Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome refers to a mental condition in which people feel inadequate even when all logical evidence indicates just the opposite. People with imposter syndrome feel that their success is the result of luck or a mistake, rather than something they earned through their abilities and hard work. Even the highest levels of success and recognition do not raise self-confidence for those suffering from imposter syndrome. Convinced that they are truly a fraud, these people often fear being “caught” or “found out.”

While not an officially recognized psychological disorder, imposter syndrome has been studied by many educators and mental health professionals and is the subject of numerous books and articles. Imposter syndrome may also be referred to as “fraud syndrome” or “imposter phenomenon.”

The History of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome was first recognized in 1978 when psychology professor Pauline Rose Clance and psychotherapist Suzanne Imes published their research on a group of very successful women who secretly felt like they were not as capable as others perceived them to be. They described this condition as “imposter phenomenon.” Since that time, imposter syndrome has been documented in men and women from adolescence to old age.

Types of Imposter Syndrome

Feelings associated with imposter syndrome can be divided into three main categories:

  • Attributing success to luck: Those who suffer from imposter phenomenon can feel that their achievements were due to external factors, rather than their own abilities, intelligence and hard work. Examples of this type of thought process include: “i was just lucky this time,” or “that was just a fluke.”
  • Discounting success: Sometimes those with imposter syndrome try to downplay all that they have achieved and have a difficult time accepting complements. Examples of this type of thinking include: “that was really an easy exam” or “it wasn’t that much of a big deal.”
  • Feeling like a fake: People with imposter syndrome often feel that they don’t deserve the jobs or academic degrees they have earned. They fear being discovered or unmasked and revealed as frauds. Examples of this thinking pattern include: “I am giving the impression of being smarter than I really am” or “I’m afraid someone will find out that I don’t know all that much.”

People Affected with Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome occurs most often in people who are highly successful in professional and academic areas. While the original imposter phenomenon research involved a study on women, more recent studies show that this condition occurs in both men and women. People likely to suffer from imposter syndrome include:

  • actors
  • entertainers
  • social scientists
  • students
  • teachers and professors.

Causes of Imposter Phenomenon

While people in any profession can have imposter phenomena, and this condition is particularly common in academia, affecting both professors and students at all levels. Factors that may contribute to imposter phenomenon include:

  • aspirations that are different from family goals
  • expectations for a person’s certain age, gender, race or religion
  • highly critical families
  • high levels of anger in families
  • unrealistic standards imposed by families.

The atmosphere of academia itself may also lead to imposter phenomena. At York University, Dr. Diane Zorn has been researching imposter phenomenon for many years. She states, “Scholarly isolation, aggressive competitiveness, disciplinary nationalism, a lack of mentoring and the valuation of product over process are rooted in the university culture.” The combination of these factors, according to Zorn, provides the ideal breeding ground for imposter syndrome.

Some Positive Effects of Imposter Phenomenon

While imposter syndrome is a challenging experience for those with the condition, research has shown it can have some surprisingly positive effects for the individual sufferer. Dr. Shamala Kumar and Carolyn M. Jagacinski of Purdue University conducted a study that found that woman who scored high in imposter feelings also showed a strong desire to succeed.

This made the women in the study both try harder, and be more competitive. According to Dr. Mark Leary, the lead author of another imposter phenomenon study, some of the behaviors associated with this condition “lower others’ expectations – and they get credit for being humble.”

Treatment for Imposter Syndrome

Luckily, many of the symptoms of imposter syndrome seem to decrease over time when the affected person remains in a particular position and gains confidence in that role. For persistent symptoms, possible treatment strategies include:

  • group counseling
  • individual counseling
  • obtaining a mentor.

Developing a willingness to accept compliments and positive feedback from others can also be very helpful in gaining a more realistic self-assessment. In her 1978 article, Clance suggested keeping track of complements, rather than discounting them. Over time, imposter syndrome patients will begin to recognize that all the people who see something positive in their work cannot be wrong.

Getting support for imposter phenomena requires that sufferers identify imposter feelings, correct automatic thoughts and understand the difference between feelings and reality.