5 Types of Imposter Syndrome (And How to Overcome Them)

Achieving Goals, Burnout, Confidence, Life Coaching, Mental Health, Mindset & Mindfulness, Self Awareness
03/04/24 - Cait Swamy
expert on her computer

As a Leadership, Life and Career Coach, I’ve coached hundreds of leaders and individuals around the world. Regardless of who you are and what level of success you’ve achieved, I have found most of us struggle with Imposter Syndrome at some point in our lives.

My experience has shown me that high achievers struggle with this phenomenon the most, often stating that they “feel like a fraud,” or that they somehow happened to get where they are in life by luck.

Imposter Syndrome impacts our confidence and self-esteem. I have made it my mission to understand why capable people struggle with imposter feelings the most.

I support my clients in understanding their imposter syndrome so they can build a life that they truly love. After all, developing self confidence is one of the kindest gifts you can give yourself and others.

In this article, we’ll explore what imposter syndrome is, learn the five types of imposter syndrome, and then dig into what you can do to overcome imposter syndrome and begin to build back your self confidence.

woman on her phone

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people doubt their skills, talents, or accomplishments.

There are many common characteristics when it comes to the manifestation of imposter syndrome. It can manifest as a persistent fear that one will be exposed as a fraud despite all the evidence that points toward their skill and success.

There’s an underlying fear that these secret thoughts will be revealed to the world.

Imposter syndrome can show up as fear of failure or of constructive criticism, and, thus, people experiencing imposter syndrome can struggle to step outside their comfort zone. This can show up as not feeling worthy, intelligent or deserving of success. Imposter syndrome can be one of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of realizing one’s highest potential.

The term was first coined by the clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in the 1970s. This phenomenon was thought to uniquely affect high achievers and successful women.

Recent research, however, has shown that capable people from all walks of life suffer from imposter syndrome.

It’s important to note that imposter syndrome is not a mental disorder or a diagnosis. However people who experience imposter syndrome sometimes report experiencing corresponding mental health issues. Hence, why as a coach, I am a firm believer in the coupling of Therapy and Coaching. See what makes coaching different.

What causes Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is rooted in self-doubt. Research points to various origins of this doubt including both internal and external factors ranging from family upbringing to social pressures throughout life. Personality and fear of failure can also play a contributing role in who imposter syndrome targets.

Our family upbringing informs our belief system and self-worth. Some of these beliefs can be limiting which fuel imposter syndrome further. Regardless of how it came to be a part of you, it’s important to find out how to work with your imposter syndrome so that it fuels you rather than hold you back.

The 5 types of Imposter Syndrome

It’s helpful to know that imposter syndrome can manifest itself in a variety of ways.

An authority on the subject, Dr. Valerie Young, wrote a book on imposter syndrome. In it, she mentioned five specific archetypes of imposter syndrome that can plague people, The five different types of “imposters” are: The Super Person, The Soloist, The Expert, The Natural Genius, and The Perfectionist type.

By taking the time to identify which of the imposter syndrome types you most identify with, you can begin to recognize it for what it is and begin to disarm its power over you.

How to identify the different types of Imposter Syndrome

To help you understand which proportion of each archetype you are and provide you with some practical tools to work with and overcome that part of your imposter syndrome you can take our Imposter Syndrome Quiz. However, I’ve found that many of my clients can instantly recognize their imposter syndrome type by understanding how these archetypes manifest themselves.

woman standing looking down at her laptop

The Perfectionist:

The Perfectionist type is never satisfied and always feels that their work could be better. Rather than focus on their strengths, they tend to fixate on any flaws or mistakes. This often leads to a great deal of self-pressure and high amounts of anxiety.

It’s unsurprising that imposter syndrome and perfectionism are linked.

Is this you? Consider the following:

  • When starting something new, do you feel the need for flawlessness?
  • Have you ever been accused of being a micromanager or needing control?
  • Do others tell you that you’re over-planning or over-preparing for events or meetings?
woman tired and laying her head down on her desk

The Superhero:

The Superhero is the person who sees themselves as inadequate. They place others on a pedestal and often feel compelled to push themselves to work as hard as possible to “catch up” to others.

