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The impostor 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 females 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.
The impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women, but there is some evidence it occurs in a comparable number of men. Another demographic associated with this phenomenon is African Americans. Affirmative action may cause a 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.
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Success may more likely be attributed to internal factors for men but external factors for women. Men often cite external factors when describing their failures while women cite internal factors. Women more often believe their successes and failures directly reflect upon their female peers. Females believe that they are being watched more closely than their male co-workers. This begins in early childhood; boys tend to blame things that are outside of their control when things don't happen accordingly (e.g. there wasn't enough time to answer the question, the other team had an advantage) while girls tend to blame themselves (e.g. I'm inadequate).
The most effective technique to overcome impostor syndrome is to simply recognize that it exists.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: This approach involves the idea that a person refuses to acknowledge their own worth or accomplishments, and looks at the thought processes to find out why he or she 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 his or her thinking.
Writing therapy allows the person to organize his or her thoughts through writing. According to this method, once the person is able to see their accomplishments, as opposed to interpreting them internally, they will associate these accomplishments 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". Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice.
- 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.
- Langford, P.; Clance, P. R. (1993). "Impostor Phenomenon: Recent Research Findings Regarding Dynamics, Personality and Family Patterns and their Implications for Treatment". Pschotherapy 30 (3): 495–501. doi:10.1037/0033-3184.108.40.2065.
- Vera, Elizabeth M.; Vasquez, Veronica; Corona, Rebecca (2006). "Women of Color". In Yo Jackson. Encyclopaedia of Multicultural Psychology. SAGE knowledge. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. pp. 475–80. Web. 1 October 2012.
- Laursen, Lucas. "No, You're Not an Impostor". Science Careers. Web. 23 Oct. 2013.
- Moore, Lynda L. (1986). Not As Far As You Think: The Realities of Working Women. Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books.
- Clance, Pauline Rose. "Impostor Phenomenon"
- "Feeling like a fraud". YorkU (alumni magazine) (York University): 9. October 2006
- The Impostor Syndrome
- Impostor syndrome BBC Radio 4, Woman's Hour, 15 Feb 2006
- Pauline Clance's Impostor Phenomenon Reference List
- Overcoming my Biggest Roadblock, Myself, presented at the Women in Advanced Computing 2012 conference
- Caltech Counseling Center