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Where Imposter Syndrome Stems From

Updated: Oct 10, 2022

Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon that does not have a single cause. Rather, several factors contribute to its development. Potential underlying factors presented as written by Crystal Raypole and Vara Saripalli, Psy.D., include:

1. Parenting and Childhood Environment

It is possible that you may develop imposter syndrome if your family or parents:

  • were controlling or overprotective

  • sharply criticized mistakes

  • labeled you or compared you to your sibling(s) or other children

  • emphasized natural intelligence

  • pressured you to do well in school

  • had a high conflict but low support

  • gave mixed messages, flipping back and forth between praise and critical remarks

As a child, you pick up on subtle messages presented in your environment. These subtle messages, especially the hurtful and negative ones, can turn into internalized views that influence the ways you depict and speak to yourself. These views and beliefs, usually shaped by family and friends, were based on limited information but are now used as the foundation that you built upon ever since.

A mismatch between family values and your own can factor into the imposter feelings you experience. The misalignment can make it challenging to acknowledge achievement and successes as you may question what you do or have done because you’re programmed to see success in the same way as your family.

2. Personality Traits

Research has been able to link feelings of being an imposter to a couple of personality traits, such as:

  • low self-efficacy or confidence

  • perfectionism and perfectionistic tendencies

  • higher scores of neuroticism, one of the big five personality traits

  • lower scores of conscientiousness on the big five

3. Existing Mental Health Symptoms

Having a mental health issue already can be a factor that influences the onset of imposter syndrome. Mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or social anxiety, can create feelings of self-doubt, decreased self-confidence, and worries about what or how others think of you or perceive you. These feelings can reinforce your belief that you don’t belong or are a fraud. This can quickly turn into a vicious cycle as imposter syndrome may only worsen the mental health symptoms you are experiencing, which makes the cycle of these feelings difficult to escape.

4. New Responsibilities

Entering a new role, such as a new job, a new school, or a new opportunity can cause you to worry about whether you will live up to expectations or be able to match the abilities of your peers. These feelings can subside as you get familiarized with your new situation, but they may get worse if you are not receiving any or adequate feedback or support from your coworkers.

5. Bias

Although any person can have imposter syndrome, women and people of color tend to experience these feelings more often.

Gender bias and institutionalized racism are two significant factors that can play a part in the imposter phenomenon. Being aware of any bias against you may lead to overworking or putting in more effort to disprove the harmful beliefs, and to be taken seriously or even earn recognition for your efforts.

The negative stereotypes, microaggressions, and discrimination can not only affect your feelings of belonging, but they can also affect your performance, causing you to focus on your mistakes and doubt your abilities.

The name “imposter syndrome” can have adverse effects too. As Crystal Raypole and Vara Saripalli, Psy.D, state, “The word ‘imposter’ carries a strong connotation of deceit and manipulation, while “syndrome” generally implies illness.”

Is What You’re Experiencing Really Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is not recognized as an official condition, but it describes a conflict between your own self-perception and the way others actually perceive you. In this phenomenon, the feelings of unworthiness or uncertainty about your abilities will not align with what others truly think of you. You believe that you are hiding behind a mask that others cannot see past, but in reality, there is no unmasking to be done.

Despite imposter feelings being quite common, it is time to stop and think if this is what you’re actually feeling or if you are in an environment where your peers make you feel this way.

Women and people of color are typically the people who are less represented in professional environments. This can lead to others not making room for them or implying they are not competent or deserve success.

In environments such as these, you may not be experiencing imposter feelings, rather, you are encountering the negative effects of gender bias and systemic racism.

Imposter syndrome does not take into account the historical or cultural context that has influenced and contributed to the prevalence rates we see in women.

Despite feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt being common and normal in your professional life or when first starting a job, too often, women are said to be ‘suffering’ from imposter syndrome.

As explained in the Harvard Business Review, “Even if women demonstrate strength, ambition, and resilience, our daily battles with microaggressions, especially expectations and assumptions formed by stereotypes and racism, often push us down. Imposter syndrome is a concept that fails to capture this dynamic and puts the onus on women to deal with the effects. Workplaces remain misdirected toward seeking individual solutions for issues disproportionately caused by systems of discrimination and abuses of power.”

So, before you conclude that you are going through the imposter phenomenon, stop to consider if these feelings may be a result of being a part of a community that encounters bias and discrimination.

The problem may not necessarily be the person, it could be the environment or culture. We must fix bias, not women.

If this is Imposter Syndrome, How Can We Overcome It?

There are many strategies that can help when you’re trying to overcome imposter syndrome:

  1. Acknowledge your feelings and separate them from facts

  2. Take note of your accomplishments, celebrate your successes, and challenge your doubts

  3. Talk to others and build connections

  4. Avoid comparing yourself to others

  5. Share your feelings and your failures

  6. Cultivate self-compassion

  7. Talk to a therapist

Join evidence- and community-based programs, such as Inward

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