Impostor syndrome is the name given to a psychological pattern of thinking, characterised by persistent feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt and fears of being exposed as a fraud. Individuals who feel like impostors typically downplay their own achievements, think their successes in life are down to luck and chance, and have difficulty accepting compliments and praise. Impostor feelings affect people from all walks of life – but do the British public experience them?
Britons tend to have high expectations for themselves, criticise themselves more than others criticise them, and downplay their own achievements
Across seven common signs of impostor syndrome we asked about, most Britons seem to experience four: difficulty accepting compliments and praise, high expectations of themselves, criticising themselves more than others criticise them, and downplaying their own achievements in front of other people.
Two-thirds of Britons (66%) say they have difficulty accepting compliments and praise from other people, including 16% who find it ‘very difficult’. Women are significantly more likely than men to say they find this hard – 72% of women say they have trouble accepting compliments, compared to 59% of men.
Six in 10 Britons (58%) say have high expectations of themselves, including one in six (18%) who say they have ‘very high’ expectations of themselves. Britons from different social groups have different expectations of themselves – two-thirds of Britons from the ABC1 social group (65%) say they have high expectations of themselves, including 21% who have ‘very high’ expectations, compared to half of those from the C2DE social group (49%).
Six in 10 Britons (57%) say they criticise themselves more than other people criticise them, with just 5% who feel like other people criticise them more, and 15% the same. Women are more likely than men to say they criticise themselves more than other people criticise them, by 62% to 51%.
A majority of Britons (56%) also say that they tend to downplay their achievements when they speak about them to other people. Just 6% say they exaggerate their achievements when they talk to other people, while 30% say they neither exaggerate nor downplay their successes.
Fewer Britons identify with other signs of impostor syndrome, however. People with impostor syndrome tend to think that others overestimate their capability and capacity, and worry that they will be ‘exposed’ as being less capable. A third of Britons (34%) say people think they are more capable than they are, while 21% say people underestimate their capability, and 23% say neither.
Similarly, just 20% of Britons think their peers are more intelligent than they are – something common to those who frequently feel like impostors. A quarter (26%) say their peers are less smart than them, while 35% say they are neither more nor less intelligent. Men are considerably more likely to see themselves as being of higher intelligence to the people around them – 32% of men say their peers are less intelligent than them, compared to 21% of women.
Finally, just 13% of Britons think the majority or more of their successes have been down to luck– a typical concern among those who feel like they are undeserving of their achievements. Older Britons are much more likely than younger ones to say that their successes in life have not been down to good fortune, with 43% of those aged 55 and older saying not very many, or none, of their successes have been down to luck or chance, compared to just 26% of 18 to 24-year-olds.
Across the seven common signs of impostor syndrome asked about in this section of our survey, most Britons display at least three out of seven signs of impostor syndrome (65%), with one in three Britons (29%) displaying one or two. Hardly any of the public (3%) identified with six or more of the seven traits.
The ‘Soloist’, the ‘Perfectionist’, and the ‘Superman’: what impostor syndrome archetypes do Britons identify with?
We also put five statements, corresponding to five common archetypes of impostor syndrome, to the British public, and asked if they felt like the statements applied to them.
Half of Britons (47%) say they would prefer to struggle alone rather than ask for help – a characteristic of a ‘soloist’, or someone who believes that asking for help is a sign of weakness or failure.
Approaching half of Britons (47%) identify with a common worry of a ‘superman’ or ‘superwoman’, and say they feel stressed when they are not succeeding in every aspect of their lives. There are considerable age differences – over half of 18-24 year olds (58%) say they feel stressed when they don’t succeed, compared to just a quarter of over-55s (25%).
Three in 10 Britons (31%) say they wouldn’t speak up and ask a question, because they are afraid of looking unintelligent if they don’t already know the answer. Again, age is a factor, with young people (46% of 18-24 year olds) being far more likely to identify with this than older Britons (25% of those aged 55 and above).
Perfectionism is a less common trait among Britons, with a quarter (24%) of Britons saying they feel like a failure even if they meet 99% of their goals. Young Britons are more likely to be ‘perfectionists’ than older Britons, with a third (35%) of 18 to 24-year-olds identifying with this, falling to 14% of over 55s.
Finally, just 22% of Britons identify with the feelings of a ‘natural genius’ – feeling “not good enough” if you have to work hard to accomplish something. As before, this is more common among 18 to 24-year-olds (35%) than those who are 55 or older (14%).
When it comes to the archetypical impostor syndrome statements in this section of the survey, around half of Britons identify with two or more (47%). Some 23% identified three or four statements as applying to them, and 5% said all five applied. One in five (19%) said none of the statements applied.
See full results here