There are five different types of imposter syndrome, so here’s how to identify (and challenge) yours

In her 2011 book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Dr Valerie Young, co-founder of the Imposter Syndrome Institute, categorised people who experience imposter syndrome into five main groups. 

According to Dr Young, the five kinds of imposter syndrome personalities are:

1. The perfectionist
2. The natural genius
3. The rugged individualist
4. The expert
5. The superhero

While they have a great deal in common, each of these groups experiences the phenomenon in a slightly different way and will require slightly different methods to overcome the impact of imposter syndrome on their lives. In the next few pages, we’ll outline the five types of “imposters” and explain how to tailor your approach to suit your own type.

Type 1: The Perfectionist

Perfectionism” is often listed as a key indicator of imposter syndrome, so it’s common that people who experience one also experience the other. In her book, Dr Valerie Young explains that perfectionists typically set very high expectations for themselves and that even if they meet 99% of those goals, a small loss will feel like a large failure. When mistakes happen, perfectionists question their core competence, which can easily translate to feelings of imposter syndrome.

What to do if this is you:

The most important approach for this group is to learn to accept your mistakes or to see them as an inevitable part of larger successes. Try tuning in to the podcast How to Fail with Elizabeth Day, a series that interviews celebrities on their three biggest “failures” and in turn explains how they were crucial to the success they’ve achieved today. Celebrating your achievements is also key to maintaining perspective and avoiding emotional burnout.

Type 2: The Natural Genius

The “natural genius” has been top of the class for as long as they can remember, and in their school days, success came relatively easily. As they grow and mature, however, they are bound to encounter scenarios where achievement doesn’t present itself as second nature, and hard work or struggle is required for their desired results. As they aren’t used to this, natural geniuses tend to suffer from imposter syndrome, feeling that the struggle to meet their goals is a sign that they lack ability and aren’t “good enough.”

What to do if this is you:

Natural geniuses should focus on seeing themselves as a “work in progress”. Think about people with skills you admire and consider the journey they have undertaken to get to where they are now. Talented musicians, for example, once picked up an instrument and were unable to play a note. Challenge yourself to practise the kind of skills you don’t master immediately, rather than labelling them as something you simply “can’t do.” Do you know people who excel in that area? Ask them about their early struggles, or about the ways in which they improved their skills. You’ll soon realize that everybody begins somewhere, and that the journey to proficiency is to be applauded just as much as the end result.

Type 3: The Rugged Individualist

Does asking for help trigger your imposter syndrome? Do you struggle to see something as a success unless you have achieved it by yourself? You’re most likely a “rugged individualist”. These kinds of “imposters” struggle to reach out when they need assistance, as they feel getting help with a task invalidates their contribution or shows that their own skillset is in some way lacking.
Knowing when to ask for help is a vital skill, not only in work but in life too. Asking for help is never a weakness – in fact, knowing ourselves well enough to understand when help is required can be one of our greatest strengths. It’s far more efficient, after all, to ask for help with a task than it is to spend twice as long struggling through by ourselves.