Imposter syndrome: the secret fears of high achievers

If you’re part of the estimated global 70% who experience imposter syndrome at some point in life, the persistent feeling that you’re not as good in your career as other people think you are has nothing to do with skill level or competence, but the impossibly high standards you’ve set for yourself.

As more high-profile people speak up about their own feelings of inadequacy in the face of soaring success, more are beginning to realise the impact of this phenomenon. What’s more, it can be especially damaging in the workplace and can affect men and women differently.

According to a report of over 3,000 adults in the UK, crippling self-doubt associated with imposter syndrome affected a massive 62% of people at work in the last 12 months. This includes over two-thirds of women at 66% and over half of men at 56%.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is intense self-doubt around one’s own success. A persistent feeling that you are a fraud just waiting to be caught out, that your accomplishments are not valid or deserved, and that you are not as competent as other people seem to think you are.

People experiencing sporadic or prolonged periods of imposter syndrome often ascribe successes to dumb luck rather than skilled work and are often left feeling deeply inadequate despite tangible evidence that they are capable, valued, and even highly successful.

Professionals dealing with these feelings tend to already be top achievers who set the bar impossibly high. With a strong lean towards being perfectionists and over workers, those suffering from imposter syndrome are likely to self-criticise, find asking for help or therapy extremely difficult and often overanalyse their competence, believing they are inexperienced or lack knowledge in their field.

What causes imposter syndrome at work?

Imposter syndrome can seriously impact career progression and cause negativity at work. When surveyed on the reasons for experiencing crippling self-doubt in the workplace, these were the top four causes according to the survey of UK adults:

  • 38% – self-generated self-doubt
  • 23% – being criticised
  • 20% – having to ask for help
  • 16% – self-comparisons to high achieving colleagues

It’s not just employees who are impacted, with one in five small business owners admitting to suffering from imposter syndrome and being convinced someone else could do a better job of running their business.

Why do so many women experience self-doubt?

The number of women-owned firms has increased over the last 20 years and continues to do so. Despite the growing number of female entrepreneurs and major global progress towards gender equality in the workplace, more and more successful women are speaking out about the burden of imposter syndrome.

Two-thirds of women suffer from it in the UK. While men also suffer from the same kinds of anxieties and stress at work, research suggests around 10% less suffer from feelings of inadequacy.

Despite evidence of success, women experiencing this paralysing self-doubt are more likely to believe they are intellectual frauds. This level of stress – waiting to be found out by peers – can lead to anxiety, burnout, and increased unhappiness among everyone from entrepreneurs to employees moving up the ladder.

When considering why women sometimes experience imposter syndrome at a higher rate than men, factors like workplace inequality and the pay gap may come into play.

Statistics from YouGov show challenges still exist. When asked whether they have had the opportunity to lead on a project at work, 44% of women said yes, compared to 59% of men. Women are also less likely to have experienced a pay rise or a bonus not connected to a promotion, at only 40% compared to 53% of men. In addition, women say they are also more likely to be asked about their personal lives compared to men.

Conditions like these are major contributors to feelings of imposter syndrome and one of the reasons why women in all roles can be vulnerable to it in the workplace.

UK industries with the highest percentage of self-doubters

Imposter syndrome is more prolific in some industries compared to others. The same study of over 3,000 UK adults revealed industries in which employees have experienced intense feelings of self-doubt in the last 12 months.


  • 87% – Creative arts and design
  • 79% – Environment and agriculture
  • 79% – Information research and analysis
  • 74% – Law
  • 73% – Media and internet


  • 45% – Leisure, sport, and tourism
  • 54% – Property and construction
  • 55% – Engineering and manufacturing
  • 55% – Insurance
  • 57% – Retail

Tech sector rife with imposter syndrome

Another informal study of over 10,000 people by a US-based company, highlighted the significant pressure experienced by professionals in tech-focused careers, with 58% admitting to dealing with feelings around imposter syndrome in companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Uber, and more.

According to the study, a high number of employees suffer from imposter syndrome at tech companies Expedia, Salesforce, and Amazon at 73%, 67%, and 64% respectively. On the flip side, a smaller percentage of employees at Apple (45%), Cisco (47%), and eBay (50%) experience self-doubt.

Beating imposter syndrome

Even though so many people have experienced imposter syndrome, the good news is that it’s not a permanent condition but rather a reaction to a set of circumstances, unrealistic self-expectation, and stress. Some of the most popular suggestions on ways to turn it around include the following:

Accept praise and know your worth: don’t shy away from praise and compliments. Accept your achievements and if need be, write them down. When you try to talk yourself out of feeling confident in your role, all the proof is on paper. Knowing your worth means allowing your work to speak for itself and letting others see it too.

Stop thinking like an imposter: learn to recognise self-defeating thought patterns and replace them with more positive affirmations. The only way to stop feeling like an imposter is to stop thinking of yourself as one.

Don’t seek perfection: stop believing that if you don’t excel at every facet of your job that you’re a failure at all of it. Facing challenges and losses is a key part of growth, so recognise that you don’t have to be good at everything.

Know you are not alone: imposter syndrome tends to be the domain of overachievers, while underachievers tend to internalise less when faced with failure. If you’re constantly worried about not being good enough, chances are you’re in good company – most successful people constantly overanalyse themselves.

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