What Is Imposter Syndrome
Updated: Aug 9
Clance and Imes first defined imposter syndrome in 1978, it describes a psychological experience of intellectual and professional fraudulence. (Clance and Imes, 1978; Matthews and Clance, 1985). Individuals experiencing impostorism believe others have inflated perceptions of their abilities and fear their actual skills will be discovered.
Characteristics of Imposter Syndrome
An inability to realistically assess your competence and skills
Attributing your success to external factors
Berating your performance
Fear that you won't live up to expectations
Sabotaging your own success
Setting very challenging goals and feeling disappointed when you fall short
For some people, imposter syndrome often fuels feelings of motivation to achieve, this can result in a form of constant anxiety where one might over-prepare or work much harder than necessary to “make sure” that nobody finds out you are a fraud.
This can start a vicious cycle where one might think that the only reason you survived that class presentation was that you stayed up all night rehearsing. Or you think the only reason you got through that party or family gathering was that you memorized details about all the guests so you would always have ideas for small talk.
The problem with impostor syndrome is that the experience of doing well at something does nothing to change your beliefs. The more you accomplish, the more you just feel like a fraud. It's as though you can't internalize your experiences of success. The thought process is that if you do well, it must result from luck because a socially incompetent person just doesn't belong.
Although Imposter Syndrome is not a recognized disorder, it can lead to other negative behaviors like:
Avoiding display of confidence
Use of charm
The feeling of being phony
Avoidance of challenging projects
Identifying Imposter Syndrome
Imposter Syndrome is not uncommon, over 70% of people have experienced imposter syndrome at least once in their lives – you are not alone. If you think you might have imposter syndrome, ask yourself the following questions:
Do you agonize over even the smallest mistakes or flaws in your work?
Do you attribute your success to luck or outside factors?
Are you very sensitive to even constructive criticism?
Do you feel like you will inevitably be found out as a phony?
Do you downplay your own expertise, even in areas where you are genuinely more skilled than others?
If you think or feel like you are a fraud or an imposter, it may be helpful to talk to a therapist. Characteristics associated with imposter syndrome can affect many areas of your life.
Coping With Imposter Syndrome
The first step in overcoming imposter syndrome is to realize it exists, you need to start asking yourself:
"What core beliefs do I hold about myself?"
"Do I believe I am worthy of love as I am?"
"Must I be perfect for others to approve of me?"
In order to move past these feelings about yourself, you’ll need to become comfortable confronting some of those deeply ingrained beliefs you hold about yourself. This can be hard since you might not even realize that you hold them, you can try the following techniques:
Share your feelings and talk to other people. Your irrational fears and beliefs tend to fester when hidden and not talked about.
Access your abilities, write down your accomplishments and what you are good at, and compare that with your self-assessment.
Don’t focus on doing things perfectly, but rather, do things reasonably well and reward yourself for taking action.
Question your own thoughts whether your thoughts are rational. Does it make sense to believe that you are a fraud, given everything that you know?
Stop comparing yourself to others in a social situation, every time you do so you will find some fault with yourself that fuels the feeling of not being good enough or not belonging. Instead, during conversations, focus on listening to what the other person is saying. Be genuinely interested in learning more.
Use social media moderately. When you try to portray an image on social media that doesn't match who you really are or that is impossible to achieve, it will only make your feelings of being a fraud worse.
Imposter Syndrome is the self-doubt that most people experience where it can impact an individual’s career and leadership ability. Remember that if you feel like an impostor, it means you have some degree of success in your life that you attribute to luck. Try instead to turn that feeling into one of gratitude. Look at what you have accomplished in your life and be grateful. If still feel like your feeling of being an impostor is holding you back, it is important to speak to a mental health professional.
Clance, P. R., and Imes, S. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychother. Theory Res. Pract. 15, 241–247. doi: 10.1037/h0086006
Clance, P. R. (1985). The Impostor Phenomenon. Atlanta: Peachtree.