Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome) is a term coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes referring to high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. 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. Some studies suggest that impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women, while others indicate that men and women are equally affected.
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.
In high achievers
Imes and Clance found several behaviours of high-achieving women with imposter syndrome:
- Diligence: 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.”
- Use of charm: Connected to this, gifted women often use their intuitive perceptiveness and charmto gain approval and praise from supervisors and seek out relationships with supervisors in order to help her increase her abilities intellectually and creatively. However, when the supervisor gives her praise or recognition, she feels that this praise is based on her charm and not on ability.
- 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 have primarily focused on women, one recent study has suggested that men may also be prone to impostor syndrome on similar levels.
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.
People who have reportedly experienced the syndrome include 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, and actress Emma Watson.
Albert Einstein might have suffered from the syndrome near the end of his life: a month before his death, he reportedly confided in a friend, saying “the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”
The impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achievers. Another demographic group that often suffers from 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.
Coherence therapy holds that unconscious emotional learning requires a person to act and respond with certain behaviours, moods, feelings, or beliefs. Unlike cognitive therapy, coherence therapy asserts that it can address our most fundamental learning stored in the sublimbic, right-hemispheric, and emotion-processing areas of the brain, which other talking psychotherapy and rational countermeasures cannot reach. Coherence therapists claim that effective treatment of imposter syndrome requires showing the person through experiential juxtapositions that the self-deprecation does not match the person’s core emotional understanding.
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 attempts to alleviate the person’s sense of inadequacy.
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 often goes unrecognized. If it is not addressed, victims can develop anxiety, stress, low self-confidence, depression, shame and self-doubt. People who suffer from 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 imposter syndrome on a regular basis is imperative for those experiencing impostorship.