Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud". The term was coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting 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. While early research focused on the prevalence among high-achieving women, impostor syndrome has been found to affect both men and women, in roughly equal numbers.
The impostor syndrome tends to be studied as a reaction to certain stimuli and events. It is not perceived to be a mental disorder, 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 interpretation, 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.
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. Another framework for understanding impostor syndrome is to rename it "impostor experience". In the words of Clance, "If I could do it all over again, I would call it the impostor experience, because it's not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness, it's something almost everyone experiences." Reframing the vocabulary shifts one's perspective to help them understand they are not isolated in this experience.
Signs and symptoms
Impostor experience can take different forms. Some common signs are:
Impostor experience can present itself through thoughts such as:
- "I must not fail"
- "I feel like a fake"
- "I just got lucky"
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 (commonly known as the DSM). The term was coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978.
People who have reportedly experienced the syndrome include multiple-award-winning writer Maya Angelou, Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks, actress Michelle Pfeiffer, screenwriter Chuck Lorre, best-selling writer Neil Gaiman, best-selling writer John Green, comedian Tommy Cooper, business leader Sheryl Sandberg, US Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, actress Emma Watson, and entrepreneur Mike Cannon-Brookes.
- 70% of people will experience at least one episode of this impostor phenomenon in their lives.
- Impostor syndrome is not a gendered experience.
The impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achievers. Another demographic group that often experiences 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.
Imes and Clance's theory suggests several behaviours of high-achieving women with impostor syndrome:
- Gifted people often work hard in order to prevent people from discovering that they are "impostors". This hard work often leads to more praise and success, which perpetuates the impostor feelings and fears of being "found out". The "impostor" person may feel they need to work two or three times as hard, so over-prepare, tinker and obsess over details, says Young. This can lead to burn-out and sleep deprivation.
- Feeling of being phony
- Those with impostor feelings often attempt to give supervisors and professors the answers that they believe they want, which often leads to an increase in feeling like they are "being a fake". If shown evidence of their competence or that they may have impostor syndrome, they tend to doubt themselves even more.
- Use of charm
- Connected to this, gifted women often use their intuitive perceptiveness and charm to gain approval and praise from supervisors and seek out relationships with supervisors in order to help them increase their abilities intellectually and creatively. However, when the supervisor gives them praise or recognition, they feel that this praise is based on charm and not on ability. This may also be interpreted as manipulating others for personal gain.
- Avoiding display of confidence
- Another way that a person can perpetuate their impostor feelings is to avoid showing any confidence in their abilities. A person dealing with impostor feelings may believe that if they actually believe in their intelligence and abilities they may be rejected by others. Therefore, they may convince themselves that they are not intelligent or do not deserve success to avoid this.
While studies primarily focused on women, recent studies have suggested that men may also be prone to impostor syndrome on similar levels. Clance, who coined the term while studying women, suggested that the syndrome may be equally prevalent in males, although she proposed that men process and act on it in different ways to women.
A study by Queena Hoang suggested as example people of color may experience impostor syndrome as a result of suspecting they were given their position by affirmative action. The research regarding impostor experience has traditionally highlighted groups who are excelling in areas that were not always readily accessible to them. Likewise, said students have not always had access to institutions of higher education, which is another source that can create feelings of being an impostor.
In 2013, a study conducted at the University of Texas at Austin revealed that Asian-American students are more likely than African-American or Latino students to experience feelings of being an impostor in college. This is potentially dangerous because correlational analyses showed that impostor feelings amongst underrepresented college students was a strong predictor of mental health issues. It may be hard to outwardly identify these students because students who express feeling symptoms of impostor syndrome are "often the most energetic, bright, and hardworking students amongst their peers".
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.
Impostor syndrome is not a formal mental disorder and does not have a standard definition, therefore there has not been a clear consensus as to treatment options available. The syndrome has affected approximately 70% of the population worldwide; however, it often goes unrecognized. If it is not addressed, victims can develop anxiety, stress, low self-confidence, depression, shame and self-doubt. People who have impostor syndrome tend to reflect and dwell upon extreme failure, mistakes and negative feedback from others. If not addressed, impostor syndrome can limit exploration and the courage to delve into new experiences, in fear of exposing failure.
A number of management options are available to ease impostor syndrome. The most prominent is to discuss the topic with other individuals early on in the career path. Mentors can discuss experiences where impostor syndrome was prevalent. Most people who experience impostor syndrome are unaware that others feel inadequate as well. Once the situation is addressed, victims no longer feel alone in their negative experience. It is also noted that reflecting upon impostor feelings is key to overcoming this burden. Making a list of accomplishments, positive feedback and success stories will also aid to manage impostor syndrome. Finally, developing a strong support system that provides feedback on performance and has discussions about impostor syndrome on a regular basis is imperative for those experiencing impostorship.
Writing therapy allows the person to organize their thoughts in writing. The written record of the person's objective accomplishments can enable the person to associate those accomplishments with reality, rather than simply dismissing the accomplishments internally. The written record can also remind the person of those accomplishments later. By these methods, writing therapy may alleviate the person's sense of inadequacy.
- Dunning–Kruger effect – a cognitive bias wherein people of low ability have illusory superiority
- 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
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- 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:10.1037/0033-3220.127.116.115.
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.
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- Atlassian billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes on 'imposter syndrome', Tesla and the SA power crisis
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One of the most exciting and effective treatment modalities for women struggling with the impostor phenomenon is group psychotherapy.
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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).
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As a result, Myra began to publish to feel her success, to value criticism as a useful process, and ultimately to enjoy expressing herself through writing.
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