Where Do Imposter Feelings Come From?

Imposter feelings are persistent doubts in one’s abilities and the fear of being found a fraud, despite evidence to the contrary. But where do they come from? Is it the much worse, grown-up version of the tooth fairy? Except when she visits our houses at night, she doesn’t leave money, she leaves self-doubt and a sense of impending doom.

comic of a pink weasel wearing a tutu and wings sprinkling a salt shaker labelled 'doom' and a pepper grinder labelled 'self doubt' over top of a woman in bed with her arms crossed. beside her tucked into bed is a black cat who is dreaming that he has big fangs and has killed a giant mouse. The weasel asks "More freshly ground self doubt for the lady?" and the woman asks "Don't you have anything better to do, Gary". Comic by @jamie.morgen
The Imposter Fairy

According to psychologists, there are three general sources of imposter syndrome: personal traits & thought patterns, family background, and context.

Personal Traits & Thought Patterns

  • Low self-efficacy, or a lack of belief in one’s abilities.
  • Neuroticism, one of the “big five” personality traits that makes a person predisposed to negative feelings like anxiety, anger, irritability, self-consciousness, and depression.
  • Social anxiety, the fear of social situations where there is a percieved risk of being thought of negatively, adds fuel to the imposter fire by causing a person to feel like they don’t belong in social or performance situations.
  • Perfectionism, or demanding flawlessness from oneself and/or others, is associated with mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.

Anxiety’s mean friend, perfectionism, is a big driver behind imposter syndrome. Dr Clance, one of the originators of the imposter syndrome concept, said it may lead to two types of responses: procrastinating and over-preparing. An imposter might put off something important because they are afraid that they won’t be able to do it right and it won’t live up to their impossibly high standards. Or they may spend a lot more time on it than is necessary. If the imposter is anything like me, they’ll alternate between procrastinating and over-preparing.

Any successes are chalked up to all of that self-torture. If the anxiety and extra effort paid off, then that’s what it takes to produce good work. Existing mental health issues may be exacerbated. And so, it becomes a cycle that’s really hard to escape.

graphic of the imposter cycle: anxiety leads to extra effort leads to success leads back to anxiety
The Imposter Cycle

“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to do your best… Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.”

Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

Family Background

Coming from a family that really values achievement and being successful academically in childhood can contribute to imposter feelings in adulthood.

Parents might lay the groundwork for imposter syndrome by putting on the pressure to do well, paying a lot of attention to their child’s natural intelligence, making overt comparisons between siblings, being controlling or overprotective, sharply criticizing mistakes, or flipping between praise and criticism.

If the future imposter does well in school, then, they might start to believe that the criticism and pressure were helpful and pick up where their parents left off.

graphic of a father helping his son with homework.
To be or not to be… an imposter

Context

Imposter syndrome likes to tag along in new situations and transitions, like starting a new job, going to a new school, or trying something new. The lack of experience combined with the pressure to achieve can result in feelings of inadequacy. And feelings of inadequacy are where imposter syndrome thrives.

And the wider, cultural context matters too.

Bias

Bias plays a major role in imposter syndrome. Anyone can feel like an imposter, but it tends to show up more in women, people of colour, and anyone else who experiences marginalization.

Being aware of negative stereotypes can make a person work harder to prove themselves and be taken seriously. Which can lead to fixating on mistakes and doubting their abilities even more.

Discrimination and microaggressions, by design, reinforce feelings of being an outsider or unworthy of success and prominence. Which further exacerbates imposter feelings.

The intersection of bias and imposter feelings has led some researchers to start looking at it not as a syndrome that lives in a person, but “a psychological response to a dysfunctional context”(1).

Imposter feelings can come from one, some, or all of these sources – and each antecedent can egg the others on.

Ugh. Now what?

Imposter feelings are clearly deeply rooted and complicated, but I want to end on a positive note. Just knowing where something comes from is helpful. And according to Brené Brown, self-compassion is the antidote to perfectionism.

Perhaps it works on imposter syndrome too.

My next post in this series will investigate who experiences the imposter phenomenon. Missed the first one? Read it here.

Sources

  1. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.575024/full

https://www.habitsforwellbeing.com/what-perfectionism-is-and-isnt-according-to-brene-brown/

https://www.psycom.net/imposter-syndrome#

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5428182/#:~:text=Neuroticism%20is%20the%20trait%20disposition,emotional%20instability%2C%20and%20depression1.

https://dictionary.apa.org/perfectionism

https://www.verywellmind.com/imposter-syndrome-and-social-anxiety-disorder-4156469

https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/fraud

https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/imposter-syndrome#bias