Let us talk about imposter syndrome / complex

Female college student sitting outside in park studying

Psychologically speaking, the imposter syndrome is a manifestation of Alfred Adler’s (1870/1937) inferiority complex. There are several definitions of a psychological complex, however, for the purpose of this writing, we will look at it with a Jungian, depth-psychological eye.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines complexes as a group or system of related ideas or impulses that have a common emotional tone and exert a strong but usually unconscious influence on the individual’s attitudes and behavior.

For Carl Jung (1875/1961), complexes are unconsciously organized sets of feeling tone ideas, memories, associations, fantasies, expectations and behavior patterns or tendencies around a core element, {core belief}, accompanied by strong emotions or big emotions. Complexes can also be described as a splinter personality or independent beings which, as an organized entity, has its own autonomy from the ego, the center of the personality.

It is important to note that complexes are often formed out of early developmental experiences which have a problematic or traumatic character circling around some unresolved need, topic, or desire. As there are ongoing movements around the unresolved areas of needs, topics, or desires, complexes can be triggered in later life by structurally, environmentally, or behaviorally similar cues, in life and work situations or in romantic and social relationships.

When triggered, the complex is constellated and takes hold of the ego, which is the central regulating function of the personality. This is accompanied by strong and irrational emotions, and typical behavior patterns influenced by the specific complex.

For example, when the complex is at work, it has a strong impact on the state of mind, and the individual under its control, feels and behaves differently, and more often, strongly irrational, compared to his/her/they regular or baseline functioning.

We must remember the critical facts here, the imposter syndrome is a complex about the individual’s self-concept and perception of his/her/they value and self-worth, real or imagined. The imposter syndrome can block, repress, or deny our creative life force and libidinal energy due to the unconscious movements of unresolved needs, topics, or desires.

When the imposter complex is constellated, one may have distorted and obsessive thoughts of being discovered as a fraud, a con, unskilled, or uneducated to perform at one’s level. The complex may activate strong feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, uncertainty, guilt, shame, and self-doubt that may result in self-questioning of one’s skills, abilities, and talents. The imposter syndrome has an uprooting quality, leaving us feeling ungrounded and disheveled.

Research shows that the imposter syndrome can present a significant challenge for many people in high profile positions in academia, art, music and the creative industry, business, and corporate spaces. However, anyone, regardless of social status, experience, or expertise, can feel like an imposter.

As previously outlined, complexes are unconscious, splinter personalities that may manifest in us unexpectedly and at pivotal moments in our careers or social life. The imposter complex makes us believe we are unworthy, and undeserving of our success, or accomplishment. It increases anxiety and stress, and may often lead to burnout and self-sabotaging behaviors.

One useful way to manage imposter syndrome is to recognize what is happening, take a moment to slow down or stop, and ground yourself in the observable facts. These facts are:

  1. You have successfully completed or obtained the relevant education, training or certification, skills or expertise that empower you to function in your current role or position.
  2. You have unresolved early developmental movements around unmet needs, or desires.
  3. You are being triggered by specific or significant environmental or behavioral cues.
  4. The imposter complex is consulated.

Breath, refresh the ego with cool water, or fresh air. Replace these negative thoughts and core beliefs with positive affirmations that reinforce and ground you in your abilities and strengths.

Another helpful method is to acknowledge to yourself that these thoughts and feelings are unhelpful, ungrounded in reality and have an energy depleting quality, linked to unresolved needs, topics, or desires.

For a deeper understanding of the imposter complex and to build a strong healthy ego response to it, seek the support of a licensed mental health professional and collaborate with them to explore those unresolved unconscious movements.


Roesler, C. (2017). Complex (Jung). In: Zeigler-Hill, V., Shackelford, T. (eds) Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_575-1

Retrieved on 2-27-23 from: https://pacifica.libguides.com/Jung/complex

Retrieved on 2-27-23 from:https://www.medicinenet.com/what_are_the_different_complexes/article.htm

Retrieved on 2-27-23 from: https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_575-1