Impostor syndrome

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Impostor syndrome, also known as impostor phenomenon or impostorism, is a psychological occurrence. Those who have it may doubt their skills, talents, or accomplishments. They may have a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as frauds.[1] Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon do not believe they deserve their success or luck. They may think that they are deceiving others because they feel as if they are not as intelligent as they outwardly portray themselves to be.[2] Impostor syndrome can stem from and result in strained personal relationships and can hinder people from achieving their full potential in their fields of interest.[3] The term "impostorization" shifts the source of the phenomenon away from the supposed impostor to institutions whose policies, practices, or workplace cultures "either make or intend to make individuals question their intelligence, competence, and sense of belonging."[4]


The term impostor phenomenon was introduced in an article published in 1978, titled "The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention" by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. Clance and Imes defined impostor phenomenon as "an internal experience of intellectual phoniness" and initially focused their research on women in higher education and professional industries.[5]

The researchers surveyed over 100 women, approximately one-third of whom were involved in psychotherapy for reasons besides impostor syndrome and two-thirds of whom they knew from their own lectures and therapy groups. All of the participants had been formally recognized for their professional excellence by colleagues and displayed academic achievement through educational degrees and standardized testing scores. Despite the consistent external validation these women received, they lacked internal acknowledgement of their accomplishments. When asked about their success, some participants attributed it to luck, while some believed that people had overestimated their capabilities. Clance and Imes believed that this mental framework of impostor phenomenon developed from factors such as gender stereotypes, familial problems, cultural norms, and attribution style. They discovered that the women in the study experienced symptoms of "generalized anxiety, lack of self-confidence, depression, and frustration related to inability to meet self-imposed standards of achievement."[6]


People with impostor syndrome 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 the absence of or a minor underlying issue. People with this mindset often do not seek help for their issues because they see their problems as not worthy of psychiatric attention.[7][8]

Impostor phenomenon is studied as a reaction to particular stimuli and events. It is an experience that a person has, not a mental disorder.[9] Impostor phenomenon is not recognized in the DSM or ICD, although both of these classification systems recognize low self-esteem and sense of failure as associated symptoms of depression.[10]

Measuring impostor phenomenon[edit]

The first scale designated to measure characteristics of impostor phenomenon was designed by Clance in 1985, called the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale (CIPS). The scale can be used to determine if characteristics of fear are present in the person, 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."[11] Characteristics of impostor syndrome such as a person's self-esteem and their perspective of how they achieve success are measured by the CIPS. A sample of 1271 engineering college students were studied by Brian F. French, Sarah C. Ullrich-French, and Deborah Follman to examine the psychometric properties of the CIPS. They found that scores of the scales' individual components were not entirely reliable or consistent and suggested that these should not be used to make significant decisions about people with the syndrome.[12]

In her 1985 paper, Clance explained that impostor phenomenon can be distinguished by the following six characteristics, of which a person who has impostorism must experience at least two: [2]

  1. The impostor cycle
  2. The need to be special or the best
  3. Characteristics of superman/superwoman
  4. Fear of failure
  5. Denial of ability and discounting praise
  6. Feeling fear and guilt about success


It has been estimated that nearly 70% of people will experience signs and symptoms of impostor phenomenon at least once in their life.[13] 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.[11]

Gender differences[edit]

When impostor syndrome was first conceptualised, it was viewed as a phenomenon that was common among high-achieving women. Further research has shown that it affects both men and women; the proportion affected are more or less equally distributed among the genders.[1][14] People with impostor syndrome often have corresponding mental health issues, which may be treated with psychological interventions, though the phenomenon is not a formal mental disorder.[15]

Clance and Imes stated in their 1978 article that, based on their clinical experience, impostor phenomenon was less prevalent in men.[16] However, more recent research has mostly found that impostor phenomenon is spread equally among men and women.[1][17] 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.[17]


