many people experiencing IS throughout their careers, there should be a wider sense of empathy and understanding among colleagues and business leaders.

Both can easily take proactive steps to address the problem and foster a supportive working environment.

So, what can individuals and businesses do to combat the issue and foster an inclusive and supportive working environments?

Tips for individuals

Recognise your imposter syndrome

This is the first but most difficult step in the process. Once you acknowledge that imposter syndrome has reared its ugly head and is affecting your well-being, you can begin to challenge those negative thoughts.

Find the courage to speak up

Many people living with IS suffer in silence, but they don’t need to. Consider speaking to colleagues, mentors, or support networks for guidance and encouragement. Remember that many people have experienced IS, you are not alone.

Be kind to yourself

Celebrate your successes and remind yourself of your worth, even in moments of doubt. While this is extremely difficult in the moment, consider making a list of your professional and personal achievements ahead of time and use it as a reference for when you’ve convinced yourself you’re a fraud.

Find your own validation and ditch the approval trap

Getting public pats on the back appears to feel “good,” but in reality, they are just little hits of dopamine and could lead to a never-ending cycle of trying to get that validation, then feeling depressed when it doesn’t happen.

Be aware of your self-talk

No one is perfect and mistakes do not equate to failure. Errors are common and are meant to serve as a learning experience. When you begin to get down on yourself, remember that list of achievements to help fight the self-doubt.

This is an image of two women. The woman on the left is wearing a dress and pointing down at a table. The other woman is wearing a green floral print blazer
Things such as mentoring can help address the stigma around Imposter Syndrome in the workplace. (Getty Images/PinkNews)

Tips for business leaders

Create psychologically safe environments

If your workplace isn’t already one, create and nurture an open and non-judgmental space where employees feel comfortable sharing their vulnerabilities. This could be accomplished through employee resource groups and regular check-ins.

Promote a healthy work-life balance

A concrete boundary between work and personal life is a key pillar to overall well-being for both business leaders and individual employees. A healthy work-life balance could help prevent burnout and alleviate feelings of inadequacy.

Encouraging employees to properly “log off” at the end of the working day, and leading by example, are easy ways to promote a good work-life balance.

Celebrate successes and foster growth

Cultivate a culture of celebration and learning rather than a toxic culture, avoiding blame and punishment for mistakes. A monthly meeting where senior leaders can highlight successes both on a project and at individual levels will foster this celebratory spirit and culture.

Empower growth through mentoring and coaching initiatives

An employer who provides continual “up-skilling” and access to professional mentoring and coaching is a signpost of an empathetic and compassionate workplace. Industry as well as identity-based mentoring can provide one-on-one support and guidance to see employees through challenges and build confidence.

Spot the signs

Business leaders need to be the change that they want to see and offer training to managers and colleagues to recognise the signs of IS, such as withdrawal, overwork or procrastination. Once these signs have been spotted, the person affected can get the appropriate support they need.