What causes the Imposter Syndrome? | Imposterhood

What causes the Imposter Syndrome?


Feeling not good enough is widespread and some feel that it is the human condition: that we become who we need to be in order to have our basic survival needs met.  We become the good child, the sweet child, the clever child, the funny child, and in the process we suppress our real feelings.  I agree.  Let’s revert though to what we can prove.  What are the identified causes or influences on the imposter syndrome?  Broadly, there are two:  nature and nurture.

Nature plays a role.  People who are actively experiencing feeling like an imposter are more likely to be emotionally reactive and self-focussed (which is neuroticism in the Big 5 Personality Factors) and less likely to be both disciplined and organised (which is Conscientiousness ).

Nurture in the form of childhood conditioning also plays a significant role.

Many of us grew up with one or more parents who were perfectionists – that is, they hold an unrealistic ideal of what performance looks like in a particular context – perhaps school results or sporting activities – peg our results against that ideal and then focus on the shortfall.  Does that ring a bell?

Equally well meant is criticism with the intention of motivating us to step up.  “You can do better, I know you can!”

Both these influences reinforce the ‘not good enough’ feeling so many of us experience.

Nature and nurture together create the tendency to experience feeling ‘not good enough’ or the Imposter Syndrome.  However, the feeling remains latent until it is triggered by something external to us; something we react to; something that tips us into actively feeling not good enough.

Download a list of triggers to help you identify what might create uncertainty for you.

tug of warNext:  How does it show up?

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2 Responses to What causes the Imposter Syndrome?

  1. Hi there, thanks for the great article. If you don’t mind I wondered if you might answer a question I have. How should I handle imposter syndrome? I talked to my doctor and she mentioned it to me. Thanks in advance for your answer.

    • admin says:

      Hi Hae,

      Thanks for your message. I’m happy to respond.

      Moving beyond the Imposter syndrome is essentially an exploration of the beliefs you hold about yourself and your capabilities. It is strongly associated with the state of low self-esteem (comes and goes) which influences confidence in the moments we experience it.

      My suggestion as a starting place would be to ponder your beliefs around your self-worth. To do that, you need to know (or have a reasonable idea) what you believe. This can be a challenge because our beliefs have become habit and form part of our mindset – our perception of the way the world works and we work within it.

      I’ve found it easiest to unearth these unconscious beliefs by tracking back from situations where I’ve experienced the feeling of not being good enough to identify what about the situation triggered me into that feeling. The trigger itself can then be explored to understand why it impacted you. The question becomes ‘what must I believe to have reacted that way?’

      So, for example, if someone found themselves frustrated or even upset in team meetings when no-one paid attention to their contribution, that individual might ask why they were upset and arrive at the conclusion that he/she wasn’t respected which in turn triggered the feeling of not being worthy of respect.

      Once you’ve unearthed the belief, you can ask yourself whether that belief serves you or gets in your way. Is it a positive and supportive belief in the context of what you want to achieve or does it limit you? Is it still true for you? Have there ever been situations where it wasn’t true for you? Would others say that it’s true?

      That’s just a starting point. If you’d like to know more, I’ll be running some free online webinars to help people understand the Imposter Syndrome. It’ involves so much more than the bandaids offered in popular media 🙂 Let me know if you’d like me to include you on my list to share details.

      All the best,

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