There is no single answer for where imposter syndrome comes from. Some experts believe it has to do with personality traits, like anxiety or neuroticism, while others emphasize external factors, such as environment or institutionalized discrimination.
Women are one example of a demographic that have consistently faced institutionalized discrimination. As women shifted from traditional household roles to the workforce, overcoming the mental glass ceiling came with imposter syndrome. Having been socialized to believe the high-achieving workforce is for men, women can often feel their success is due to luck or circumstance, or fake in comparison. Social beliefs that “only men” can do certain things fuel feelings of imposter syndrome.
Psychologist Eleanor Maccoby wrote, “Suppose a girl does succeed in maintaining, throughout her childhood years, the qualities of dominance, independence, and active striving that appear to be requisites for good analytic thinking. In so doing, she is defying the conventions concerning what is appropriate behavior for her sex…It is a rare intellectual woman who will not have paid a price for it: a price in anxiety.”
According to THNK leadership coaches Ien van Duijnhoven and Paul van ‘t Veld, imposter syndrome stems from fear. Ien says, “it often comes from childhood, where you didn’t learn to develop your own inner compass. So, you start looking at yourself from the eyes of others. Most of the time, you are less than them, so you become very insecure and anxious, waiting for somebody to say, ‘Yes, you are worthless.’ In the meantime, you are saying this to yourself.”
Indeed, research has shown that there are certain factors during childhood that increase the risk of imposter syndrome, including growing up with a gifted sibling (if your sibling is considered exceptional, you might develop feelings of inadequacy) and being labeled “the clever one” (children who are taught that they are superior in intelligence, appearance, or talent can develop imposter syndrome when they struggle to achieve something).