Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments, and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud". Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds, and do not deserve all they have achieved. Individuals with impostorism attribute their success to luck, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent than they perceive themselves to be. While early research focused on the prevalence among high-achieving women, impostor syndrome has been recognized to affect both men and women equally. Impostor phenomenon is not a mental disorder, yet there is research describing various management styles for this internal experience.
The term impostor phenomenon was introduced in 1978 in the article "The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention" by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes. Clance and Imes defined impostor phenomenon as an individual experience of self-perceived intellectual phoniness (fraud). The researchers investigated the prevalence of this internal experience by interviewing a sample of 150 high-achieving women. All of the participants had been formally recognized for their professional excellence by colleagues, and academic achievements by degrees earned, and top ranking scores on standardized testing. Despite the consistent evidence of external validation, these women lacked the internal acknowledgement of their accomplishments. The participants explained how their success was a result of luck, and others simply overestimating their intelligence and abilities. Clance and Imes believed that this mental framework for impostor phenomenon developed from factors such as: gender stereotypes, early family dynamics, culture, and attribution style. The researchers determined that the women who experienced impostor phenomenon showcased symptoms related to depression, generalized anxiety, and low self-confidence.
Clance and Imes stated in their 1978 article that, based on their clinical experience, impostor phenomenon was less prevalent in men. They noted that further research was necessary to determine the effects impostor phenomenon has on men. Following the publication in 1978, more research has determined that this experience occurs in demographics outside of just high-achieving, successful women.
In more current research, impostor phenomenon is studied as a reaction to particular stimuli and events. It is a phenomenon (an experience) that occurs in an individual, not a mental disorder. Impostor phenomenon is not recognized in the DSM or ICD. Yet, studies have shown that individuals who experience this phenomenon have often been diagnosed with a mental disorder(s) as well. Examples of these mental disorders include depression and anxiety, although no clear connection between impostor phenomenon and these other disorders has yet been established.
- "I must not fail"
- "I feel like a fake"
- "I just got lucky"
Measuring impostor phenomenon
The first scale designated to measure characteristics of impostor phenomenon was designed by Clance in 1985, called the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale (CIP). The scale can be utilized to determine if characteristics of fear are present, and to what extent. The aspects of fear include: fear of evaluation, fear of not continuing success and fear of not being as capable as others.
In her 1985 paper, Clance explained that impostor phenomenon can be distinguished by the following six dimensions:
- The impostor cycle
- The need to be special or the best
- Characteristics of Superman/Superwoman
- Fear of failure
- Denial of ability and discounting praise
- Feeling fear and guilt about success
Clance noted that the characteristics of these six dimensions may vary. By this model, for an individual to be considered to experience impostorism, at least two of these aspects have to be present. Clance theorised that the most important aspect to understand the manifestation of this experience can be seen through the impostor cycle she created.
The impostor cycle
The impostor cycle, as defined by Clance, first begins with an achievement-related task. An example of an achievement-related task could be an exercise that was assigned through work or school. Once the assignment has been given to the individual, feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, and worry immediately follow. The cycle accounts for two possible reactions that stem from these feelings. Either the individual will respond by over-preparation or procrastination. If the individual responds with procrastination, this initial response will turn into a frantic effort to complete the job. Once the task has been completed, there will be a brief period of accomplishment and feeling of relief. If positive feedback is given once the work has been completed and turned in, the individual will discount the positive feedback.
If the individual responded to the task with over-preparation, the successful outcome will be seen as a result of hard work. If the individual responds by procrastination, they will view the outcome as a matter of luck. In the impostor cycle, gaining success through hard work, or luck is not interpreted as a matter of true, personal ability. This means that it does not matter which mechanism the individual used to complete the task. Even if the outcome results in a positive response, the feedback given has no effect on the individual's perception of personal success. This leads to the individual to discount positive feedback. This sequence of events serves as a reinforcement, causing the cycle to remain in motion. With every cycle, feelings of perceived fraudulence, increased self doubt, depression, and anxiety accumulate. As the cycle continues, increased success leads to the intensification of feeling like a fraud. This experience causes the individual to remain haunted by their lack of perceived, personal ability. Believing that at any point they can be 'exposed' for who they think they really are keeps the cycle in motion.
