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Are You Really Incompetent, or is it Imposter Syndrome?


A man contends with imposter syndrome.

What is your internal dialogue like? Is it kind, encouraging, empowering, empathetic, fair, and compassionate? Or is it critical, judgmental, shaming, needlessly cruel, and dismissive? If the latter sounds more on the nose, you might be someone who struggles with imposter syndrome. Most people feel self-doubt from time to time, but people who experience imposter syndrome tend to face their harsh inner critic more frequently and often have to work harder to acknowledge their talents, strengths, and achievements. If you need help understanding and combatting the bully in your head, keep on reading.

What Exactly is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is an internal belief system in which a person feels they are incompetent, despite external proof of achievements and success. Studies show that about 70% of people in the United States will experience impostor syndrome at some point in their lives. While imposter syndrome is not a recognized mental illness that can be diagnosed, it still can harm a person’s self-image, confidence, and impact their career, mental health, and relationships.

Imposter syndrome was first explored by therapist Dr. Pauline Rose Clance in 1985. She witnessed that many of the high achieving women she was working with in therapy did not believe that they deserved their success or were actually competent in their careers. It was believed at the time that imposter syndrome was a phenomenon unique to working women, but as more understanding has developed, it turns out that imposter syndrome doesn’t discriminate. It can impact people of all demographics according to the International Journal of Behavioral Science.

People usually endorse feeling like a fraud in the context of careers; however, you can feel like an imposter within relationships as well. You might feel as if you don’t belong in social settings, that friends or romantic partners don’t actually like you, that they will eventually figure out you’re a “fraud”, and other self-judging beliefs about how others perceive you, even when people validate that you are wanted and appreciated.

Common imposter syndrome behaviors, thoughts, and feelings might include:

  • You fear people in your life will find out you are a fraud or “faking” it.
  • When people compliment you on your work or achievements, you think they are just being polite and don’t actually mean what they say.
  • You feel as if you don’t deserve the success, milestones, and friendships you’ve earned with your own talent, drive, and personality.
  • When it comes to your success you think, “I just got really lucky. The success was given to me or fell into my lap. I didn’t actually deserve it.”
  • You struggle to ask for promotions, raises, and more responsibility at work because you feel you aren’t capable or deserving.
  • You avoid putting yourself out there because you are consumed with doubt and worry that you will fail or not complete things perfectly.
  • You set unrealistically high standards for yourself that you wouldn’t expect from others.
  • You experience heightened sensitivity and anxiety when you receive feedback and constructive criticism.

How Does Imposter Syndrome Develop?

Research has found that there are various reasons why people develop imposter syndrome. Those reasons most often include culture, family dynamics, and comparison mentality.


In some cultures, there is a strong emphasis on achieving success. An adult with imposter syndrome might have been a child whose community placed high value on prestigious education, lucrative career paths, and looked down on those who don’t follow suit. The person likely feels immense amount of pressure to live up to the standards set forth by their culture.

Family Dynamics

Similar to culture, a person’s family dynamic can play a crucial role in shaping their identity, sense of self, and values. When you grow up within a family where success is praised above all else, imposter syndrome and perfectionism can form.


People with imposter syndrome tend to compare themselves and their achievements to others. Someone with this kind of thinking might look at others as natural geniuses and see themselves as inadequate in comparison.

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

  1. Set realistic goals and expectations

If you are someone who tends to set high aspirations for yourself, slowing down and enjoying the small wins, might help you center more realistic goals and expectations for yourself. Keep in mind you don’t have to achieve everything you want in life before a certain age. You can always work towards what you want in increments, being mindful of what is realistic and in your control during the process.

  1. Talk your imposter syndrome out with a nonjudgmental person

You may not find it helpful to talk with someone who is just going to provide positivity platitudes. It likely will take more than hearing kind words to help combat the bully who has been living rent free in your head. Working with a therapist who uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be a helpful exercise in reframing the negative thoughts that many with imposter syndrome know all too well. Using CBT can help recognize the negative thoughts when they arise and replace them with more productive ways of thinking and responding.

  1. Define your own meaning for success

It’s likely your view of success is based on external factors such as culture or family system you grew up in or even what you’ve witnessed as success through media and society. What do you define as success on your own terms? You get to be the authority on what success looks like in your own life.

  1. Challenge comparison compulsions

It’s often difficult for people with imposter syndrome to look at themselves as a whole, individual person which can lead to constant comparison. You might try challenging the urge to compare yourself to others. For some, this might mean spending less time on social media if seeing other people’s lives triggers feelings of inadequacy.

  1. Seek out helpful resources

Due to the prevalence of imposter syndrome, there are many resources people can utilize to learn more about the belief system and not feel alone in their struggle. Some resources for imposter syndrome include the popular book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It by Valerie Young, podcasts, YouTube videos, online support groups, and self-esteem workshops.

Dealing with imposter syndrome can be frustrating and get in the way of fully being able to celebrate your strengths and everything you’ve achieved. It will likely take some time to reframe your negative thoughts, especially for those who have struggled with imposter syndrome since childhood. That being said, it’s absolutely possible to learn to see yourself in a more empowering and compassionate light.


Modern Intimacy is a group therapy practice, founded by renowned Psychologist and Sex Therapist, Dr. Kate Balestrieri. This inclusive blog is designed to provide a wealth of information and resources for mental health, relationships, and sexuality. Subscribe today to get the latest information from our expert contributors from all around the world.


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