Impostor Syndrome

The Basic Idea

Let’s say you’re a manager at a company, and you’ve just brought on a new team member. You’ve gone through the processes of reviewing her application, scheduling interviews, and maybe even having her complete a case study. She comes with strong recommendations from her last role and has a high GPA from her recently-earned degree.

After a few weeks, you start to notice she’s become more anxious, and when you commend her on her work, she shakes it off. As you sit down to address your concerns about this behavior, she shares with you that she feels like a fraud and that luck was the main factor she landed the job. Even though you remind her why you hired her and her colleagues’ positive words about her performance, it doesn’t change her feelings. She confides that she’s afraid everyone else at the company will uncover that she’s a fraud and that she doesn’t belong.

What your employee is experiencing is called impostor syndrome (or impostor phenomenon), a psychological pattern in which someone fails to internalize their skills and accomplishments and instead feels like a fraud. It’s present in both men and women and occurs more frequently in minority groups. Although impostor syndrome is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), that isn’t to say it can’t be harmful. Impostor syndrome occurs alongside depression and anxiety; additionally, it can be associated with decreased job performance or burnout.1 It can feel like not being worthy of sharing one’s story or not feeling the emotional safety necessary to contribute new ideas. When one person experiences impostor syndrome, it impacts everyone around them.

Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad, the challenge is so great… 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.

– Maya Angelou, poet, civil rights activist, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.

Key Terms

Impostor Syndrome: The psychological pattern in which one downplays their achievements and believes that they are secretly a fraud undeserving of their accolades.

Comorbidity: This term describes the presence of one or more conditions co-occurring with another condition. For example, anxiety is often comorbid with depression.

History

Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes first coined the term “impostor syndrome” when they published “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” in 1978. According to Dr. Clance’s website, she had struggled with impostor syndrome as a graduate student but thought that these worries were unique.2 It wasn’t until she began teaching at an esteemed liberal arts college, when students came to her with the same feelings of inadequacy and anxiety, that she and Dr. Imes came up with the term.2

Both clinical psychologists, they noticed that many of their highly successful clients (primarily women) did not feel worthy of their achievements.3 These clients were undergraduates, medical students and PhD faculty at universities across the country. Over 150 women they worked with over a period of five years expressed a sense of being a cheat: they worried they had been admitted to a graduate program by mistake or had fooled their colleagues into believing they’re competent when they’re not.3 Notably, the researchers asserted impostor syndrome is present more frequently in women than in men.

In the years between the publishing of Clance and Imes’ influential book and 1990, few studies had been conducted on the topic. That changed between 1991 and 2001 when more than 215 studies on impostor syndrome were published.

In 2011, building upon years of research on the impostor syndrome, Dr. Valerie Young published her groundbreaking book, “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It.” In it, she breaks down sufferers of the syndrome into five different types:

  1. The Perfectionist: Someone who focuses on the quality of his work, frequently to the point of demanding perfection from himself or avoiding new things for fear of failure.
  2. The Superhero: A superhero’s capital source of fulfillment stems from how many roles she can juggle, and she pushes herself to the limit to find success in each of these roles. A superman/superwoman feels as though she should be able to take on more, even though failure in a role equates to shame.
  3. The Natural Genius: Someone who believes that all things come easily to her and she can handle everything that’s thrown her way. When she has a hard time, she perceives this as failure.
  4. The Expert: Someone whose primary concern is to know everything and have all the answers. When, inevitably, she doesn’t have all the answers, she considers herself a fraud.
  5. The Soloist: This is someone who feels that she should be able to handle everything on her own, and concludes that needing help is a sign of failure.4

This book has deepened our understanding of the impostor syndrome and informed future work. By the time Dr. Young published her influential work, impostor syndrome had experienced an uptick in interest, with over 400 studies on the topic published between 2001 and 2011. That number has grown incredibly between 2011 and 2021, with almost 3,500 new studies published in this period.

The clients that Clance and Imes wrote about all those decades ago were majority white, between 20 and 45 years old, and middle to upper class. Investigators would need to conduct further research to uncover the impact of the impostor syndrome on minority groups and across cultures.