Studies on impostor phenomenon have received mixed reviews regarding the presence of impostor phenomenon in men and women. Clance and Imes investigated this experience in high achieving women in their 1978 study. Following the publication of this study, researchers have investigated impostor phenomenon in both men and women. Clance and Imes suggested that this experience manifests in women more so than men. A study in 2006 looked at gender differences when explored the potential relationship between the feeling of being an impostor, and the achievement of goals. The researchers concluded that the women who participated in this study experienced impostor phenomenon more so than the men who participated. Other research has shown that women commonly face impostor phenomenon in regards to performance. The perception of ability and power is showcased in out-performing others. For men, impostor phenomenon is often driven by the fear of being unsuccessful, or not good enough. Despite these differences, there is a greater amount of literature regarding impostor phenomenon and gender differences stating that it is spread equally among men and women.
The feeling of being a fraud that is emphasised in the impostor phenomenon is not uncommon. It has been estimated that nearly 70 percent of individuals will experience signs and symptoms of impostor phenomenon at least once in their life. This can be a result of a new setting, academic or professional. Research shows that impostor phenomenon is not uncommon for students when entering a new academic environment. Feelings of insecurity can come as a result to an unknown, new environment. This can lead to lower confidence in yourself, and your abilities.
Impostor phenomenon can occur in other various settings. Some examples include:
- A new environment
- Academic settings
- In the work place
- Social interactions
- Relationships (platonic or romantic)
In relationships, individuals with impostorism often feel like they do not live up to the expectations of their friends or loved ones. It is common for the individual with impostorism to think that they must have some how tricked others into liking, and wanting to spend time with them. Feelings of being unworthy, or deserving of the beneficial relationships they possess.
There is empirical evidence that demonstrates the harmful effects of impostor phenomenon in students. Studies have shown that when a student's academic self-concept increases, the symptoms of impostor phenomenon decrease, and vice versa. The worry and emotions the students held, had a direct impact of their performance in the program.
Common ideas of impostor phenomenon in the classroom include:
- Students compared themselves to their fellow classmates
- Students did not feel prepared academically when they compared themselves to their classmates
- Students often questioned the grounds to which they were accepted into the program
- Students perceived that positive recognition, awards, and good grades stem from external factors, not from personal ability or intelligence.
Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin investigated the impact impostor phenomenon has on students, specifically students of color. They found that the feelings the students had of being a fraud resulted in psychological distress. Students of color often questioned the grounds in which they were accepted into the program. They held the false assumption that they only received their acceptance due to affirmative action- rather than their extraordinary application, and qualities they had to offer.
Research has shown that there is a relationship between impostor phenomenon and the following aspects:
- Family expectations
- Overprotective parent(s) or legal guardian(s)
- Graduate-level coursework
- Racial identities
- Attribution style
- Lower trait self-esteem
- Being a perfectionist
- Excessive self-monitoring, with an emphasis on self-worth
The aspects listed are not mutually exclusive. These components are often found to correlate among individuals with impostor phenomenon. It is incorrect to infer that the correlational relationship between these aspects cause the impostor experience.
For individuals with impostor phenomenon, feelings of guilt often result in a fear of success. The following are examples of common ideas, and statements that lead to feelings of guilt, and reinforce the phenomenon.
- The good education they were able to receive
- Being acknowledged by others for life success
- Belief that it is not right or fair to be in a better situation than a friend or loved one
- Being referred to as:
In a 2016 interview, Caroline Webb suggested that feelings of impostor experience are potentially healthy and beneficial for one's career trajectory. This conclusion stems from understanding that everyone has a comfort zone, and personal/professional growth is likely to occur when people step out of their comfort zones.
