How to Cope with Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome

What is it? An illness?

Imposter syndrome might sound like a medical term, but it isn’t really an illness. It is more a pattern of thoughts and behaviours related to beliefs about yourself. As we shall see, these are often irrational, flying in the face of the evidence. Highly successful individuals can end up viewing themselves as just “lucky” or worse as “frauds”. Further achievements can compound the problem rather than bring relief. Cognitive bias plays down the positive and emphasises the negative. Continued success can leave the sufferer in fear of “being found out” and everything coming crashing down around them.

Fear - The Heart of Imposter Syndrome

At the heart of it all seems to be a strong sense of fear. The individual might be afraid that they aren’t skilled enough, experienced enough or really an appropriate person to be chosen for a task or role. Even if they do manage something one time, they are convinced that next time they would mess up. It is as if they are waiting for someone to stop everything and denounce them publicly as incompetent.  Perhaps they will be dragged off by some kind of police force and their career will be over. Constant feelings of inadequacy breed an undercurrent of fear. This keeps the body in a state of alert that can have a detrimental impact on mental and physical health. 

Mask with cut out eyes with light from behind - monochrome

"Symptoms" of Imposter Syndrome

This fear of being an incapable phony manifests itself in a variety of forms. The thought patterns that it creates can lead to behaviours that are indirect attempts at shielding the person from anxiety. Unfortunately, they can instead end up enhancing stress levels and making things worse. Although to the sufferer these behaviours may seem to follow naturally from their beliefs, others may find it hard to comprehend and think that they are irrational or simply seeking  attention in terms of validation and praise. Far from being modesty or anxiety due to being in above their depth, imposter syndrome is a false belief that refuses to accept the evidence that they are indeed capable.

Evidence Bias & Self-Deception

Cognitive bias can affect us in many ways. When we buy a new car we may suddenly start to see many more cars of the same make or colour as ours than we thought we had previously. Our brains like to be able to simplify things and work with patterns. So, we find it easier if all the evidence points in one direction rather than having to weigh up huge amounts of data. When it comes to imposter syndrome, evidence that the person is capable and a good fit for the job can end up being ignored in favour of anything that confirms the existing belief of not being good enough. 100 positive reviews might be forgotten in an instant if 1 negative comment comes along.

Despite qualifications, experience and peer endorsements, someone can choose to hang on to that one thing someone said that suggests incompetence. It is as though negatives have an infinitely stronger weight on their side of the scales than any positives could ever have on the other. Let’s consider a couple of possible examples.

Firstly, imagine an award-winning photographer who has been photographing weddings for 15 years with numerous glowing reviews from clients. One day, just as they are heading to the marquee for the reception, someone comes up to them and makes fun of their camera – “not still using one of those old things are you?!” Someone suffering from imposter syndrome could find this enough to undermine their confidence for the rest of the day. They might feel that their judgement, their expertise has been questioned and therefore they aren’t what all the accolades make them out to be.

Or, say for example that a photographer who is a brand ambassador is doing a live demonstration at a huge photography convention. They are on that stage because they have proven themselves time and again. But, what if they got something wrong with their settings and all of a sudden an awful picture appears on the monitor that they are tethered to. Yes, that would be embarrassing. But, for some it could make them instantly feel like an imposter. One mistake could seem sufficient to negate all of the achievements that got them to this point.

Deflecting & Playing Down Achievements - I'm Not Good, I'm Lucky

Related to the idea of a biased view of the evidence is a tendency to play down anything good that happens and deflect away any praise. Someone suffering from imposter syndrome finds it difficult to accept something that contradicts their poor view of themselves. So, winning an award or a big contract might be dismissed as being lucky or because nobody else could have gone for it, for example. 

Trophy on plinth with fraud watermark as illustration of imposter syndrome

You might think that things like awards, acknowledgement and praise would easily deal with feelings of being an imposter, but this is rarely the case. “Positive” evidence can make little impact, especially if there is even the tiniest of possible “negatives” around. It can even increase fear and anxiety as the individual can then be worried about whether they can replicate that success or if next time will be the time they get found out…

Crediting others involved in a project is clearly a healthy thing to do. But, the “imposter” may feel that everyone except themselves deserves credit. Pushing praise and awards to one side dismissively may be designed to help reduce the pressure for future performance. Or, it might be a symptom of the denial of one’s abilities.


