Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or 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 incorrectly attribute their success to luck, or interpret it 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 syndrome also occurs in the context of mental illness and its treatment. Certain individuals may see themselves as less ill (less depressed, less anxious) than their peers or other mentally ill people, citing their lack of severe symptoms as the indication of no or a minor underlying issue. People with this form do not seek help for their issues, seeing their problems as not worthy of psychiatric attention.
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 had displayed academic achievement through degrees earned and standardized testing scores. 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.
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 used 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, 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 one has received an assignment, feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, and worry immediately follow. The cycle accounts for two possible reactions that stem from these feelings. One will respond either by over-preparation or by procrastination.
If one 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, one will discount the positive feedback.
If one responded to the task with over-preparation, the successful outcome will be seen as a result of hard work. If one responds by procrastination, one 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 one used to complete the task. Even if the outcome results in a positive response, the feedback given has no effect on one's perception of personal success. This leads one 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 one to remain haunted by one's lack of perceived personal ability. Believing that at any point one can be 'exposed' for who one thinks one really is 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 than in men.
A study in 2006 looked at gender differences when exploring a possible 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 regard to performance. The perception of ability and power is evidenced 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 significant amount of literature on impostor phenomenon and gender differences stating that it is spread equally among men and women.
Among ethnic minority women in academia
Research findings suggest that impostor syndrome/phenomenon affects women who are members of an ethnic minority mentally and academically. A pattern in the research literature shows that women report experiencing impostor phenomenon more frequently than men. Ethnic minority women are also often afflicted with impostor syndrome in elite universities. Some researchers have reported that though certain men do sometimes experience doubt and a feeling of lack of belonging in academia, being a woman and member of an ethnic minority in the United States actually entails being susceptible to encountering "hideous forms of racism and sexism". Such experiences of racism and sexism, if objectively demonstrable, increase the chance that ethnic minority women may experience impostor phenomenon.
The intersection of race and gender for ethnic minority women in academia is important because both identities can heavily impact ethnic minority women and their academic experience, especially if their identities are visible. For example, a black woman in higher education might fear she will be stereotyped as aggressive or angry if she expresses a controversial opinion in class. According to Miller and Kastberg, both crude and subtle forms of racism and sexism make it much more difficult for ethnic minority women to break through the barriers of higher education.
Studies on impostor phenomenon have shown that the intersecting identities of ethnic women in academia affect identity development and goal achievement. For example, Ostrove (2003) found that ethnic women from lower- and middle-class backgrounds reported feeling more alienated from their peers during their time spent at an elite college. Similarly, Walton and Cohen's (2007) work on the effects of racial underrepresentation at elite private universities shows that ethnic women who experience social alienation in academia could easily experience impostor syndrome.
Common causes of impostor phenomenon include feelings such as stigma, stereotype threat, or an overall sense of "intellectual phoniness". For example, a woman attending a predominately white institution is likely to worry unjustifiably that her accomplishments are not good enough relative to her peers' accomplishments, not least if, e.g., she is black and most of her colleagues are male. These thoughts could derive from feeling that she was accepted into that university because of affirmative action or by "accident".
The feeling of being a fraud that surfaces in impostor phenomenon is not uncommon. It has been estimated that nearly 70% of individuals will experience signs and symptoms of impostor phenomenon at least once in their life. This can be a result of a new academic or professional setting. Research shows that impostor phenomenon is not uncommon for students who enter a new academic environment. Feelings of insecurity can come as a result of an unknown, new environment. This can lead to lower self-confidence and belief in their own abilities.
Impostor phenomenon can occur in other various settings. Some examples include:
- A new environment
- Academic settings
- In the workplace
- Social interactions
- Relationships (platonic or romantic)
In relationships, people with impostorism often feel 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 somehow tricked others into liking them and wanting to spend time with them. They experience feelings of being unworthy, or of not deserving 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 facets of impostor phenomenon in the class-room include:
- Students compared themselves to their class-mates
- Students did not feel prepared academically when they compared themselves to their class-mates
- Students often questioned the grounds on which they were accepted into the program
- Students perceived that positive recognition, awards, and good grades stemmed from external factors, not from personal ability or intelligence.