In their 1978 paper, Clance and Imes proposed a therapeutic approach they used for their participants/clients with impostor phenomenon. This technique encompasses a group setting where various individuals meet others who are also living with this experience. The researchers explained in their 1978 paper how the group meetings made a significant impact on their participants. They proposed that it was the realization that they were not the only ones who experienced these feelings. The participants were required to complete various homework assignments as well. One assignment consisted of the participants recalling all of the people they believe they have fooled, or tricked in the past. Another take home task was to have the individuals write down the positive feedback they would receive. Later, they would have to recall why they received this feedback, and what about it made them perceive it in a negative light. In the group sessions, the researchers also had the participants reframe common thoughts and ideas about performance. An example would be to change: "I might fail this exam" to "I will do well on this exam".
The researchers concluded that simply extracting the self-doubt before an event occurs helps eliminate the feelings of impostorism. It was recommended that the individuals struggling with this experience seek support from friends and family. Although impostor phenomenon is not a mental condition, it can still effect an individual in a tremendous way.
Other research on therapeutic approaches for impostorism emphasis the importance of self-worth. Individuals live with impostor phenomenon commonly relate self-esteem and self-worth to others. A major aspect of other therapeutic approaches for impostor phenomenon focus on separating the two into completely separate entities.
In a study in 2013, researcher Queena Hoang proposed that intrinsic motivation can decrease the feelings of being a fraud, that result from impostor phenomenon. This includes a serious of re-framing current ideas. The following are examples listing within Hoang's 2013 paper:
- "I want to receive that degree. I won't give up and have too much pride to walk away."
- "If I can do this, I will be able to help others in the future and work with people as motivated as I am."
- "I can be the voice of other People of Color who do not have the opportunities like I do."
- "I know I can do this."
- Learn how to 'be your own person'
- Learning how to accept and believe compliments
Hoang also suggested that implementing a mentor program for new or entering students will minimize students' feelings of self-doubt. Having a mentor that has been in the program will help the new students feel supported. This allows for a much smoother, and less overwhelming transition.
Society and culture
Various individuals who are often seen in the spotlight have shared that they have/had experienced liking like a fraud. Journalist Diana Crow stated, "I spent a lot of time not applying to awards for a couple of years." When she did receive some of those awards, it reinforced the feelings of impostorism. She stated, "There's a little bit of wondering whether what won an award is actually award-worthy."
The following list includes other well known individuals who have reportedly experienced this phenomenon as well:
- Maya Angelou
- Emma Watson
- Tom Hanks
- Michelle Pfeiffer
- Chuck Lorre
- Neil Gaiman
- John Green
- Tommy Cooper
- Sheryl Sandberg
- Sonia Sotomayor
- Mike Cannon-Brookes
- Dunning–Kruger effect – a cognitive bias wherein people of non-average ability (both high and low) see themselves as a bit above average
- Explanatory style – how people typically explain events to themselves
- Illusory superiority – a cognitive bias whereby a person overestimates their own qualities and abilities
- Inner critic
- "Fakin' It" (Simon & Garfunkel song) – 60s-era pop/rock song on the subject
- Jonah complex – the fear of success which prevents the realisation of one's potential
- Setting up to fail § Setting oneself up to fail
- Tall poppy syndrome – aspects of a culture where people of high status are resented for having been viewed as superior to their peers
- Langford, Joe; Clance, Pauline Rose (Fall 1993). "The imposter phenomenon: recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment" (PDF). Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training. 30 (3): 495–501. doi:10.1037/0033-318.104.22.1685.
Studies of college students (Harvey, 1981; Bussotti, 1990; Langford, 1990), college professors (Topping, 1983), and successful professionals (Dingman, 1987) have all failed, however, to reveal any sex differences in impostor feelings, suggesting that males in these populations are just as likely as females to have low expectations of success and to make attributions to non-ability related factors.
- Sakulku, J.; Alexander, J. (2011). "The Imposter Phenomenon". International Journal of Behavioral Science. Vol. 6: 73–92. doi:10.14456/ijbs.2011.6.
- Lebowitz, Shana (12 January 2016). "Men are suffering from a psychological phenomenon that can undermine their success, but they're too ashamed to talk about it". businessinsider.com. Business Insider. Retrieved 8 February 2016.