In 2019, a research team conducted a review of the literature analyzing 66 studies on impostor syndrome. They found that only four papers between 1990 and 2019 had been conducted outside of a European or Anglosphere country.1 Eleven studies demonstrated that impostor syndrome is common among Black, Asian American, and Latinx students; however, as of 2019, only Iran and South Korea have researched the phenomenon in their own non-white cultures.1 While it has become a more prevalent topic of discussion, impostor syndrome still requires further research to develop a more comprehensive view of what non-white groups experience.

People

  

Dr. Pauline Clance

Having worked as a clinical psychologist for over 30 years, Dr. Clance has published research on multiple topics ranging from “The ethical use of touch in psychotherapy” to the “mind’s response to the body’s betrayal.” In addition to her research and clinical work, she’s taught at several universities in the United States.

Dr. Suzanne Imes

Like Dr. Clance, Dr. Imes also works as a clinical psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia, a position she’s held for 41 years. She’s earned three Master’s degrees and a Doctorate, and this passion for learning has spanned her entire career.

Dr. Valerie Young

Having earned her doctorate in education, Dr. Young is an expert in impostor syndrome. She has spoken at over 80 colleges and universities, worked with multiple Fortune 100 companies, and served as a consultant for 14 law firms. She has won numerous awards for her book, which has been translated into six languages.

Consequences

No matter how you spin it, impostor syndrome is never a good thing: it is associated with increased feelings of anxiety, stress and depression. Maybe one or more of Dr. Young’s five types of impostor syndrome resonated with you. You might’ve thought, If I’m achieving so many things, maybe it isn’t so bad. However, impostorism doesn’t just lead to psychological pain, it can also lead to failure.

Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy, who has written extensively about impostor syndrome, explains that the feeling can cause us to “choke at the worst possible moments, [and to] disengage — thereby virtually ensuring that we will underperform at the very things we do best and love most.”5 She goes on to say that newfound successes, instead of alleviating impostorism, can actually make us feel worse because they represent new opportunities to feel unworthy.5

Looking specifically at minority groups, one study found that impostor syndrome had a stronger relationship with mental health issues than minority status stress.1 Another study observed that, while Black students felt more minority stress more than their Asian American or Latinx American counterparts, Asian Americans felt the most impostorism out of these groups.6 It bolstered findings from many other studies in saying that impostor syndrome, more than minority stress, predicted psychological stress and well-being.6

Some studies suggest the syndrome doesn’t necessarily improve with age. As Dr. Imes put it in a podcast with NPR in 2021, “Do you ever get over it? Are you ever cured? No.”7 She does, however, caveat her statement by noting it can get better as you get older and gain more confidence in your abilities.

What are you to do, then, if you’re currently experiencing impostor syndrome? Rosanna Durruthy, LinkedIn’s head of global diversity, inclusion and belonging, along with Dr. Kevin Cokley, a professor of African diaspora studies and educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, have three suggestions.

  • Join an affinity group: Impostor syndrome is aggravated when one is alone, so finding others with shared experiences will create a validating and safe environment to share your insecurities.
  • Find a mentor: Ms. Durruthy recommends finding someone whose accomplishments and values inspire you, and who ideally has also experienced impostorism.
  • Take note of your accomplishments: Write down every time in which you receive positive feedback so that when impostor syndrome rears its ugly head, you can refer back to these notes as a way to ground yourself. It can also serve as a means to identify discrimination.8

Controversies

Early research focused primarily on women and for the most part denied that men experience impostor syndrome. In their 1978 paper, Clancey and Imes write that impostor syndrome occurs much less frequently in men, even though their male colleagues openly disagreed with them on this assertion. The researchers did, however remark that they saw it in men who expressed more “feminine qualities,” to use their words.3

After giving her TED Talk on power in 2012, Cuddy began to receive a barrage of emails from people who also felt like frauds, and about half were from men.5 She realized that men have been conditioned by our society to feel more fear when talking about vulnerable feelings, and perhaps that’s why Clancey and Imes didn’t notice men’s impostorism in their early work. To throw even more confusion into the mix, the aforementioned 2019 literature review found 16 articles observed gender differences in rates of impostor syndrome, while 17 others did not. Clearly this is still a point of contention, and additional research is necessary to understand gender differences.