One common type of behaviour we find with people with imposter syndrome is perfectionism. Everything has to be done just right. Only 100% is good enough and once you have set the bar, that is the level you have to keep on reaching. Of course, it quickly becomes difficult if not impossible to maintain such standards. This can cause a great deal of stress. The fear is, of course, that if you slip below the 100% mark then maybe people will realise that you aren’t so great after all. Striving to do a good job and be consistent is one thing; aiming for constant perfection is another thing entirely. As well as simply exhausting ourselves, we can end up not valuing anything other than perfection in ourselves and maybe by extension also in others. 


If you are setting yourself unrealistic standards then it shouldn’t be surprising that overworking is another common behaviour for people with imposter syndrome. Extra time and effort is clearly going to be needed if all that you produce has to be 100%. Whether completing a report or assignment or preparing for a meeting, the individual is likely to be doing far more than they need to and probably more than most of those around them. Preparing for presentations might entail obsessing over details that aren’t that important and feeling like they have to anticipate any possible questions or objections. Working in this way can quickly lead to burnout.


Overworking and perfectionism are common when the person already feels that they are in the spotlight. Sometimes, they may try to foresee future difficulties and try avoiding situations that may make them feel uncomfortable. So, they may choose to avoid opportunities for promotion or to head up a new project, for example. This isn’t necessarily a conscious, thought through process. It can happen subconsciously as their mind tries to prevent potential stress and distress. If they fear that they won’t be good enough at something, that can be enough for them to decide to steer clear and avoid embarrassment. 

Who Suffers From Imposter Syndrome?

According to various studies, imposter syndrome is very common and could affect around 70% of people at some point in their lives. It seems to be more common in people who actually require a high level of skill and/or intelligence to perform their work. Photographers who reach the pinnacle of the profession and win awards and recognition for their work can commonly relate to the symptoms of imposter syndrome. For example, we discussed this briefly in my podcast interview with Kris Anderson. We are starting to realise how common it is as people talk about it more readily. But, it is not a new phenomenon by any means. For example, take a look at famous celebrities suffering with imposter syndrome, which includes Albert Einstein!

Mask facing right monochrome illustration of imposter syndrome

Strategies for Coping with Imposter Syndrome

So, if this is such a common problem, isn’t there a way to deal with it? Combatting imposter syndrome is a process that may involve various approaches and have varying degrees of success. We will now take a look at 9 tactics that can be used in combination to help ease the feelings and impact of imposter syndrome.

Talking About It

Simply coming to the realisation that we have a problem and acknowledging this to others can make it easier to fight it. This is partly down to the sense of accountability we can feel when sharing a problem and seeking to overcome it. We can also quickly discover that we are not alone, which in itself can offer some comfort. Talking about our experience can in turn help others. Bringing imposter syndrome out into the open can help to address its secret stranglehold over us. 

Although a coach or therapist might be beneficial, a friend or relative might be enough. The important thing is to choose someone that we trust and who is not going to react in an unhelpful way. If we get laughed at, told “not to be silly” or just reminded of all our achievements then this can end up reinforcing the feelings of being a phony. So, choose carefully who you open up to, especially for the first time.

Identify Your Triggers

See if you can identify any patterns to your feelings. Are the certain circumstances that trigger “imposter symptoms” more than others? You won’t necessarily be affected by it in all areas of your life, so discovering which are the prime cause of your feelings and behaviours means you can narrow down what you need to work on to bring relief. We tend to find that “imposter syndrome occurs when people are doing the activity to which they attach their worth” (T. Halliday, Unmasking – The Coach’s Guide to Imposter Syndrome, p.74). So, it will be in relation to something that is important to you.

