Understanding the Psychological Impact of Imposter Syndrome


Today, on International Women’s Day, we celebrate the achievements of women around the world. It is a day to honor the incredible contributions that women have made to society, and to recognize the important role they play in shaping our future. It is also time to reflect on unique challenges women still face in the workplace and personal relationships. As a therapist, I frequently see one problem women deal with considerably more often than men: Imposter Syndrome.

“I have written eleven 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

This quote speaks to the experience of Imposter Syndrome – a psychological phenomenon that was first identified in the 1970s. It is characterized by persistent feelings of self-doubt and a fear of being exposed as a fraud, despite evidence to the contrary.

When Success feels like a Fluke

This phenomenon can manifest in a variety of situations, including the workplace, academia, and personal relationships. It can show up as a fear of being “found out” as unqualified or not skilled enough for a particular job. This can lead to feelings of anxiety, stress, and self-sabotage, which can ultimately harm job performance and career progression.

But it can also impact personal relationships, causing individuals to doubt their worthiness or feel undeserving of love and affection. This can lead to difficulties in forming and maintaining healthy relationships, which can have a significant impact on overall well-being.

Imposter Syndrome is a pervasive issue that affects many people, but studies have shown that it is more commonly experienced by women than men.

Imposter Syndrome is more common among women than men

It happens for several reasons. Studies suggest that one major factor is the stereotypes and gendered expectations that still exist in our society. Women are often socialized to be self-critical and to doubt their abilities, while men are encouraged to be more assertive and confident. These cultural messages can lead women to underestimate their skills and qualifications, even when they have plenty of evidence to prove their expertise.

Another factor is the underrepresentation of women in many fields, including leadership positions or careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. When women are the minority in these environments, they may feel like they don’t belong or that they are not as competent as their male colleagues. This can lead to feelings of self-doubt and Imposter Syndrome.

Deep-rooted psychological factors contributing to Imposter Syndrome

In my experience, the way we are raised and the beliefs we take on from our caregivers early on do play a significant role in the formation of Imposter Syndrome. Among those suffering from low self-esteem and struggling with this problem, there is a common thread of deep-seated, ingrained beliefs about ourselves, the world, our future and what is available to us, which manifest in both our professional and personal lives.

These beliefs are often negative and self-limiting, and can undermine our confidence and self-belief. They can be difficult to identify and overcome without an intentional personal growth work.

Many women grow up internalizing messages that they are not good enough or that their worth is tied to their achievements or appearance. These messages can come from family, peers, media, or ruling norms of a given society. Over time, these beliefs can become deeply rooted in a woman’s subconscious, leading her to doubt her abilities and feel like an imposter even when she has evidence to the contrary.

I have seen how women who grew up with a parent who constantly criticized their achievements have developed a belief that they are not good enough, even if they truly excel in their career. I have also worked with women who grew up in an environment that emphasized the importance of physical beauty who later have developed a belief that their worth is tied to the appearance, leading them to doubt their abilities in other areas of life.

The belief “I’m not (good) enough” can also be fueled by comparisons. Individuals who grow up being compared to others, whether by parents, teachers, or themselves, build up feelings of inferiority and self-doubt.

In many ways, it takes the form of striving to be perfect. Frankly, I consider “not enoughness” to be the absolute essence of perfectionism. When someone believes they must be perfect in order to succeed, they really think that because they feel the way they are is not good enough.

Imposter Syndrome can also be triggered by major life transitions, such as starting a new job, taking on a leadership role, or pursuing a new passion. In the past 1.5 years I have been working with females who wanted to make a career shift and start working as coaches. They were filled with insecurities, they truly feared that they may not be taken seriously in their new jobs, especially by those who knew them from their previous careers.

But they had passion and purpose. They felt imposters until they realized they have all it takes to be great in their new dream careers, they were empathetic, overcame many struggles in their lives and that made them understand their potential clients like no one else. I am glad I could be a part of those meaningful transformations for them. It was this belief “I am different, I don’t belong here” that brought them to me.