Another controversy related to impostor syndrome is something that requires circumspection:

whether or not what you’re feeling is really impostor syndrome. In other words, are you feeling like a fraud because of your own sentiments, or is your environment exclusionary and intolerant? The earlier suggestion about taking note of your accomplishments will help you figure out whether what you’re experiencing is truly impostorism of your own creation or if there’s something pervasive throughout the culture that needs to be addressed.

Case Studies

How COVID-19 contributed to impostorism in college freshman

One of the most unfortunate side effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is how it’s impacted education. In Great Britain, a new study has warned of increased levels of impostor syndrome with incoming college freshmen because they were unable to sit their A-levels due to the virus.9 Compared to 2019, where only 25% of students earned an A or A* (the latter being Britain’s equivalent to an A+), 45% of candidates from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland earned this grade in 2021.9 Instead of sitting these public examinations, they have been admitted on the basis of teacher-assessed grades.9 Given that exams are one form of external “proof” that someone is worthy of their seat in the classroom, it’s not surprising that they feel this way. Particular worry surrounds students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who – as we’ve seen – are more likely to feel impostorism to begin with.

Remote work and impostorism

Working from home has similarly inflamed feelings of impostor syndrome. Part of this is because working virtually means we are less able to pick up on unspoken cues that put our performance into perspective. Not only do isolating situations make it worse, but so do high-stress situations such as trying to get your work done while your kids are in the background. In times of stress, “you are likely to weaponize those biases against yourself in stressful situations, buying into the (false) idea that you’re not cut out for college or parenting and working full-time.”10 Time will tell whether our feelings of impostorism mellow once the pandemic passes.

Related TDL Articles

Supporting Female Mentorship at Work

How can cultivating others’ talents reduce feelings of impostor syndrome in oneself and others? Focusing on mentorship between women at work, this article broaches the topic of how professional women can be biased against other women, and what we can do to fix that.

Implicit Bias, Gender – And Why We Are All Culprits

Imposter syndrome goes hand-in-hand with and often amplifies, feelings of discrimination. This article delves into the toxicity of gender bias, specifically towards transgender men, and discusses ways to combat our biases in a meaningful way.

Sources

  1. Bravata, D. M., Watts, S. A., Keefer, A. L., Madhusudhan, D. K., Taylor, K. T., Clark, D. M., Nelson, R. S., Cokley, K. O., & Hagg, H. K. (2020). Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: A Systematic Review. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 35(4), 1252–1275. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-019-05364-1
  2. Clance, P. (2013). Impostor Phenomenon (IP). Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., ABPP. https://paulineroseclance.com/impostor_phenomenon.html
  3. Clance, P., & Imes, S. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0086006
  4. Young, V. (2011). The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It (1st ed.). Crown.
  5. Lebowitz, S. (2016, January 12). Men are suffering from a psychological phenomenon that can undermine their success, but they’re too ashamed to talk about it. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/men-suffer-from-impostor-syndrome-2016-1
  6. Cokley, K., McClain, S., Enciso, A., & Martinez, M. (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. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2161-1912.2013.00029.x
  7. Douglis, S. (2021, February 14). Life Kit: The Imposter Phenomenon. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2021/02/14/967917850/life-kit-the-imposter-phenomenon
  8. Wong, K. (2018, June 12). Dealing With Impostor Syndrome When You’re Treated as an Impostor. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/12/smarter-living/dealing-with-impostor-syndrome-when-youre-treated-as-an-impostor.html
  9. Henry, J. (2021, September 25). Britain’s Covid-era university students may suffer ‘impostor syndrome.’ The Observer. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/sep/25/britain-covid-era-university-students-impostor-syndrome-a-level-exams-undergraduates
  10. James, C. (2021, March 14). Does Covid Have You Feeling Like a Fraud at Work? Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/does-covid-have-you-feeling-like-a-fraud-at-work-11615723253

Read Next