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Challenging myths about . . . imposter syndrome

Is it real? Do men have it? Is it a mental health condition? And what are the myths surrounding it?

Feeling persistent doubt about how well we can do a job, reach our goals or measure our success is how imposter syndrome taunts us into believing we are not good enough at what we do. So, we over-prepare and catch ourselves in a vicious cycle of anxiety, over-achieving and potential self-sabotage. We struggle to realistically determine our skills and competence and put it down to luck when we get promoted, snag a client or clear the backlog on time. We tell ourselves in no uncertain terms that we are not deserving and question our performance and very much struggle with self-doubt and blame ourselves when we don’t reach goals or live up to our own internal expectations.

One of the problems with imposter syndrome is that it is very much an internal experience, a conversation deeply embedded in our own heads, filling our minds with falsehoods. “I don’t deserve this.” “That was sheer luck.” “I don’t belong here.” “They know more than I do.” Imposter syndrome filters only negative conversations that battle our experience over our self-worth and make us question our confidence, ability and intelligence.

And while imposter syndrome has become a hot topic over the years, understanding what it is and how it affects us is somewhat obscured by the falsehoods that perpetuate online. Counselling psychotherapist Linda Breathnach helps clarify some of these confusing myths so that we may recognise imposter syndrome and tackle it straight on.

1) Myth - Imposter syndrome is not real

It takes courage to talk about imposter syndrome because when we voice our self-doubt, we are often met with retorts of “get over it” or “it’s all in your head” and perhaps we should grow a thicker skin and get on with it. Imposter syndrome is rarely validated because it is not always recognised as a legitimate concern; however, it is very real.


“While you cannot be clinically diagnosed with imposter syndrome,” says Breathnach, “it is a very real experience that many of us go through, especially high achievers. It can often happen after we have been offered a promotion or started a new job. It is when we go through a pattern of doubting ourselves, feeling like a fraud in our particular role of responsibility. We can have this constant irrational fear of ‘being found out’ and it can often lead to negative self-talk and insecurity.”

When we struggle to recognise imposter syndrome as a result of it not being validated, we run the risk of allowing the feelings associated with the pressure to achieve to overburden us, resulting in a person struggling in silence.

2) Myth - Imposter syndrome only affects women

While most of us question our abilities as we settle into a new challenge, role or routine, someone with imposter syndrome will be inundated with a fear of not having what it takes and being caught out as a fraud. There is an expectation that these kinds of feelings are limited to only women as society has lauded the false belief that imposter syndrome only affects women.

“This is simply not true,” says Breathnach. “Both men and women can experience imposter syndrome, but women are more likely to express it. It is well-known that women tend to express their emotions more in general and this too applies to imposter syndrome. The result of men not talking about it as much can lead to more severe anxiety and depression.”

Imposter syndrome was first considered in the 1970s and was seen to perpetuate in high-achieving women. Over the years, more research has unearthed that men also experience imposter syndrome at the same level as women.

3) Myth - Imposter syndrome is a mental health condition

Imposter syndrome has the capability of intensifying depression and anxiety making many people believe it is a mental health condition. While it can have a significant effect on your mental wellbeing, it is not classed as a mental health condition. The difference comes from the fact that imposter syndrome may not have an affect on all areas of your life but be largely concerned with the challenges at hand, presenting during professional commitments.

“While imposter syndrome can be an awful experience leading to procrastination or stagnation in our work, it is not a clinical mental health condition,” says Breathnach. “However, keeping an experience like this under wraps and not talking to anybody about it can lead to anxiety and/or depression. It would be normal to feel a little anxious and out of our depth when taking on new roles or responsibilities but if you believe that this is ongoing and becoming more consistent and starting to affect your work and home life, it might be time to talk to a professional about it and has a list of accredited therapists where you can do a word search to find somebody suitable in your area or online.”

4) Myth – Tackling imposter syndrome means being more positive

A dangerous myth concerning imposter syndrome concerns how we can tackle these feelings of inadequacy and fear. Countless reports tell us to be more open about our choices, think positively, talk about it and trust our gut, but this will only scratch the surface of battling imposter syndrome.

When it comes to this perplexing phenomenon, we question our very work ethic, our principles, abilities, meaning of success, fear of failure or not measuring up. We are very much caught in a spiral of thoughts that have few answers.

While recognising we are struggling with imposter syndrome is the first step, it will only get us so far.

  • Recognise the thoughts, emotions, and physical body sensations that occur when self-doubt creeps in.
  • Remember that you are human, good enough and work to the best of your ability. You can control how you react and respond to the challenges you personally face.
  • Know that you are not the only one to experience these feelings. Share your thoughts with a friend or colleague. Try not to hold on to the negative thoughts that may hold you back.
  • Self-doubt can creep in at any stage of our working lives, causing procrastination and insecurity. Remind yourself that this is a normal reaction and reframe how you will proceed with encouraging thoughts that recognise your capabilities.
  • Failure is a normal human occurrence. Reframe any mistakes, struggles or failures as a learning opportunity.
  • Make it to the finish line by visualising your success and staying focused on that outcome.

Myths Series

  1. Ageing
  2. ADHD
  3. Grief
  4. Sexual health
  5. Loneliness
  6. Introverts
  7. Imposter syndrome
  8. Mental health
  9. Rage in motherhood
  10. Therapy
  11. PTSD
  12. Food safety
  13. Endometriosis
  14. Pregnancy
  15. Frozen shoulder
  16. Thyroid gland
  17. Eating disorders
  18. Chronic pain
  19. Pelvic floor
  20. OCD
  21. Happiness
  22. Physiotherapy
Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family