Imposter Syndrome: What’s Up With the Internal Fam?

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Assessing Imposter Syndrome through an Internal Family Systems (IFS) Lens

Thanks to WELCOA’s insightful article Can We (Please) Move Beyond Imposter Syndrome?, I have revisited and updated this post. The article helped shed light on the complex nature of Imposter Phenomenon, initially identified in a 1978 study focusing on high-achieving women. It emphasizes that the cultural context, including issues of bias and discrimination of that time, has evolved, and modern interpretations must consider these shifts rather than focusing on individual blame. A special thanks to WELCOA and Meghna Majmudar for their wisdom on this subject. Meghna, an Executive Coach with 25 years of experience, has an impressive background, supporting leaders who are often the “first” or “only” in their professional domain, and holds degrees from Harvard, the University of Cape Town, and UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. 🌟

Imposter Syndrome involves an internal struggle where individuals doubt their achievements and fear being exposed as frauds despite evidence of their competence. The Internal Family Systems (IFS) approach by Richard Schwartz, PhD can offer us a unique lens to comprehend and address this phenomenon. As Richard Schwartz, PhD says: “the mind is not a singular entity or self, but is multiple, composed of parts.” There are no bad parts. All parts have helpful intentions (intent to help the system). Collectively these parts make up an inner fam, hence: Internal Family Systems. There is also a “part that’s not a part,” which IFS calls Self. This is our true, core essence. When we show up with a lot of Self Energy in the system, we see qualities like compassion, calm, etc (see below):

The clamor of parts can block out Self Energy. One of the goals of IFS is to have inner harmony: parts that are led by Self. Lots of Self Energy.

Understanding the Potential Roles Parts Involved in Imposter Syndrome

Within the IFS framework, Imposter Syndrome is a result of intricate interplays among distinct parts, categorized as exiles, managers, and firefighters. These parts contribute to the complex dance of self-doubt, insecurity, and fear.

Below you will see an intro to the different roles our parts sometimes take on. I will explain the roles using the example of Imposter Syndrome.

Exiles: Exiles carry the pain of past traumas and experiences. While they helpfully hold the pain and wounds, their presence is often concealed by other protective parts. Exiles play a pivotal role in triggering the self-doubt and inadequacy associated with Imposter Syndrome. Their unearthing and healing are integral to overcoming these feelings.

Managers: Managers are proactive protectors operating to keep emotional pain at bay by banishing exiles. They set high standards, strive for perfection, and employ control mechanisms to avoid potential failures. Their intention is to ensure safety and prevent exposure to vulnerabilities, even though these efforts can paradoxically amplify Imposter Syndrome.

Firefighters: Firefighters are reactive protectors that work to extinguish emotional fires, employing strategies like overworking, procrastination, and impulsive behaviors. Their actions are often aimed at providing temporary relief from feelings of self-doubt. While their intent is to mitigate distress, their behaviors can inadvertently perpetuate the cycle of Imposter Syndrome.

Healing and Self-Compassion through IFS

The IFS model offers a path to address Imposter Syndrome by understanding and being compassionate with these parts. By fostering dialogue and harmony among them, individuals can cultivate self-compassion and self-awareness. IFS Therapy guides the journey, which in part allows parts to drop their burdens — the extreme roles they took on in past situations. These extreme roles were necessary at one time, but now they might not be so helpful (though the helpful intent is still there). IFS always seeks permission from the whole inner fam. The strategy is to first get to know and then unburden the protector parts. When unburdened, these parts can release the heavy responsibilities they’ve carried and transition into more beneficial roles. With time and permission, IFS works to heal the wounds that the exiles carry. As a result, these parts can gradually return to their innately beautiful and authentic childlike roles, restoring a sense of wholeness, well-being, and inner harmony to the individual’s inner world.

Below I am outlining parts that may be involved in Imposter Syndrome. In the Resources section at the bottom, I am linking to an IFS mediation (to help meet your parts). I also recommend checking out this article, as it is chock full of resources. Part of the beauty of IFS is that you get to name your own parts. The list below is just to give you an idea of what wounds may be involved and what protector parts might be doing (proactively and reactively).


  1. Inadequacy Exile:
    • Role: Holds feelings of not being good enough or capable.
    • Holds wounds of: Feeling inadequate and unworthy, including feeling inadequate due to external validation being denied based on gender, race, or other factors.
    • Event(s): Previous experiences of not meeting expectations or receiving criticism; Experiences of being undermined or not taken seriously due to one’s identity.
  2. Failure Exile:
    • Role: Carries past memories of failures or mistakes that contribute to self-doubt.
    • Holds wounds of: Painful memories of failures and mistakes.
    • Event(s): Past instances of not achieving desired outcomes or making errors
  3. Rejection Exile:
    • Role: Holds fears of rejection or not being accepted by others.
    • Holds wounds of: Emotional pain from feeling rejected and isolated (e.g. being left out of childhood games, being met with parental indifference when emotional support was needed, being treated unfairly or being targeted based on one’s identity, etc)
    • Event(s): Instances of being excluded, criticized, or not receiving validation; Encountering bias or discrimination that leads to exclusion, isolation, and/or being ostracized or overlooked.
  4. Unworthiness Exile:
    • Role: Carries beliefs of not deserving success or recognition.
    • Holds wounds of: Deep-seated feelings of unworthiness; Feeling unworthy of opportunities and recognition due to being overlooked or undervalued based on identity.
    • Event(s): Past experiences that led to feelings of being undeserving or not good enough, including experiencing bias that communicates that one’s accomplishments are less valued due to identity factors; Facing bias that undermines one’s sense of worth and contribution.

Managers: Proactive Protectors

  1. High Standards Manager:
    • Role: Sets excessively high expectations to achieve success.
    • Helpful Intent: Proactively protects by motivating achievement and pushing for excellence to gain recognition and avoid criticism.
  2. Comparison Manager:
    • Role: Compares achievements to others, leading to feelings of not measuring up.
    • Helpful Intent: Proactively protects by driving improvement and pushing to excel to prove competence and worthiness.
  3. Control Manager:
    • Role: Tries to manage every detail to avoid potential failure.
    • Helpful Intent: Proactively protects by preventing unforeseen challenges and minimizing risk to safeguard against perceived inadequacy.
  4. Self-Sufficiency Manager:
    • Role: Believes she must handle everything independently to prove competence.
    • Helpful Intent: Proactively protects by ensuring self-reliance to minimize the need for external validation and support.

Firefighters: Reactive Protectors

  1. Overwork Firefighter:
    • Role: Engages in excessive work to distract from feelings of inadequacy.
    • Helpful Intent: Reactively protects by providing a sense of accomplishment and worth through productivity while avoiding facing self-doubt.
  2. Procrastinator:
    • Role: Delays tasks to avoid the possibility of failure.
    • Helpful Intent: Reactively protects by preventing immediate exposure to situations that could trigger self-doubt or criticism.
  3. Deflection Firefighter:
    • Role: Shifts focus from feelings of inadequacy by criticizing or blaming others.
    • Helpful Intent: Reactively protects by defending against feelings of vulnerability and inadequacy through redirecting attention.
  4. Impulsive Behavior Firefighter:
    • Role: Engages in impulsive behaviors to numb or distract from self-doubt.
    • Helpful Intent: Reactively protects by providing temporary relief from distressing emotions by replacing them with excitement or urgency.