Are you suffering from 'Imposter Syndrome'?
So, you feel like a fraud, not being able to live up to "intellectual expectations". but there are reasons for this psychological bent of mind - and these can be overcome
Fifteen years ago, when Kate (name changed) started graduate school at an Ivy League university, her ID card didn't always successfully swipe to let her into the buildings, and she decided that something more than a technical glitch was to blame. "I had this jokey narrative that the school was trying to tell me I didn't belong," she recalls. "Everyone was talking about Noam Chomsky. I didn't even know who he was! When my mom came to visit, I cried and told her I wasn't smart enough to be there."
Kate, in fact, graduated with high grades and now works at Google. Yet the gnawing notion that she's not good enough and that she's bound to be exposed as the imposter she really is - or rather that she thinks she is - has haunted her every step of the way. Paradoxically, she tends to aim high, putting herself in situations that exacerbate that very feeling. "Every time I embark on a new challenge, I think, 'Why do I keep doing this to myself?'" she says. Her sense of being unworthy of her own accomplishments pushes her to work harder and to excel. But, she says, "it also makes me insecure and annoying".
Kate identifies as having imposter syndrome - as do a lot of people these days. Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg drew a cultural spotlight to the term with the publication of her 2011 bestseller, Lean In, in which she admits to having felt like a phony as a student at Harvard and then in the corporate world. In a 2012 TED talk, that has garnered 36 million views, social psychologist Amy Cuddy shared some of her own personal dealings with imposter-ism. In recent years, celebrities, including Neil Gaiman, Kate Winslet, Renée Zellweger, and Lena Dunham, have outed themselves as having felt like big fakes. Within the vast universe of confessional online essays, so many have dealt with the topic that it spurred its own backlash essay, 'You Don't Have Imposter Syndrome', on the website Jezebel earlier this year.
It's impossible to truly ascertain whether imposter syndrome is on the rise or whether those who publicly declare it really qualify as afflicted, but interest in the topic has ballooned, from feminists seeking to explain the persistence of the gender pay gap and the glass ceiling to cultural critics who analyse imposter-ism as something that marginalised people experience when aspiring to success within the dominant culture, to sensitive young men pointing out that they feel like frauds, too.
It all makes for lively and important debate. But when a social science concept is popularised, it often wriggles out from the measured realm of empiricism and gallops into the wilds of speculation - which is why it's important to rein back the term and consider what is really known about imposter-ism, and what, if anything, can be done about it.
THE TRUTH ABOUT FEELING FAKE
For starters, the term imposter syndrome is itself a misnomer as it's not a syndrome in the clinical sense - there's no disorder, no diagnosis, no cure. What's commonly called a syndrome is more accurately known as "imposter phenomenon", or IP, a term coined in the late 1970s by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. In a study of 150 highly accomplished women, they noticed that the women frequently confessed to feeling unintelligent and unworthy of their success, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
IP formally captures more than just garden-variety insecurity coupled with a tendency to dwell on the negative. Clance and Imes emphasised that a key element is the fear that "eventually some significant person will discover that they are indeed intellectual imposters". Based on a scale that Clance subsequently developed to measure the phenomenon in individuals, research has shown that it's not a fixed trait but something that exists on a continuum and that about 70 per cent of people experience it at some time. Someone may score low on the IP scale at one point in life and moderate or high at another.
In the mind of the self-declared imposter, compliments have a short half-life and achievements feel unearned, criticism cuts deeply and failures linger. Despite clear external affirmations of their worth - a raise, promotion, acceptance into a prestigious university - they feel intellectually or professionally incapable. How, then, have they gotten where they are? They think it must be because of luck, charm, connections, or other factors that have nothing to do with ability.
