Impostor Syndrome: doubting your legitimacy at work

Jul 15, 2019

7 mins

Impostor Syndrome: doubting your legitimacy at work
Elsa Andron

Psychologue du travail et psychologue clinicienne

“They’ll find out for sure that they made a mistake choosing me and that I’m not really any good.”
“I was lucky.”
“The customer was in a good mood, that’s all.”
“I got a raise because he thinks I’m nice.”

If these phrases sound familiar because you’ve used them yourself, then this article is for you.

To a certain extent, self-doubt at work can provide us with an opportunity to challenge ourselves, keep motivated, and achieve a certain humility. In fact, between 62% and 70% of people question the legitimacy of their professional status or success at some point. However, there are times when living in constant fear that you don’t measure up, leading to procrastination or over-preparation for each new task, might be a sign that you are suffering from what’s known as “impostor syndrome.” Is this starting to ring any bells? We decided to dig a little deeper into the issue.

Is everyone an impostor?

More common than you might imagine, “impostor syndrome” or “impostor complex,” as it’s been called by psychologists, can seriously hamper the professional development of sufferers. What’s more, nearly 20% of the population is said to be affected (Kevin Chassangre and Stacey Callahan, 2017). Regardless of its prevalence, much about the syndrome itself remains relatively unknown due to a lack of information and understanding on the part of both sufferers and professionals.

First identified by psychologists Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne Ament Imes in 1978, impostor syndrome plays out in three key stages:

  • First, subjects feel as if they are deceiving everyone as regards their true abilities and skills. Therefore, they see themselves as impostors.

  • This feeling of being a “fake” leads to fear and anxiety, in varying degrees of intensity, about being unmasked.

  • Finally, the ensuing cognitive bias systematically pushes impostors to misattribute any success. Individuals without this condition ordinarily attribute success to causes that are within their power to control and around which they can organize themselves accordingly. For example, there are internal causes, such as the ability to carry out specific tasks, and sustainable causes, such as being generally competent and capable. Those who see themselves as impostors will come up with very different reasons. For them, any success is attributable to external causes, which are necessarily unstable and beyond their control. These causes might be sheer luck, the misjudgment of others, or even a sympathetic attitude toward the impostor.

However, these impostor are often perceived by their professional and personal peer groups as particularly competent and skilled in managing their careers, which usually reinforces their feelings of deception.

“I didn’t work harder than others to get good grades, I was just in the right place at the right time. At school, I thought that I did well mainly because the teachers liked me”—Justine, an impostor syndrome sufferer

Where does this feeling of being an impostor come from?

One may wonder just how these unconscious mechanisms build up over time. This feeling is a reaction to messages heard as children that were disturbing or hard to understand, gleaned from their environment during early development, either at home or school.

“Intelligent people succeed where others fail… ”

Children who are repeatedly exposed to such messages may be at risk of developing impostor syndrome. Moreover, there is a variety of channels through which children may be exposed to these messages:

  • Conflicting views of the child between the home and school environments. Children who experience a significant difference between how they are perceived at home and school, or even between their parents, are more susceptible to developing this complex. For example, parents may see their child as extraordinary and particularly gifted, whereas the child’s school finds the child of only average ability, or vice versa. Faced with doubts, the child may internalize negative opinions as being more reliable than positive ones, which they interpret as false and being said just to “please” the child.

  • Overestimating intelligence in the family environment. Intelligence is overvalued as a basis for success and most often described as a gift, conveying the impression that it has nothing to do with hard work. As a result, the child must be naturally endowed with intelligence and talent. They will then internalize the notion that success is the only option, which can result in a performance pattern founded on fear of failure, instead of a learning pattern where people learn from their mistakes.

  • A family environment that does not value the child’s abilities. Children who don’t receive positive messages at home have difficulty developing a positive self-image based on recognition of their qualities. In the process of becoming an adult, they will struggle to make the connection between success and ability, due to the trouble they have in identifying and assessing those abilities.

  • A controversial gender difference. Initially studied in women with post-secondary education and positions of responsibility, this syndrome was considered to be more prevalent among this specific demographic. This assertion has since been modified through several studies, and it now appears that the syndrome stretches across the gender divide.

Drop the act!

Many definitions of this syndrome exist, and differ widely depending on the author. That said, certain shared character traits and behavioral signs make it possible to establish a typical “impostor” profile.