Cokley et al. investigated the impact impostor phenomenon has on students, specifically ethnic minority students. They found that the feelings the students had of being fraudulent resulted in psychological distress. Ethnic minority students often questioned the grounds on which they were accepted into the program. They held the false assumption that they only received their acceptance due to affirmative action—rather than an extraordinary application and qualities they had to offer.
Research has shown that there is a relationship between impostor phenomenon and the following factors:
- Family expectations
- Overprotective parent(s) or legal guardian(s)
- Graduate-level coursework
- Racial identities
- Attribution style
- Low trait self-esteem
- 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.
In individuals with impostor phenomenon, feelings of guilt often result in a fear of success. The following are examples of common notions that lead to feelings of guilt and reinforce the phenomenon.
- The good education they were able to receive
- Being acknowledged by others for 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:
- "The smart one"
- "The talented one"
- "The responsible one"
- "The sensitive one"
- "The good one"
- "Our favorite"
In their 1978 paper, Clance and Imes proposed a therapeutic approach they used for their participants or clients with impostor phenomenon. This technique includes a group setting where various individuals meet others who are also living with this experience. The researchers explained that 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. In one assignment, participants recalled all of the people they believed they had fooled or tricked in the past. In another take-home task, individuals wrote down the positive feedback they had received. 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 re-frame 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 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 pathological condition, it is a distorted system of belief about oneself that can have a powerful negative impact on an individual's valuation of their own worth.
Other research on therapeutic approaches for impostorism emphasizes the importance of self-worth. Individuals who 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 are common in impostor phenomenon. This includes a series of re-framing current ideas. The following are examples listed in 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."
- Learning 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 who has been in the program will help the new students feel supported. This allows for a much smoother and less overwhelming transition.
Impostor experience can be addressed with many kinds of psychotherapy. Group psychotherapy is an especially common and effective way of alleviating the impostor experience. By those who have an interest in providing such behaviourist psychotherapy, the appropriateness of any kind of psychotherapeutic intervention for a non-pathological, alleged cognitive aberration is never questioned. It should, however, be questioned by those to whom it is offered, since the origins of the misperception by an individual of their own qualities, condition or situation may be social or philosophical rather than purely cognitive.
Society and culture
Various individuals who are often in the spotlight have shared that they have experienced feeling 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:
- Riz Ahmed
- Maya Angelou
- Jacinda Ardern
- Mike Cannon-Brookes
- Tommy Cooper[page needed]
- Neil Gaiman
- Tom Hanks
- Chuck Lorre
- Michelle Obama
- Michelle Pfeiffer
- Mauro Ranallo
- Adam Savage
- Sonia Sotomayor
- Nicola Sturgeon
- David Tennant
- Emma Watson
- Matty Healy
- Thom Yorke
- Lando Norris
- 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 impostor 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:10.1037/0033-3126.96.36.1995.
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 Impostor Phenomenon". International Journal of Behavioral Science. 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.
- "Impostor Syndrome and Mental Health".
- "Depression and the Other Type of Impostor Syndrome".
- Clance, Pauline R.; Imes, Suzanne A. (Fall 1978). "The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention" (PDF). Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice. 15 (3): 241–247. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.452.4294. doi:10.1037/h0086006.
- Gadsby, Stephen, (2021), "Imposter Syndrome and Self-Deception", Australasian Journal of Philosophy. ‹See Tfd›doi:10.1080/00048402.2021.1874445
- American Psychiatric Association (2000a). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (Fourth Edition, Text Revision: DSM-IV-TR ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc. ISBN 978-0-89042-025-6.
- Hoang, Queena (January 2013). "The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming Internalized Barriers and Recognizing Achievements". The Vermont Connection. 34, Article 6. – via http://scholarworks.uvm.edu/tvc/vol34/iss1/6.
- Kumar, S.; Jagacinski, C.M. (2006). "Impostors have goals too: The impostor phenomenon and its relationship to achievement goal theory". Personality and Individual Differences. 40 (1): 147–157. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2005.05.014.
- Royse Roskowki, Jane C. (2010). "Impostor Phenomenon and Counselling Self-Efficacy: The Impact of Impostor Feelings". Ball State University.
