The impostor syndrome (also spelled imposter syndrome), sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
The term "impostor syndrome" first appeared in an article written by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes who observed many high-achieving women tended to believe they were not intelligent, and that they were over-evaluated by others.
The impostor syndrome tends to be studied as a reaction to certain stimuli and events. It is not perceived to be a mental disorder among people, but it has been the topic of research for many psychologists. Though traditionally perceived as an ingrained personality trait, impostor syndrome has more recently been studied as a reaction to certain situations. Under this pretense, it is a response, experienced by many different people, to situations that prompt such feelings. Though certain people are more prone to impostor feelings, experience them more intensely than most, and can be identified through the use of personality scales, evidence does not support impostor syndrome to be a distinct personality trait.
Psychological research done in the early 1980s estimated that two out of five successful people consider themselves frauds and other studies have found that 70 percent of all people feel like impostors at one time or another. It is not considered a psychological disorder, and is not among the conditions described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The term was coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978.
People who have reportedly experienced the syndrome include screenwriter Chuck Lorre, best-seller writer Neil Gaiman, comedian Tommy Cooper, business leader Sheryl Sandberg, US Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, and actress Emma Watson.
Even Albert Einstein suffered from the syndrome near the end of his life. A month before his death, he reportedly confided in a friend: "the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler."
The impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving men and women. Another demographic group that often suffers from this phenomenon is African Americans. Being the beneficiary of affirmative action may cause a person who belongs to a visible minority to doubt their own abilities and suspect that their skills were not what allowed them to be hired. Impostor syndrome has been commonly reported by graduate students and scientists beginning tenure track positions.
The most effective technique to overcome impostor syndrome is to simply recognize that it exists.
A technique in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy looks at the thought processes to find out why the sufferer admires success or brilliance. Certain assumptions need to be overcome to help with the problem, such as the tendency to assume that making a single mistake reflects on one's abilities. The goal of this approach is to help the person actively recognize and avoid negative or destructive thoughts. Theoretically, once the person is able to recognize these thoughts, he or she can learn how to match the thoughts with reality and become aware of flaws in their thinking.
Coherence Therapy assumes that there is a non-conscious, emotional-learning which requires the person to act and respond with certain behaviors, moods, feelings or beliefs. Different to more cognitive approaches, this therapy assumes that our deepest learnings are held in the sub-limbic, right hemispheric, and emotional centers of the brain, unavailable to talk-therapies and rational counter-active measures. Only once the unique, deeper sense-making of the individual can be mismatched with their usual way of knowing through experiential juxtapositions, can the associations be erased and the compelling requirements to keep ‘out of sight’ or ‘fearful to be found out’ or ‘ just lucky to be here’ can be dissolved. This also aligns with Jean Piaget's notion of 'accommodation' in his developmental processes in the qualitative development of knowledge.
Writing therapy allows the person to organize their thoughts through writing. Using this method, once the person is able to see their accomplishments, as opposed to interpreting them internally, they may be able to associate them with reality. The text can also be used as a reminder of one's accomplishments at a later time. Workshops aim to dissolve the sense of inadequacy.
- Clance, Pauline R.; Imes, Suzanne A. (1978). "The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention" (PDF). Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice 15 (3): 241–247.
- McElwee, Rory O'Brien; Yurak, Tricia J. (5 October 2012). "The Phenomenology Of The Impostor Phenomenon". Individual Differences Research. Social Sciences Full Text (H.W. Wilson) 8 (3): 184–197.
- High achievers suffering from imposter syndrome News.com Dec 10 2013
- Neil Gaiman's commencement speech to the University of the arts graduating class of 2012 Philadelphia
- Always leave them laughing (biography of Tommy Cooper) Fisher, John 2007
- Women who feel like frauds Forbes October 2011
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- The Impostor Syndrome
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- Overcoming my Biggest Roadblock, Myself, presented at the Women in Advanced Computing 2012 conference
- Caltech Counseling Center
- Julie Pagano, Pycon 2014 presentation It's Dangerous to Go Alone: Battling the Invisible Monsters in Tech