Imposter Syndrome Part 1 – Types of Imposters

It is time for our 2nd ever weekly blog for Nautilus Counseling!  This week, I thought it would be appropriate to focus on something that I am personally encountering as I plan to welcome new clients in the coming months – imposter syndrome. 

Imposter syndrome, also sometimes called “the imposter phenomenon” since it is not a true psychiatric diagnosis, is the experience of qualified individuals feeling unprepared or incompetent in their own subject area. This experience is widespread and found in all professional fields including healthcare, academia, management, creative arts, and technology.

This will be part one of a two-part series on this topic.  This week, we will look at the individual influences of imposter syndrome whereas next week we will look at the structural and organizational influences that perpetuate this phenomena.  

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While I believe that imposter syndrome is a symptom of the disease called inequity (more on this next week), I would like to outline several different types of imposter syndrome as described by Dr. Valerie Young.  Each of the types below is distinguished by its views on competence.  

  • The Perfectionist is primarily concerned with how something is done, specifically that it is done in the “right” way.  This can sometimes lead to micromanaging, or the opposite: withdrawing for fear of not delivering an A+ product or not doing everything correctly.  Often, even successes are underwhelming because they could have been done better.
  • The Natural Genius is convinced that anything worth doing should come easily, and that success should come effortlessly.  They have a very low tolerance for learning curves or being a novice.  
  • The Expert defines competence by how much knowledge or skill a person has.  While they often underestimate their own educational achievements, the confidence of an expert is blown if they do not know the answer to an obscure question.  These individuals may pursue additional degrees or training, far beyond what is required in their role.
  • The Soloist’s characteristics may be guessed by its name – these folks are adamant that competence is achieved independently, without assistance.  For soloists, any group successes do not count.  The soloist would rather exhaust themself or give up before asking for help. 
  • The Superperson (adapted from Young’s Superman/woman/student) aims to take on as many roles as possible to prove competence.  Superpeople are often superwomen who juggle multiple roles in their workplaces, families, and social circles.  They view themselves as inadequate when their many life demands catch up.   

To determine which subtype you may embody, you can ask yourself fill-in-the-blank questions like “An individual is qualified to ____  when  ___”, “I can trust that I’m competent at something if  ___”, and “I should always ___ in my pursuits”.  

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Whatever comes up for you, consider creating an affirmation for its antithesis.  If you are an Expert type and define competence by knowing ALL of the related information, you could try something like “Knowledge is a journey with no end”.  If you are a Superperson, an affirmation could be “I am deserving of rest” or “It’s okay to say ‘no’”. Natural Geniuses can benefit from reminding themselves “every great accomplishment takes work and effort”.

Identifying your “imposter” type is just one step towards the self-awareness needed to combat imposter syndrome.  Tune in next week for more information on how imposter syndrome is perpetuated by systemic inequities, and some ideas to counter that as well!

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