People who identify with the superhero type believe they need the validation that comes from the need to work harder, not necessarily smarter, without realizing that they are holding themselves to a standard mere mortals cannot possibly achieve.

Not sure if it describes you? Here are some questions to help:

  • At work, do you stay later than everyone else despite finishing the day’s tasks?
  • Despite being qualified for your role, are you convinced you haven’t earned your title?
expert on her computer

The Expert:

These individuals are always trying to learn more and are never satisfied with their level of understanding or knowledge. Even though they are often highly skilled, they underrate their own expertise and feel like they never know enough.

The expert validates their competence based on how much they know. Even if they are an expert in their field, they’re plagued by the fear of not knowing enough and that because of this they will eventually be exposed.

To determine if this is you, answer the following:

  • Do you feel like you don’t know enough about your role, even if you have a lot of experience working in your field?
  • Do you endlessly seek more detail or find yourself hoarding knowledge on your given area of expertise?
  • Do you refuse to apply to job postings unless you check every job requirement?
person working on her laptop

The Natural Genius:

These individuals set excessively lofty goals for themselves, and then feel crushed when they don’t succeed on their first try. They believe they must possess a natural talent and if they fail they are unworthy.

The natural genius is a little like the perfectionist, but the key distinction is that the effort and the speed at which they complete tasks weighs heavily on their self-worth.

In particular, for a natural genius this means acquiring a new skill can be overwhelming, for fear of looking foolish or not being “good enough.”

If they don’t get something right on the first try, they believe something must be wrong with them. Consider the following:

  • Do you avoid certain tasks for fear of failure or looking like a fool?
  • Have you often been regarded as the “Smart one” in the group?
  • Do you believe that you have to have a natural talent to be worthy of respect?
woman focused reading a tablet

The Soloist:

Soloists tend to be very individualistic and prefer to work alone. Their self-worth often stems from their productivity, so they often feel uncomfortable and may outright reject offers of assistance.

They tend to see asking for help as a sign of weakness or incompetence and will not seek advice at any cost. Soloism tends to manifest as a fear of hearing someone say, “If you’re qualified for this position, why would you need help?”

Not sure if this is you? Here’s are some things to ask yourself:

  • Do you often avoid asking for help even if you need it?
  • Does the idea of being completely ‘self-made’ sound like a reasonable goal?

Why does knowing your imposter syndrome type matter?

Knowing how imposter syndrome manifests itself matters because it helps you build self-awareness and better understand how to work with your specific type of imposter syndrome.

Here are some ways you can begin to build up your self-confidence for each of the types of imposter syndrome.

woman looking confused in a mirror

Perfectionists can work on releasing flawlessness

For Perfectionists, I recommend understanding your strengths and focusing on leaning into those parts of yourself.

Being aware of your shortcomings and practicing some self-compassion for these aspects of yourself can help too. No one is perfect and once you can accept that you can learn self-love and acceptance, rather than constantly seeking positive feedback from others.

Superheroes can play more, not just work harder

For Superheroes, I recommend prioritizing play. I know it can be hard when you’re used to operating in this way, but re-prioritizing fun can have tremendous benefits to your mental health. It’s okay to take your work seriously, but try to not take yourself so seriously in the process.

Experts can embrace their existing knowledge

For Experts, I recommend writing down all the things you “do” know. Shifting the focus to what you have versus what you lack can be a huge mindset shift. You’ll surprise yourself at how much you do know. I’ve also found that mentoring others can build your confidence. Get comfortable with failure too because that is how we grow and evolve.

Embrace the process for a Natural Genius

For Natural Geniuses, I recommend implementing a mindset of “little by little everyday as progress.” It is unacceptable to say “don’t compare yourself to others,” but recognize that we are all on a different journey to success.

