The phenomenon known as “imposter syndrome” can stunt career growth, cause individuals to pass up new and exciting opportunities, cultivate incessant self-doubt and create burnout or dissatisfaction in the workplace. Imposter syndrome is not an official mental health diagnosis in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, but anyone who experiences its effects will agree it’s a very real problem.
Understanding Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome is associated with feelings of being undeserving of achievements or praise for accomplishments. A person with imposter syndrome may think of themself as a fake, phony, fraud — or imposter — and may attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than personal capabilities. In addition to feeling like a fraud, an individual with imposter syndrome also may fear detection or worry that those around them will eventually discover they are not as competent as they seem.
People who experience imposter syndrome generally lack the ability to internalize success, meaning they often seek external validation or praise from others, which paradoxically, they feel they do not deserve. This can further exacerbate feelings of imposter syndrome. Sufferers of the syndrome may believe success is solely determined by what people think of them, rather than what they think of themselves. When a person with impostor syndrome achieves success, it’s usually accompanied by feelings of relief, rather than joy or pride, and their ability to repeat success is frequently self-doubted.
Valerie Young, EdD, a well-known researcher of imposter syndrome, has distinguished five types of imposters:
The Perfectionist is someone with extremely high expectations. Small mistakes, to them, can feel like huge failures and they often engage in negative self-talk.
The Superwoman/Superman/Super Student measures competence based on “how many” roles they can both juggle and excel in. Falling short in any role — as a parent, partner, on the home-front, host/hostess, friend, volunteer — all evoke shame because they feel they should be able to handle it all — perfectly and easily.
The Natural Genius judges themself based on their ability to inherently or naturally know how to perform a task or solve a problem. This person frequently experiences shame and doubt if they make a mistake on the first try.
The Soloist believes they must do everything on their own and cannot ask for help, because asking for help will expose their fakeness.
The Expert continuously seeks additional certifications or training as a way to hide that they never feel competent enough. Rather than engaging in lifelong education for the sake of learning, they seek training due to a fear of being exposed as a fraud.
Source: FNCE® 2020 session, Power In Your Presence: Taming Feelings of Insecurity and Imposter Syndrome and The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Crown Business 2011.
Prevalence and Personality
Imposter syndrome may be more prevalent or likely to occur during major life events, such as a new position at work. It also can be induced by praise and recognition, such as an honor or award.
Women — particularly women of color — were originally thought to be more susceptible, though recent research suggests both men and women are equally vulnerable to experiencing imposter syndrome. In general, ethnic minorities experience disproportionately higher rates of imposter syndrome, which may be in part due to a lack of representation that can make people of color and other underrepresented individuals feel like outsiders. Additionally, it appears to be more common for students, people in their 20s or those early in their career, though it can be experienced by anyone of any age and experience level.
Individuals with imposter syndrome may cope by obsessively overpreparing. They may prefer to maintain a low profile or stay out of the spotlight at work to avoid scrutiny. Additionally, they may enlist charm and humor to win the approval of peers and dodge being “found out” as an imposter.
Imposter syndrome has not been extensively studied among registered dietitian nutritionists. However, existing research suggests imposter syndrome is experienced by other health care professionals such as nurses, physicians, and medical and pharmacy residents whose personality traits may be similar to those of RDNs.
Research is limited and doesn’t pinpoint exactly why RDNs could experience imposter syndrome. According to Dylan Bailey, MS, RD, chair of the Cultures of Gender and Age member interest group and moderator of the FNCE® 2020 session, Power In Your Presence: Taming Feelings of Insecurity and Imposter Syndrome, many theories point to the fact that RDNs work in a culture that feeds self-doubt, plus psychological factors that increase susceptibility. “Dependence on approval from others, excessive worry and the drive for perfection could be partly responsible for dietitians and other health care professionals experiencing imposter syndrome,” says Bailey.
A Deeper Dive: Learn why imposter syndrome occurs, what increases a person’s susceptibility and the role social media plays in increasing feelings of imposter syndrome among RDNs by watching the Cultures of Gender and Age member interest group-planned FNCE® session, Power In Your Presence: Taming Feelings of Insecurity and Imposter Syndrome.
Imposter syndrome can cause great psychological distress, triggering feelings of anxiety, self-doubt and fear of failure. An individual with imposter syndrome may feel like they don’t belong or may overcompensate, which can strain relationships and may prohibit them from pursuing new opportunities, such as a new job, relationship or hobby.
Bailey notes that imposter syndrome can impair job performance, contribute to burnout and decrease job satisfaction. “Consistently going at 1,000 percent, employees may overproduce and overwork to prove they are capable, which can lead to burnout and ultimately be counterproductive,” he says. “Capable, competent employees may also miss opportunities because they feel unworthy.”
Imposter syndrome also can affect relationships. “When you have someone who’s always working and trying to prove themselves in a professional capacity to avoid feeling like a phony, a fake or a fraud, think about what that may do to interpersonal relationships and mental well-being,” says Bailey.
Fighting Feelings of Fraudulence
The first step in solving a problem is to recognize there is a problem. Evaluate if you struggle with imposter syndrome and, if you do, train yourself to recognize the thoughts and feelings associated with the syndrome as they occur. Understand that these thoughts and feelings are not rooted in fact, and start engaging in positive self-talk.
When negative thoughts occur, reframe them by acknowledging your expertise, earned accomplishments and achievements. One way to make reframing easier is to keep a list of past accomplishments, both big and small. Consider compiling a “good news folder,” filled with documents that remind you of significant career milestones, such as a letter notifying you of passing the RDN exam, a college diploma or certificate of achievement. Include recommendation letters, emails of praise and other items that remind you of earned accomplishments and abilities to succeed.
Recognize and acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes — and expect to make mistakes, especially at the beginning of a new job or experience. When a mistake occurs, identify small actions that can lead to improvement.
Confide in a trusted friend who can remind you of your successes and encourage you. Connect with a mentor who has taken a similar career path and can guide you — and consider being a mentor to someone else. “Our profession is built on the accumulation of knowledge, and having a mentor to guide you through the things we face day in, day out as dietitians can be a protective measure against imposter syndrome,” says Bailey. A mentor also can listen to your concerns and provide reassurance and guidance, helping you feel better equipped to handle tasks and less like an imposter.
For individuals who may not have access to a mentor, Bailey adds that a “good news folder” allows you to be your own mentor. “It can reinforce confidence that you are not a fraud, you are capable, you are competent, you are doing a good job and you’re supposed to be where you are,” he says.
Additionally, consider seeking professional help for personalized tips and strategies to combat feelings of imposter syndrome. Finally, be kind to yourself. Self-reflection and change is difficult work. Continue to affirm your earned success and constantly remind yourself that you are not a fraud.
Bravata D, Watts S, Keefer AL, et al. Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. J Gen Intern Med. 2020;35(4):1252-1275. doi:10.1007/s11606-019-05364-1.
Imposter Syndrome. Psychology Today website. Accessed November 19, 2020.
Power in Your Presence: Taming Feelings of Insecurity and Imposter Syndrome. 2020 FNCE® Session.
Young V. The 5 Types of Imposters. ImposterSyndrome.com website. impostorsyndrome.com/5-types-of-impostors. Accessed December 4, 2020.