Once you have found your triggers, you can start to form strategies for coping in those situations. Beware of thinking that avoiding the triggers can cure you. As we have seen, avoidance can be a typical behaviour that is an unhealthy symptom of imposter syndrome. So, although on occasions it might offer short-term escape, avoiding rather than confronting the issue will perpetuate their effectiveness and leave you vulnerable. Instead, we can bring one of our other tools into play and aim to change our thinking and emotional response.

Gathering Evidence Against It

In and of itself, evidence gathering is unlikely to cure you. The evidence bias discussed above tends to undermine whatever data we try to use. Nevertheless, as part of a toolkit, it is still a relevant activity to help change our thinking. It may help us, especially in connection with talking with others, to realise that our beliefs are not rational. Experiences where we have succeeded despite our beliefs and emotional responses can offer some reassurance that we can manage in a similar situation as well.

If negative evidence starts to surface, analyse it (preferably with a trusted person) to see what truth there actually is there. If there is a weakness, can you address it (e.g. get more training)? Or, you may discover that it isn’t really “evidence” of anything wrong with you at all. Sometimes others project their own fears and insecurities and we don’t have to absorb them and make them our own. Question the validity of any “negatives” and find ways to remind yourself of positives. Perhaps write them on your noticeboard or put them on a note by your computer, whatever works for you. If you are someone that easily forgets a compliment then make sure to keep a record of it.

Celebrate Your Successes

We’ve already seen that achievements are often dismissed or played down when someone is suffering from imposter syndrome. So, one thing we can work on is celebrating our successes. A lot of what we do and how we think is based in habits. Changing a habit doesn’t happen with a one-off act. We have to cultivate the new habit and gradually get used to it replacing the old ways. Acknowledging and sharing our success is a good place to start, even if it is just with friends and family. Celebrating it and learning to feel good about it can follow with time.

The idea behind fostering a habit of celebration is to help get our minds thinking more positively about our achievements and associating them with positive emotions and experiences. We want to take ownership of our successes and not avoid them with a toxic form of modesty. This can help to motivate us with an anticipation of the emotional high that we come to associate with succeeding.

Choose a Growth Mindset Not a Fixed Mindset

If we have a fixed mindset then we can easily fall into the trap of allowing a positive or negative evaluation of us to define us. This way of thinking assumes that we all have a fixed level of intelligence and abilities. So, when we don’t do well at something we can risk accepting defeat and not being open to improving. Similarly, succeeding can become a benchmark by which we define ourselves. Due to achieving in certain domains we can think of ourselves or others as clever, talented or good people. Anything that goes wrong can upset the apple cart and make us question our view of ourselves.

A growth mindset is concerned with the possibility of learning and improving (or growing). It sees any result as where we were at that moment in time with that particular subject, rather than something that defines us long-term (potentially for life). There is more flexibility for allowing us to be better at some things than others and to do better on some days than others. This can encourage a more balanced view of ourselves instead of either putting ourselves on a pedestal or labelling ourselves as “failures”. 

Mistakes or failures are opportunities for growth according to a growth mindset. We don’t have to worry about avoiding them at all costs. If we allow ourselves more room to grow and change, giving ourselves permission to make mistakes in order to do so, then we can begin to dismantle the perfectionist tendencies and tame the fear.

Take a look at Mindset by Carol Dweck to dig into this topic in more detail.

Re-Calibrate Your Standards

Let your inner perfectionist know that 100% all of the time is neither achievable nor a desirable goal. Start to think about what is in fact good enough in some of the circumstances that tend to get you stressed and overworking. What do others do that is sufficient, without being either neglectful or going overboard? Allow yourself some leeway to be less than perfect and to make mistakes. Try to think of mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow, rather than as potentially fatal horrors to be avoided at all costs. Nobody can be an expert at everything and nobody can be an expert first time. Give yourself time and opportunity to grow.

Act Despite Fear

Sometimes we need to push ahead in spite of our fear. If we allow our world to be dictated by whatever we feel comfortable doing then it can become a very small place. Growth relies on us stretching our boundaries and trying things without knowing if they will go well or not. The feeling of fear doesn’t have to go away before we can start. Waiting for our fear to subside or disappear will hold us back and leave us as a victim to our negative mindset. Occasionally we need to go ahead anyway, even if we are trembling inside. All too often we will find that our greatest fears fail to happen anyway. Our fears of what might happen are normally far worse than anything that actually does occur when we push ourselves. Plus, if we can succeed when scared, think what we can do once we begin to lose that fear!