Impostor phenomenon can occur in other various settings. Some examples include a new environment,[2] academic settings,[16] in the workplace,[16] social interactions,[11] and relationships (platonic or romantic).[11]

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 person 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.[11]

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.[17] The worry and emotions the students held, had a direct impact of their performance in the program. Common facets of impostor phenomenon experienced by students include not feeling prepared academically (especially when comparing themselves to classmates),[2] questioning the grounds on which they were accepted into the program,[11] and perceiving that positive recognition, awards, and good grades stemmed from external factors rather than personal ability or intelligence.[11]

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.[18]

Tigranyan et al. (2021) examined the way impostor phenomenon relates to psychology doctoral students. The purpose of the study was to investigate the IP's relationship to perfectionistic cognitions, depression, anxiety, achievement motives, self-efficacy, self-compassion, and self-esteem in clinical and counseling psychology doctoral students. Furthermore, this study sought to investigate how IP interferes with academic, practicum, and internship performance of these students and how IP manifests throughout a psychology doctoral program. Included were 84 clinical and counseling psychology doctoral students and they were instructed to respond to an online survey. The data was analyzed using a Pearson's product-moment correlation and a multiple linear regression. Eighty-eight percent of the students in the study reported at least moderate feelings of IP characteristics. This study also found significant positive correlations between the IP and perfectionistic cognitions, depression, anxiety, and self-compassion. This study indicates that clinical faculty and supervisors should take a supportive approach to assist students to help decrease feelings of IP, in hopes of increasing feelings of competence and confidence.[19]


Research has shown that there is a relationship between impostor phenomenon and the following factors:

  • Family expectations[11]
  • Overprotective parent(s) or legal guardian(s)[13]
  • Graduate-level coursework[11]
  • Racial identities[11]
  • Attribution style[17]
  • Anxiety[17]
  • Depression[17]
  • Low trait self-esteem[17]
  • Perfectionism[16]
  • Excessive self-monitoring, with an emphasis on self-worth[2]

The aspects listed are not mutually exclusive. These components are often found to correlate among people with impostor phenomenon. It is incorrect to infer that the correlational relationship between these aspects cause the impostor experience.[11]

In people 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.[20]

  • 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:[11]
    • "The smart one"
    • "The talented one"
    • "The responsible one"
    • "The sensitive one"
    • "The good one"
    • "Our favorite"


Impostor syndrome occurs when a person is incapable of believing they deserve to be successful or when they feel their success does not stem from their own abilities. Rather, the things they accomplish are due to “pure luck”. A study conducted by McGregor, Gee, and Posey (2008) at Lyon College in Batesville, AR suggests that individuals who experience feelings of being an impostor might also struggle with feelings of depression.[21] This research study consisted of 71 men and 115 women who agreed to fill out a packet during an intro-level college course. This packet contained the Impostor Phenomenon Test and the Beck Depression Inventory, taking roughly 30 minutes to complete. The results generated a positive connection between the IP scores and BDI-II scores, placing emphasis on the fact that women are more likely to experience Imposter Syndrome than men. The individuals that conducted this study believe that a relation between Impostor Phenomenon and depression exists due to the negative thoughts and self-doubt associated with Impostor Phenomenon being similar to the negative thoughts and self-doubt experienced by individuals with depression. The research also concluded that impostors constantly evaluate their performance to begin with and they tend to be tough critics on themselves, making it more difficult for impostors to recognize that their thoughts might mask symptoms of depression. This study gives individuals a further understanding of Impostor Phenomenon from a new angle, showcasing the toll Impostor Syndrome can have on those who suffer from it.