If you are learning the piano today it would be unreasonable to say you are going to be Mozart tomorrow. Taking the first next logical step and remembering forward movement each day is essential to progress, even if that is one step forward.

Seeking connection as a Soloist

For Soloists, I recommend recognizing that the human experience is all about connection. Humans at our core are social creatures. None of us have all the answers. If you did, would life be that exciting?

When you delegate and/or ask for help, what you are demonstrating is “I care about you and see our relationship as something I value.”

When we ask for help the result is often reciprocity and something better than what we could create on our own. This practice requires relinquishing some control (which as a recovering Soloist I recognize is TERRIFYING), but trust me, it’s worth it!

How to overcome self-doubt and build confidence

To say that we can fully get rid of imposter syndrome would be a fallacy, but I am a firm believer that through self-awareness and a variety of mindset tools, we can all learn to accept our imposter syndrome and make it work for us.

In addition to the recommendations outlined above, I recommend the following tools to add to your toolbox to help you in making your imposter syndrome work for you instead of against you.

woman meditating on the bed

Develop self-care habits to support your mental health

Self-care is a buzzword for a reason, but what does it truly mean? At its core self-care is habits that support us to be our best selves so we can show up in the world.

These daily rituals or routines can come in a variety of forms such as a journaling practice, meditation or a daily walk. At minimum, self-care means getting enough sleep each night.

Consider what you need to be your best each day and carve out the time to prioritize it. Your relationship with yourself, after all, is arguably the most important one you’ll have in your lifetime.

person scrolling through pictures on her phone

(Try to) Stop comparing yourself to others

There’s nothing like looking at the Instagram highlight reel or the Pinterest perfect family to bring up those fraudulent feelings.

We have been conditioned to believe that external validation ties to our self-worth. We feel shame when we compare ourselves to the false reality others strive to portray online.

The reality is this is NOT reality.

It’s never all good or all bad. Once you can accept that as truth and understand that your journey is unique and beautiful in its own right, you’ll be on the path to radically accepting yourself for all your imperfections.

Practice positive self -talk

The way we speak to ourselves matters. Our thought process informs our feelings which drive our actions. When we speak negatively towards ourselves it shapes our reality.

The number one way we can understand how we talk to ourselves is by simply becoming more aware of our thought process and our negative thought patterns.

I know journaling isn’t for everyone, but even if you can answer quickly in the morning “How am I today?” or “What am I feeling today?” can be a great way to track these thought patterns.

Once we know the thought pattern, it can become easier to understand how to reframe it.

Take it one step further

Understanding and working with your imposter syndrome is a journey that takes constant work. There isn’t a magic wand to make your imposter syndrome disappear.

To learn more about how to make your imposter syndrome work for you and expand your toolbox, you can sign up for our Quit Your Imposter Syndrome course here.

Don’t underestimate the value of an outside perspective of a coach and having someone to hold you accountable. It can be hard to make a big change on your own.

If you’re feeling stuck or just have some questions, sign up for a coaching membership here.

Not sure how coaching can help? Book some time with one of our Relationship Strategists. It’s a 30-minute free no-pressure call where we’ll learn more about your unique situation and match you with the right coach for you.

Remember, don’t be hard on yourself. Understanding yourself is an ongoing process. Make sure you’re celebrating the wins. You are worth it!

Related Articles

In today’s competitive job market, mastering the art of managing up is essential for career advancement and success. But what exactly does it mean to manage up? And how can individuals navigate this skill to thrive in their professional lives? Understanding why managing up is hard can shed light on the intricacies involved in fostering […]

Read More

Can you relate? You’re right out of high school or college, you’ve got the whole world ahead of you, you’re daydreaming about your new career and feel like you have a myriad of career choices in front of you. It feels all lined up, everything is in place, there’s a plan. And then life happens […]

Read More
women networking

Does the idea of working to develop strong networking skills make you feel uncomfortable? Many people react to the idea of going to a networking event with as much enthusiasm as taking a test – a test that they don’t know how to study for. And when you approach networking as if you’re a product […]

Read More