There are behavioural indicators of imposter-ism as well. When given a task or assignment, self-declared imposters tend to either work very hard - much more than necessary - or procrastinate. Either way, says Frederik Anseel, a professor of organisational behaviour at Ghent University in Belgium, the outcome is interpreted to reinforce their feelings of fraudulence in what he calls the "imposter cycle". The worker bees usually succeed but then think it was only because they put in an unsustainable amount of effort. Procrastinators wait until the last minute so they will have an excuse if they don't do well. And then when they do - which is often the case because they're competent enough to pull off projects quickly - they chalk their success up to good fortune.
Imposter-ism is also distinguished by its noxious effects, which in some cases can be debilitating. The persistent fear and self-doubt it engenders, as well as the inability to savour achievements, can result in "a persistent state of physical and emotional depletion", Anseel says, which can lead to full-fledged depression. And the negative effects aren't necessarily experienced by the sufferer alone. Supporting a loved one who's convinced of his or her own charlatanism can be draining on partners, children, and friends.
Holly Hutchins, an associate professor of human resource development at the University of Houston, discovered that those high on the IP scale report more emotional exhaustion, less job satisfaction, and poorer performance - all kindling for burnout.
A key question about imposter-ism may not be "Who has it?" (Answer: almost everyone at some point) or "What does it do to you?" (Answer: nothing good). Instead, especially for those who experience it acutely or chronically, it's "Where does it come from?" Personality seems to be a major component. Anseel and colleagues have found that a lack of self-efficacy is the most important predictor of high IP, followed by maladaptive perfectionism and neuroticism. "People with low self-efficacy doubt their own abilities," he explains. "Maladaptive perfectionism refers to a very high standard, where they hold the bar much higher than others do and never feel a sense of accomplishment, even when their high standard is met. Neuroticism is characterised by a high level of anxiety, worry, and insecurity."
Intelligence may also be a predictor of self-declared imposter-ism. While no studies have explicitly looked at correlations between IP and IQ, some experts have speculated that part of what triggers imposter-ism is the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias that leads intelligent people to doubt their competency. Plus, intelligent people tend to be surrounded by other intelligent people, leading to skewed social comparisons.
While personality and intelligence may be the seeds of imposter-ism, it needs a certain type of environment in which to sprout (or, shall we say, fester). Marilyn Puder-York, a clinical psychologist and executive coach, frequently treats high-achieving clients with aspects of IP and sees a common element in their background: parents who placed outsized emphasis on their academic credentials. "They were afraid of not being good enough, of being abandoned in some way by a family who wanted a successful child," she says. "Their ambition was driven by a desire to avoid shame."
Certain workplaces and even entire professional fields are particularly fertile environments for imposter-ism. "It's hard to separate personality from anything else, but a competitive environment where transparent discussion of confidence or identity issues is discouraged can definitely foster IP," Hutchins says. The type of work one does and whether or not it can be measured objectively also relate to imposter-ism. As Jessica Collett, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame, notes, "It's probably less likely in a job such as financial advising, where your investments are expected to make a target return. Evaluations of work in academia are more subjective."
Ah, academia - the very environs where IP is studied - seems to be the one where it proliferates most. "My interest in the topic came from working with my own PhD students," Anseel says. "They were very stressed out about their work, and some disclosed that they feared someone would find out they were in the wrong place. I kept asking these students, who were very successful, bright, and hardworking, why these doubts crept in. They couldn't explain it. I wondered if it was my fault!"
Anseel senses that IP is more prevalent in professions and fields where "some people emerge as real stars whom everyone knows - a sort of 'winner takes all' model. These are climates where many aspire to that level, people keep silent about failure, and there's a strong tendency for social comparison among colleagues. Academia is one such climate; it attracts people who suffer from IP, then exacerbates it. Journalism seems to be the same way."
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
Imposter phenomenon has long been perceived as a women's issue, chalked up alongside systemic sexism as a cause of the dismally low percentage of women in leadership roles.
"Women often don't have that healthy dose of narcissism that men do," Puder-York says. "Men don't feel like frauds at the boardroom table or when they need to act like an expert when they're not. On average, regardless of skills or demonstrated competency, men walk into these situations with confidence or even overconfidence."