- Miller, Darlene G.; Kastberg, Signe M. (September 1995). "Of blue collars and ivory towers: Women from blue‐collar backgrounds in higher education". Roeper Review. 18 (1): 27–33. doi:10.1080/02783199509553693. ISSN 0278-3193.
- Walton, Gregory M.; Cohen, Geoffrey L. (2007). "A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 92 (1): 82–96. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.320.7960. doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.52. ISSN 1939-1315. PMID 17201544.
- Ostrove, Joan M. (December 2003). "Belonging and Wanting: Meanings of Social Class Background for Women's Constructions of their College Experiences". Journal of Social Issues. 59 (4): 771–784. doi:10.1046/j.0022-4537.2003.00089.x. ISSN 0022-4537.
- Attewell, Paul; Domina, Thurston (January 2011). "Educational impostors and fake degrees". Research in Social Stratification and Mobility. 29 (1): 57–69. doi:10.1016/j.rssm.2010.12.004. ISSN 0276-5624.
- Ravindran, Sandeep (November 15, 2016). "Feeling Like A Fraud: The Impostor Phenomenon in Science Writing". The Open Notebook.
- Cokley, Kevin; et al. (2013). "An Examination of the Impact of Minority Status Stress and Impostor Feelings on the Mental Health of Diverse Ethnic Minority College Students". Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development. 41 (2): 82–95. doi:10.1002/j.2161-1912.2013.00029.x.
- 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 978-1-4000-9765-4. 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 978-1-59030-923-0. 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 978-1-55798-204-9. 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.'
- Edmonds, Lizzie (23 March 2020). "Riz Ahmed: For a long time I felt I didn't belong in film industry". Evening Standard. Retrieved 15 February 2021.
- Roy, Eleanor Ainge (December 21, 2020). "Jacinda Ardern: I try to turn self-doubt into 'something more positive'". The Guardian. Retrieved December 21, 2020.
- Chau, business reporter David (June 16, 2017). "Australian tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes' 'impostor syndrome'". ABC News.
- Fisher, John (2007) . Tommy Cooper: always leave them laughing. London: Harper. ISBN 978-0-00-721511-9. OCLC 174093089.
- "Neil Gaiman". Neil Gaiman. Retrieved 2019-07-24.
- Ha, Thu-Huong (May 15, 2017). "Neil Gaiman has the perfect anecdote to soothe anyone with impostor syndrome". Quartz. Retrieved June 8, 2017.
- Hanks, Tom. "Tom Hanks Says Self-Doubt Is 'A High-Wire Act That We All Walk'". NPR.org. Retrieved 2017-01-13.
- "Impostor syndrome: You're better than you think". NewsComAu. December 10, 2013.
- "Michelle Obama: 'I still have impostor syndrome'". BBC News. Retrieved 4 December 2018.
- Aronofsky, Darren. "Michelle Pfeiffer". Wmagazine.com. Retrieved 2018-02-28.
- "Mauro Ranallo on Twitter: I've been struggling mightily this year. I feel like every day is going to be my last. The mania,depression, anxiety, impostor syndrome et al is overwhelming but I keep going the best I can. If I can help save one life by sharing information then my battle was worth it". Twitter. Retrieved 17 April 2019.
- ""Do you ever feel impostor syndrome?" Adam Q&A (4/28/20) – YouTube". www.youtube.com. Retrieved 2020-08-06.
- Goudreau, Jenna. "When Women Feel Like Frauds They Fuel Their Own Failures". Forbes.
- "Nicola Sturgeon says she 'absolutely' suffers from 'impostor syndrome'". The Independent. May 15, 2019.
- David Tennant Fights the Demon of Impostor Syndrome theoffcamerashow
- "Emma Watson: I suffered from impostor syndrome after Harry Potter Now magazine". Now Magazine. 2011.
- "Robbie Williams 'gives up Brits dressing room' to The 1975's 100-piece choir". Metro. 22 February 2017. Retrieved 19 January 2020.
- David Marchese (October 19, 2018). "How Thom Yorke learned to stop worrying and (mostly) love rock stardom". Archived from the original on 2020-07-08. Retrieved July 24, 2020.
- "'I Beat Myself a Lot Over It' - McLaren's Norris Opens up on Mental Struggles". EssentiallySports. 2021-02-20. Retrieved 2021-05-12.
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