- Clance, Pauline R.; Imes, Suzanne A. (Fall 1978). "The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention" (PDF). Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice. 15 (3). doi:10.1037/h0086006.
- Corkindale, Gill. "Overcoming Imposter Syndrome". Harvard Business Review. Retrieved April 18, 2017.
- Hoang, Queen (January 2013). "The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming Internalized Barriers and Recognizing Achievements". The Vermont Connection. Volume 34, Article 6.
- Kumar, S.; Jagacinski, C.M. (2006). "Imposters have goals too: The imposter phenomenon and its relationship to achievement goal theory". Personality and Individual Differences. 40 (1): 147–157.
- Royse Roskowki, Jane C. (2010). "Imposter Phenomenon and Counselling Self-Efficacy: The Impact of Imposter Feelings". Ball State University.
- Ravindran, Sandeep (November 15, 2016). "Feeling Like A Fraud: The Impostor Phenomenon in Science Writing". The Open Notebook.
- Cokley; et al. "An Examination if the Impact of Minority Status Stress and Impostor Feelings on the Mental Health of Diverse Ethnic Minority College Students". Journal of Multicultural Counselling and Development. Vol. 41, 82-95.
- Ferro, Shane (15 January 2016). "Why impostor syndrome is good for you". Huffington Post. Retrieved April 21, 2017.
- Matthews, Gail; Clance, Pauline Rose (February 1985). "Treatment of the impostor phenomenon in psychotherapy clients". Psychotherapy in Private Practice. 3 (1): 71–81. doi:10.1300/J294v03n01_09.
- Leahy, Robert L. (2005). "Work worries: What if I really mess up?". The worry cure: seven steps to stop worry from stopping you. New York: Harmony Books. pp. 273–290 (274). ISBN 1400097657. OCLC 57531355. Discusses treatment of impostor syndrome with cognitive therapy.
- Harris, Russ (2011). The confidence gap: a guide to overcoming fear and self-doubt. Boston: Trumpeter. ISBN 9781590309230. OCLC 694394371. Discusses treatment of impostor syndrome with acceptance and commitment therapy.
- Clance, Pauline Rose; Dingman, Debbara; Reviere, Susan L.; Stober, Dianne R. (June 1995). "Impostor phenomenon in an interpersonal/social context". Women & Therapy. 16 (4): 79–96 (87). doi:10.1300/J015v16n04_07.
One of the most exciting and effective treatment modalities for women struggling with the impostor phenomenon is group psychotherapy.
- Lowman, Rodney L. (1993). "Fear of success and fear of failure". Counseling and psychotherapy of work dysfunctions. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. pp. 74–82 (81). doi:10.1037/10133-004. ISBN 155798204X. OCLC 27812757.
Group treatment programs have reported positive results in lowering FOF [fear of failure] (Rajendran & Kaliappan, 1990). The value of groups in countering the so-called impostor phenomenon, in which an individual feels that he or she has succeeded inappropriately and will soon be "found out" to be a fraud, has also been reported (Clance & O'Toole, 1987; J. A. Steinberg, 1986).
- Richards, Carl (October 26, 2015). "Learning to Deal With the Impostor Syndrome". The New York Times. Retrieved 2017-12-15.
I have written 11 books, but each time I think, 'Uh oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody, and they're going to find me out.'
- "Emma Watson: I suffered from imposter syndrome after Harry Potter Now magazine". Now Magazine. 2011.
- Hanks, Tom. "Tom Hanks Says Self-Doubt Is 'A High-Wire Act That We All Walk'". NPR.org. Retrieved 2017-01-13.
- Aronofsky, Darren. "Michelle Pfeiffer". Wmagazine.com. Retrieved 2018-02-28.
- 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,
- Ha, Thu-Huong (May 15, 2017). "Neil Gaiman has the perfect anecdote to soothe anyone with impostor syndrome". Quartz. Retrieved June 8, 2017.
- Always leave them laughing (biography of Tommy Cooper) Fisher, John 2007
- Women who feel like frauds Forbes October 2011
- Atlassian billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes on 'imposter syndrome', Tesla and the SA power crisis