These deep impressions can lead us to feel like frauds who have somehow managed to deceive others into thinking we are more capable than we really are. It can create a sense of disconnection and isolation, and prevent us from fully engaging with our work or community. It is especially visible among women, and it creates a sense of inadequacy and inferiority. When women feel like they don’t fit in or belong, they may believe that they don’t have the same skills, knowledge, or experience as their colleagues or peers. This can cause them to doubt their abilities and feel like they are not qualified for their job or position.

For example, if a woman is the only female engineer in her workplace, she may feel like she doesn’t fit in with the male-dominated culture and that her ideas and opinions are not valued. This can lead to thoughts like, “I don’t belong here” or “I’m not good enough to be an engineer.” These thoughts can then fuel Imposter Syndrome, causing her to doubt her abilities and feel like she is not deserving of her position.

And then, there is this belief that “success is down to luck”. This pattern of thought can be very limiting, as it can undermine an individual’s sense of agency and control over their own success. It can lead to feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, as a person worries that they will be exposed as frauds once their luck runs out. I find many women share this belief, and Psychology explains why that is.

The Gendered Attribution Gap

Research has shown that women tend to attribute their successes to external factors, such as luck or help from others, while men are more likely to attribute their successes to their own skills and abilities. This can lead women to understate their achievements and feel like they don’t deserve recognition for their accomplishments. This tendency, and a shared belief, make women create a sense that any achievements or success they have experienced are not the result of their own skills or efforts, but rather due to external factors such as luck or circumstances. This can cause women to question their own abilities and feel like they are not deserving of their success, leading to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.

Similarly, societal stereotypes and expectations around gender can also contribute to the belief that success for women is more about luck than ability or hard work. Women may be told that they have achieved success because they are attractive, or that they were given opportunities because they are women, rather than because of their own skills and abilities.

Breaking the Cycle

The problem with the Imposter Syndrome is that it can sabotage our ability to do great work and make a difference in the lives of those around us. It can hold us back from pursuing our dreams and realizing our full potential. It can keep us feeling undeserving of love and impact our relationships. It is important to note that Imposter Syndrome is not caused by a lack of competence or ability, but rather by internalized beliefs and negative self-talk. Women are particularly vulnerable to these feelings of self-doubt.

The good news is however, that Imposter Syndrome is not a permanent condition, and it can be overcome with the right mindset and tools. The way that works in my practice is by identifying and addressing any limiting beliefs behind the self-doubt, and by replacing them with an unwavering belief in person’s abilities.

One of the keys to overcoming Imposter Syndrome is to find and live your purpose. When you feel like you are playing a role that isn’t authentic to who you are, it can greatly affect your confidence. Instead, be congruent with your values, skills, and purpose. The truth is: you have a unique contribution to make to the world. You just need to remind yourself what it is.

In addition to finding your purpose, it is also important to develop a growth mindset that allows you to embrace challenges and setbacks as opportunities for growth and learning. This involves reframing negative thoughts into positive affirmations and focusing on your strengths and achievements rather than your perceived shortcomings.

To all the Women

If you are struggling with Imposter Syndrome, remember that you are not alone. Many successful women have felt the same way, and it is okay to ask for help. Seek out support from friends, family, or a therapist. Talk about your feelings and the accomplishments that make you feel proud. And most importantly, try to shift your mindset from one of self-doubt to one of self-confidence. Remember that your successes are not just flukes, but the result of your hard work, talent, and determination. Believe in yourself and your abilities, and don’t let Imposter Syndrome hold you back from achieving your goals.

In the words of Marianne Williamson,

“Who are you not to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?”

Dear ladies, don’t let Imposter Syndrome hold you back from doing great work and making a difference in the lives of others. You have the power to transform, and I believe in you.


About the author

Psychologist, RTT Therapist trained by world-class therapist Marisa Peer, Clinical Hypnotherapist, Mindfulness Coach

Result-oriented therapist, focused on treating the root cause of an issue, resilient mindset shifts, reprogramming subconscious beliefs and building lifelong habits that support your transformation

Here to help if you are motivated to take charge of your life, committed to your transformation, value your time and are looking for fast results that stick after as little as 1 – 3 sessions

Offering powerful therapy online and in person, based in Utrecht, the Netherlands, happy to work with non-native speakers and expat communities, in English or Polish

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