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 people 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 this impact was a result of 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, people 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".[16]

The researchers concluded that simply extracting the self-doubt before an event occurs helps eliminate feelings of impostorism.[16] It was recommended that people 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 a person's valuation of their own worth.[13]

Impostor syndrome is not a recognized psychiatric disorder and is not featured in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual nor is it listed as a diagnosis in the International Classification of Diseases, Tenth Revision (ICD-10). However, outside the academic literature, impostor syndrome has become widely discussed, especially in the context of achievement in the workplace. Perhaps because it is not an officially recognized clinical diagnosis, despite the large peer review and lay literature, although there has been a qualitative review, there has never been a published systematic review of the literature on impostor syndrome. Thus, clinicians lack evidence on the prevalence, comorbidities, and best practices for diagnosing and treating impostor syndrome.[22]

Other research on therapeutic approaches for impostorism emphasizes the importance of self-worth. People 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.[17]

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.[11] 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.[23][24][25] Group psychotherapy is an especially common and effective way of alleviating the impostor experience.[26][27]


Maya Angelou: "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.'"[28]

Below is a small selection of notable people who have reportedly experienced this phenomenon:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c 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:10.1037/0033-3204.30.3.495. 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.
  2. ^ a b c d e Sakulku, J.; Alexander, J. (2011). "The Impostor Phenomenon". International Journal of Behavioral Science. 6: 73–92. doi:10.14456/ijbs.2011.6.
  3. ^ Sandeep Ravindran (2016-11-15). "Feeling Like a Fraud: The Impostor Phenomenon in Science Writing". The Open Notebook. Retrieved 2022-03-30.
  4. ^ Gutiérrez, Angélica S.; Cole, Jean Lee (2023-12-23). "Impostorization in the ivory tower: less discussed but more vexing than impostor syndrome". Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal. ahead-of-print (ahead-of-print). doi:10.1108/EDI-03-2023-0094. Retrieved 2024-02-27.
  5. ^ 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 doi:10.1037/h0086006.
  6. ^ 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 doi:10.1037/h0086006.
  7. ^ "Imposter Syndrome and Mental Health". February 19, 2019.
  8. ^ "Depression and the Other Type of Impostor Syndrome". 17 April 2023.
  9. ^ Gadsby, Stephen, (2021), "Imposter Syndrome and Self-Deception", Australasian Journal of Philosophy. doi:10.1080/00048402.2021.1874445
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Hoang, Queena (January 2013). "The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming Internalized Barriers and Recognizing Achievements". The Vermont Connection. 34, Article 6.
  12. ^ French, Brian F.; Ullrich-French, Sarah C.; Follman, Deborah (April 2008). "The psychometric properties of the Clance Impostor Scale". Personality and Individual Differences. 44 (5): 1270–1278. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2007.11.023.
  13. ^ a b c Ravindran, Sandeep (November 15, 2016). "Feeling Like A Fraud: The Impostor Phenomenon in Science Writing". The Open Notebook.
  14. ^ 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". Business Insider. Retrieved 8 February 2016.
  15. ^ Gadsby, Stephen (2021-02-14). "Imposter Syndrome and Self-Deception". Australasian Journal of Philosophy. 100 (2): 247–261. doi:10.1080/00048402.2021.1874445. ISSN 0004-8402. S2CID 233881048.
  16. ^ a b c d e f 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 doi:10.1037/h0086006.