  • Introversion: So-called “introverted” people, or people who have a strong tendency to turn inwards, are more likely to develop impostor syndrome, because they base their opinions of themselves on their own interpretations and feelings. Since this interpretation is skewed, as mentioned previously, by their pattern of attribution, and due to being introverted, they are less likely to expose their negative self-image to the outside world.

  • Difficulty accepting compliments: People with impostor syndrome experience negative feelings and express dysfunctional negative thoughts when they achieve success. For this reason, they follow a consistent pattern of attributing personal success to external elements such as luck, their professional network, or goodwill on the part of superiors. They also express an inappropriate level of perfectionism that almost always creates a feeling of dissatisfaction when they succeed, resulting in self-thought such as “Yes, but I could have done better or more.”

“I always remember criticism or insignificant remarks more than compliments. Positive comments don’t reassure me because I feel like they’re being made to reassure me—that I’m being lied to—so I forget about them right away”—Justine

  • Overestimating the skills of others and denigrating one’s own skills: These individuals tend to minimize and criticize their own skills constantly, while comparing their shortcomings to the strengths of the professionals around them.

“Sometimes, I genuinely believe I can’t do anything right and everyone’s going to see that. I’m ashamed, and I think they’re going to realize that I’m not up to the challenge and maybe they’re going to fire me”—Justine

  • Performance anxiety related to the fear of failure: They experience overwhelming anxiety about being unmasked and are in constant fear of the shame and humiliation that would come with having their incompetence found out.

“I had an overwhelming sense of anxiety. I was unbelievably stressed out and would come home in tears. I was thinking, ‘I’m not good enough for this kind of job’”—Justine

  • Fear of evaluation: they perceive any sort of evaluation as putting them at significant risk of being unmasked and revealing their deception.

  • Guilt and fear of success: they are convinced that they don’t deserve success. Unable to see their potential and take credit for their success, they can never feel legitimate. Thus, with each moment of success comes the fear of change and of new demands being placed on them, prompting new fear of not being up to the challenge to come.

“I feel like I don’t deserve it at all and I just have no clue what I’m doing”— Justine

The impostor’s vicious cycle

When faced with an important task that can be perceived as presenting a risk because it could lead to an assessment of their abilities or skills, impostors will get caught up in a particularly vicious cycle of their own making.

When a new task is assigned to them, impostors may experience acute anxiety. This is when negative thoughts related to their distorted self-perception, fear of failure, and also fear of success will surface. Confronted with such anxiety, sufferers rely upon two distinct strategies as defense mechanisms:

  • Procrastination followed by excessive work. This forestalls anxiety and partially protects self-esteem by delaying confrontation of the task for as long as possible.

  • Being over-prepared in the long term to ensure success and overcome the feeling of illegitimacy. The task will generally be carried out successfully and will then provoke positive feedback from the professionals around them. However, the positive messages will be rejected or denigrated by the impostor, and these new successes will paradoxically intensify feelings that they are deceiving others, instead of helping the sufferer to build a positive assessment of his skills.

Is it serious, doctor?

Retreating into oneself and keeping silent

At work, seeing yourself as an impostor can have undesirable consequences, especially in relationships with coworkers. The high anxiety experienced can tarnish relationships and lead to social withdrawal due to fear of being unmasked. Isolation both in the office and outside of work is a significant risk because, in many cases, people with this syndrome refuse to seek help as they fear that this will be evidence of their incompetence.

As a result, teamwork and work relationships become complicated. Furthermore, the impostor’s vicious cycle can make organizing work difficult, especially if the impostor chooses the path of procrastination.


Impostor syndrome is not a mental pathology per se but can lead to negative thoughts in the form of constant self-criticism, self-doubt, and a high level of anxiety that may leave sufferers feeling depleted. If these feelings become too overwhelming, it’s a good idea to seek professional help, such as the services of a psychologist.

To overcome the vicious cycle that they are caught in, Clance recommends, among other things, that sufferers train themselves in how to attribute successes appropriately through acknowledging that these successes have been due to their skills and potential, rather than luck and over-preparation. This approach is part of the work involved in restructuring the thought process and reducing cognitive attribution bias. Learning to recognize our successes and modifying the judgments we make about ourselves—realizing that where we are in our professional lives is not about luck, but also perhaps because we are competent—allows us both to see our potential clearly and to increase general and psychological well-being. It’s an act of mental gymnastics that every one of us can accomplish over time.

Photography by WTTJ

Translated by Andrea Schwam

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