The research is mixed on the gender breakdown of imposter-ism, however. In her study of academics, Hutchins found it to be more prevalent among women, while in Anseel's study across industries, men reported it at slightly higher levels. It could be that imposter-ism is equally common among both men and women, yet they react to it differently because of cultural conditioning. For instance, Collett found that academic women with a high sense of imposter-ism were more likely to opt out of tenure-track positions, while men were not, suggesting the fortitude to "fake it 'til ya make it".
WAIT IT OUT
"I don't feel like an imposter now," says Susan Cain, the bestselling author of Quiet and spokesperson for introverts worldwide, who admits to having felt this way in the past. "I think that's one of the benefits of getting older. Your amygdala is less sensitive, and you have fewer negative emotions."
In fact, for young adults, "waiting out" imposter-ism might be the best strategy. "I like to frame IP as a normal developmental experience," Hutchins says. Her work among academics has shown that while some continue to wrestle with IP as they age, the feeling tends to lessen as people move into higher positions. Anseel's advice is similar, based on his findings that nearly a quarter of those in their 20s experience high imposter-ism compared with only 14 per cent of those in their 50s. "I see this as an inconvenience that will disappear over time," he says. "Only for a small group of people is it truly problematic in the long term."
Big transitions and fresh challenges, however, can activate IP across age categories. "Most high achievers have a basic confidence in their technical skills," Puder-York says, "but they may lose it as they take on senior leadership roles where they are expected to be assertive and to feel entitled to be a key player." It's the persistence and strength of one's fear of not being able to meet others' high expectations that distinguishes true imposter-ism from regular jitters.
There's no sure-fire treatment or intervention that can magically eliminate IP, though Anseel has found that social support on the job is a balm. He suspects that individual coaching to help employees assess themselves objectively and accept constructive feedback could be fruitful. For his part, he's eschewed the standard 'Wall of Fame' in his department for a 'Wall of Failure', where rejection letters, questionable ideas, and unsuccessful experiments are on display, helping project the fact that failure is normal.
Hutchins also recommends talking openly about IP as a way to defang it. Active coping skills she uncovered in her research include seeking emotional support, employing humour, exercising, engaging in spiritual practice, and confessing imposter-ism to one's mentors (though only a third of her subjects did so). An IP survivor herself, she recalls that the feeling subsided once she began to assign more value to the non-work aspects of her life, rather than basing her identity solely on her success in research. And ironically, decreasing the pressure on herself to achieve professionally actually led her to be more productive at work.
When coaching high achievers, Puder-York emphasises self-awareness. "Fear may have motivated them to achieve, but at some point it's a habitual pattern that is no longer useful," she says. "Reframing thoughts, meditating and, in some cases, taking a low dose of anti-anxiety medication are all useful tools." She also encourages testing out new behaviours. "What if you shared an opinion in a meeting?" she might suggest. "What are some of the actions you can take and ways you can dress and present yourself that project personal power? How can you behave like a confident person even if you don't feel like one?"
Alex Lickerman, a general internist whose personal Buddhist practice influences his work, has a prominent patient who suffers from IP. "He's world-famous in his field and the nicest, most gentle guy you'd ever meet - humble and brilliant," Lickerman says. "Managing the expectations of his reputation is very uncomfortable for him. He doesn't think he can live up to it. I urge him to forgive himself if he doesn't and to stop focusing on the narrative that others have forced on him. The focus should be on the work itself."
While easing suffering and improving career prospects are obviously worthwhile goals, a touch of imposter-ism might not be such a bad thing for everyone or for the culture at large. "There's value in not believing you're the best and the brightest person around," says Susan Pinker, a psychologist and the author of The Village Effect. "There's value in humility. I think that when we overemphasise self-confidence - which data clearly show is unrelated to competence - we also champion a form of narcissism. It's reasonable to question yourself. In that respect, talking about imposter feelings adds nuance to our understanding of success."
(Carlin Flora is the author of Friends-fluence: The Surprising Way Friends Make Us Who We Are.)
- Psychology Today