  17. ^ a b c d e f g h Royse Roskowki, Jane C. (2010). "Impostor Phenomenon and Counselling Self-Efficacy: The Impact of Impostor Feelings". Ball State University.
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ Tigranyan, Shushan; Byington, Dacoda R.; Liupakorn, Diana; Hicks, Alexis; Lombardi, Sarah; Mathis, Melissa; Rodolfa, Emil (November 2021). "Factors related to the impostor phenomenon in psychology doctoral students". Training and Education in Professional Psychology. 15 (4): 298–305. doi:10.1037/tep0000321. ISSN 1931-3926. S2CID 218827785.
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ McGregor, Loretta Neal; Gee, Damon E.; Posey, K. Elizabeth (February 2008). "I Feel Like a Fraud and It Depresses Me: The Relation Between the Imposter Phenomenon and Depression". Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal. 36 (1): 43–48. doi:10.2224/sbp.2008.36.1.43.
  22. ^ Bravata, Dena M.; Watts, Sharon A.; Keefer, Autumn L.; Madhusudhan, Divya K.; Taylor, Katie T.; Clark, Dani M.; Nelson, Ross S.; Cokley, Kevin O.; Hagg, Heather K. (April 2020). "Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review". Journal of General Internal Medicine. 35 (4): 1252–1275. doi:10.1007/s11606-019-05364-1. ISSN 0884-8734. PMC 7174434. PMID 31848865.
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ 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.
  26. ^ 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.
  27. ^ 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).
  28. ^ a b 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.'
  29. ^ 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.
  30. ^ Roy, Eleanor Ainge (December 21, 2020). "Jacinda Ardern: I try to turn self-doubt into 'something more positive'". The Guardian. Retrieved December 21, 2020.
  31. ^ Chau, David (June 16, 2017). "Australian tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes' 'impostor syndrome'". ABC News.
  32. ^ Fisher, John (2007) [2006]. Tommy Cooper: always leave them laughing. London: Harper. ISBN 978-0-00-721511-9. OCLC 174093089.
  33. ^ "Barbara Corcoran says she made $1 million in a day selling apartments nobody wanted: I 'created a buying frenzy'". CNBC. 26 February 2023.
  34. ^ "Neil Gaiman". Neil Gaiman. Retrieved 2019-07-24.
  35. ^ Ha, Thu-Huong (May 15, 2017). "Neil Gaiman has the perfect anecdote to soothe anyone with impostor syndrome". Quartz. Retrieved June 8, 2017.
  36. ^ Hanks, Tom. "Tom Hanks Says Self-Doubt Is 'A High-Wire Act That We All Walk'". Retrieved 2017-01-13.
  37. ^ "Robbie Williams 'gives up Brits dressing room' to The 1975's 100-piece choir". Metro. 22 February 2017. Retrieved 19 January 2020.
  38. ^ "E.L. James opens up about battling with imposter syndrome despite her success". 13 July 2023. Retrieved 13 July 2023.
  39. ^ Riley, Grace (20 June 2023). "Kim Kardashian's Skims Made $500 Million in 2022: 'Exceeded' Expectations". Retrieved 20 June 2023.
  40. ^ Dalton, Andrew (13 March 2023). "'Everything Everywhere' duo win directing, writing Oscars". The Associated Press. Retrieved 2 April 2023.
  41. ^ "Impostor syndrome: You're better than you think". NewsComAu. December 10, 2013.
  42. ^ "'I Beat Myself a Lot Over It' - McLaren's Norris Opens up on Mental Struggles". EssentiallySports. 2021-02-20. Retrieved 2021-05-12.
  43. ^ O'Sullivan, Ronnie (2023). Unbreakable. London: Seven Dials. p. 12. ISBN 9781399610018.
  44. ^ "Michelle Obama: 'I still have impostor syndrome'". BBC News. 4 December 2018. Retrieved 4 December 2018.
  45. ^ Aronofsky, Darren (28 March 2017). "Michelle Pfeiffer". Retrieved 2018-02-28.
  46. ^ Goudreau, Jenna. "When Women Feel Like Frauds They Fuel Their Own Failures". Forbes.
  47. ^ "Nicola Sturgeon says she 'absolutely' suffers from 'impostor syndrome'". The Independent. May 15, 2019.
  48. ^ David Tennant Fights the Demon of Impostor Syndrome theoffcamerashow
  49. ^ "Emma Watson: I suffered from impostor syndrome after Harry Potter Now magazine". Now Magazine. 2011.
  50. ^ David Marchese (October 19, 2018). "How Thom Yorke learned to stop worrying and (mostly) love rock stardom". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2020-07-08. Retrieved July 24, 2020.
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