Remove Self-Criticism

Stop the negative self-talk. If you make a mistake, try to re-frame it as an opportunity for growth. Don’t rant angrily at yourself, putting yourself down. Constant self-criticism will only cement in your perception of negatives outweighing the positives and increase your fear that feeds imposter syndrome. Similarly to other tools that we have looked at, this is a question of changing habits. When we are in an unhealthy mindset we have a confirmation bias that seeks out negatives to rubber stamp the impression our imposter syndrome is building. Instead, we can help build a positive self-image by looking for successes and good things, while re-framing mistakes as opportunities to learn and get better.

Your Unconditional Worth

The fear behind imposter syndrome  is that we could lose our value as a person. We think that we won’t be liked or have a place in life if we don’t do something to make people like us and to prove our worth. Sometimes there will be people who place conditions on their regard for us. They may drop us if we fail to meet the standards they impose. But, we don’t have to let them or their conditional valuation rule our lives. We can start to realise that we all have inherent worth. People love us whether we win awards or not. A loving spouse won’t leave you if for some reason you can’t get that next promotion. You don’t need thousands of likes on your social media profiles to have the right to exist and be happy. 

Not everyone will perceive your value, but that is their problem and their loss. None of us needs to be a slave to the whims of others. We all have value. We are all unique and we all have worth. Our imposter syndrome might want us to be liked by everyone. It might worry about falling out of favour. But, you have worth no matter what. 

Does Imposter Syndrome Ever Go Away?

We’ve explored several tactics that we can employ against imposter syndrome. Using this toolkit we can reclaim the ground that it tries to steal from us. However, there is no guarantee that we will eradicate imposter syndrome completely. We may be able to lessen its impact and we may even succeed in banishing it for a time. Some may get lucky and see the back of it for good, but others may find it returns and ebbs and flows in strength. The tools can help us do battle each time we need to. But, we have to be realistic and acknowledge that our win may not be permanent.

We’ve seen many negative side-effects of imposter syndrome. It can be crippling for people in so many ways. But, can it perhaps have any kind of positive role to play? In a much milder form, possibly we could view it as a reminder to be humble and a tool to keep us persevering and working hard instead of sitting on our laurels.

Can Imposter Syndrome Help Keep Us Humble?

Self-confidence can be a delicate balance at times. Too little and we can struggle with constant nagging doubts and a sense of inferiority or being an “imposter”. Too much and we can become full of pride and be big-headed and unpleasant for others to be around and work with! Feeling a little out of our depth may be just enough to stop us getting complacent. It may help us to avoid a sense of entitlement and remind us that achievements are a privilege and need to be worked for rather than being ours by right. 

Motivation To Improve?

By extension, if we never quite feel that we have “made it” and can sit back and relax then we are arguably in a better position to continue learning and developing. The extra practise, concentration and dedication that we put in as a result of being uncertain of the outcome can be a good thing, leading to future success. The question is, do we really need to feel like an imposter and all that entails to gain these marginal benefits?

See Gadsby’s article on imposter syndrome and self-deception

Imposter Syndrome - Mask on dark background monochrome


Imposter syndrome is not an illness and you don’t need to  be treated by medical professionals if you feel that you have it. The “symptoms” we have explored (evidence bias, playing down achievements, perfectionism, overworking, avoidance) emerge from a fear of not being good enough. We believe our worth to be conditional rather than unconditional and fear that we might fail to prove that worth and lose everything. There are ways of fighting it, but it is something that may never go away completely. In the meantime we have these 9 tools to work with:

  • Talking About It
  • Identifying Triggers
  • Gathering Evidence
  • Celebrating Success
  • Changing Our Mindset
  • Adjusting Our Standards
  • Acting Despite Fear
  • Stopping Self-Criticism
  • Embracing Our Unconditional Worth

All images & text © Joe Lenton, Focused Professional March 2024. Not to be reproduced without permission in writing.

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