What is Impostor Syndrome?

Impostor syndrome is the feeling that something you have earned or achieved is more a fluke, by chance or pure luck rather than skill and hard work. You’ve likely experienced this feeling before. For many it will happen in a new job, entering college or within personal relationships. I know I’ve experienced the feeling of starting a new job and wondering why in the world they hired me, that they would soon find out I was not competent for this job.  Many others will experience this in a new relationship, where they fear their new partner will discover who they “really are”, or when a young student starts college and doesn’t feel like they are up to par with their classmates.

Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes first introduced the concept in 1978 as the impostor phenomenon. They examined very high achieving women and their perceptions of their abilities and experiences. These women experienced internal feelings of inability and fraud within the positions they held, even though there was plenty of external evidence to show their achievements and worthiness in those positions. The researchers believed this may have occurred due a variety of different factors including gender stereotypes, culture, and the style to which they attribute causes of events and behaviors.

There’s been a lot of research on impostor syndrome since, which has gone on to investigate additional aspects of the phenomenon. Now it is called the impostor phenomenon because recent research examines this event as an experience or reaction to stimuli and is not considered to be a mental disorder. It is also not recognized by the DSM.

Part of experiencing this phenomenon is the impostor cycle. The first part of this cycle is receiving an achievement-related task. This task will soon follow with feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. These feelings will then produce one of two reactions: over-preparation or procrastination.

With procrastination, those experiencing these sensations will put the task off, leading to a last-minute effort to complete the task. While completion of this task will lead to a sense of relief, the nature of its completion will lead the experiencer to ignore positive feedback. Any achievements will be seen as luck or chance and will then be discounted.

When the experiencer over prepares, the individual will attribute their success to their hard work, which is seen as being outside of their personal ability. Instead of viewing their work as an achievement, they will view it as a lack of natural ability. All of this together will create a cycle where every time this occurs, it reinforces the idea that the individual is a fraud.

Impostor phenomenon is shown to equally experienced by men and women, though this is sometimes debated. It is sometimes argued that women experience impostor phenomenon more frequently than men. Men generally experience impostor phenomenon concerning success and the fear of not being good enough, while women experience it with relation to performance ability.

It has also been examined how race and gender play a role together in the experience of the impostor phenomenon. Some studies have shown that women of color tend to experience the impostor phenomenon due to a combination of racism and sexism. Men of color can also experience impostor syndrome, but being a woman of color can mean the individual is more susceptible because of these factors. 

Many of us will experience impostor syndrome at some point in our lives, whether it be in a new relationship, job, or education. There are a few ways to prevent or alleviate these feelings in order to help you realize your potential. The best way is to seek out professional counseling. Many times, this phenomenon is accompanied by feelings of anxiety, depression, and lowered self-esteem. If you are experiencing these feelings, as well as the feeling that you are a fraud in whatever you are pursuing, seeking out help can be one of the best ways to help with these thoughts and feelings.

Another way to reduce feelings of being an impostor is to improve feelings to intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is when you are motivated by a personal or internal reason. Instead of trying to achieve something for your parents, or to make someone happy, finding reasons you should do something for you can help switch the negative self-talk and turn around self-doubt. Examples may be wanting a career that helps others, or receiving a degree for yourself.

Mentors are also suggested as being helpful. Having someone who has gone through what you are looking to pursue means you will have someone to express any feelings of inadequacy. This person will have most likely experienced these feelings as well and will be able to empathize and provide advice and feedback regarding these feelings.

As stated previously, many of us will most likely experience this phenomenon at some point in our lives. But knowing what the impostor phenomenon is and how it works can help you begin to recognize it in yourself and take action when it becomes too great. Remember that if you are experiencing distress or feelings of depression and anxiety, please seek professional help. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health.