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The Fraud Who Isn't

When it comes to psychological concepts, impostor syndrome is a pop culture star. But what really makes people feel like intellectual fakes? And how can they overcome it?

Reinhard Hunger
Image: Masquerade mask
Reinhard Hunger

Fifteen years ago, when Kate* 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 impostor 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 impostor 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 impostorism. 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 Impostor 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 analyze impostorism as something that marginalized 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 popularized, 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 impostorism, and what, if anything, can be done about it.

Photo by James Hole

The Truth About Feeling Fake

For starters, the term impostor 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 “impostor 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 emphasized that a key element is the fear that “eventually some significant person will discover that they are indeed intellectual impostors.” 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 percent 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 impostor, 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 behavioral indicators of impostorism as well. When given a task or assignment, self-declared impostors tend to either work very hard—much more than necessary—or procrastinate. Either way, says Frederik Anseel, a professor of organizational behavior at Ghent University in Belgium, the outcome is interpreted to reinforce their feelings of fraudulence in what he calls the “impostor 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.

Impostorism 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 savor 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.

Many accomplished people with a high degree of IP believe that their anxiety about being exposed is what pushed them to get where they are, but even this partly sunny view of impostorism is flawed. A study published earlier this year in Frontiers in Psychology found that IP was correlated with a decrease in striving, career planning, and leadership interest among students and working professionals. Similarly, Anseel has found that it’s associated with lower levels of job satisfaction and commitment to one’s organization or company yet a higher likelihood of staying put instead of exploring better opportunities. 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.

Photo by Ethan Hill

Fraud Alert

A key question about impostorism 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 characterized by a high level of anxiety, worry, and insecurity.”

Intelligence may also be a predictor of self-declared impostorism. While no studies have explicitly looked at correlations between IP and IQ, some experts have speculated that part of what triggers impostorism 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 impostorism, 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 outsize 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 impostorism. “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 impostorism. 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 Ph.D. 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 hard-working, 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.”

Photo by Jonathan Sprague

Outside Looking In

Impostor 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 impostorism, 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 impostorism 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 impostorism were more likely to opt out of tenure-track positions, while men were not, suggesting the fortitude to “fake it ’til ya make it.”

Like the high-achieving women who sparked the original concept of impostor phenomenon, accomplished racial and ethnic minority groups are often beset with the feeling as well, an effect of stereotyping and the sense that they are seen not according to their own merits and abilities but as representatives of their race or ethnicity. Tiffany McLain, a therapist in San Francisco with a focus on young people of color who work in technology, says that many of her clients have an “underlying anxiety that they will do the one thing that will lead them to be ‘found out,’ for their shortcomings to be revealed. It’s twofold, because there is also a feeling that if they mess up and can’t maintain their success, they are badly representing all the other people in their group.”

Class intersects with race to magnify impostorism. McLain recalls counseling an African-American woman from a low-income background who found herself on a company retreat in Napa Valley, where $500 bottles of wine were passed around during brainstorming sessions. “She didn’t know how to talk about wine, and the extravagance was off-putting to her,” McLain says. What if someone asked the woman a direct question? Would she be exposed?

“It’s important to acknowledge that impostorism is associated with a sense of shame,” McLain says. “Shame leads you to pull out, put your head down, and avoid others. When you’re flooded with shame, it’s hard to soothe yourself and connect with others.” McLain talked with her client about using humor strategically to deflect her own discomfort without pretending to be something she wasn’t—say, by gently poking fun at her colleagues’ bourgeois ways. “In our society, it’s hard to be different, but people like others who embrace their differences. If you play them up, that gets rid of the fear that others are going to discover them.”

Ultimately, McLain argues, the onus should fall only partly on individuals to reframe their sense of professional competence. Companies and organizations must play their part as well in the cultures they build. “There’s a lot of talk about diversity in tech,” McLain says. “Some places want it in name only, while others actively create an environment of acceptance and respect for all.”

Wait It Out

“I don’t feel like an impostor 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” impostorism 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 impostorism compared with only 14 percent 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 impostorism 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 humor, exercising, engaging in spiritual practice, and confessing impostorism 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 nonwork 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 emphasizes 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 antianxiety medication are all useful tools.” She also encourages testing out new behaviors. “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?”

Questioning the very distinction between “fake” and “real” can alter the perception of impostorism as abnormal. “In our culture, we’re so interested in living authentically and having what we do be a true reflection of what we feel,” Cain says. “But part of being human is taking on roles. When judges used to put on robes and wigs, maybe they didn’t feel authentic, but they were embracing a role that was legitimate. Playing a role is not inauthentic if it relates back to a core personal project—the thing we’re passionate about. I felt like an impostor when I was promoting my book. It was scary, but I grew into it because it was in the service of my core project. So maybe it’s not as much about getting rid of impostorism as getting comfortable with it.”

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 impostorism 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 overemphasize 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 impostor feelings adds nuance to our understanding of success.”

Carlin Flora is the author of Friendfluence: The Surprising Way Friends Make Us Who We Are.

Photo by James Hole

Liz Bingham, 54

“I come from a working-class family,” says Bingham, a partner at the London branch of the financial services firm EY, where she has worked for 30 years. “I went into the workplace after high school. I was a closeted gay woman in a male-dominated profession. I spent the first five years of my career dreading the question, ‘Which university did you go to?’”

Bingham constantly feared that she wasn’t good enough. Chalking up her successes to luck, she nevertheless worked hard, not wanting to leave anything to chance. Even the money and prestige she accumulated weren’t enough to quell her distress.

Disclosing her sexual orientation was an initial step toward combating impostorism. “I came out to my boss in my early 30s,” she recalls. “We had a great conversation. He said that if I can’t be authentic with clients, over time it will diminish my effectiveness. It neutralized that fear that I would be ‘found out.’ ”

Last year, Bingham learned that she was being made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, an honor bestowed on those who’ve made a major contribution in their domain. Her lingering sense of impostorism led her to think, They can’t mean me! But finally she was ready to accept a compliment. “I went to Buckingham Palace and was given my medal by Prince Charles,” she says.

Photo by Ethan Hill

Surya Yalamanchili, 34

In high school, Yalamanchili wasn’t a stand-out. Everything changed after he took a computer programming class and started designing websites for local businesses. His client list ballooned. “It was the first time I felt a sense of accomplishment,” he says.

For a time, his teenage entrepreneurship gave him confidence. But a pattern developed: What loomed large in his mind were the rare stumbles. “I thought that if people knew the truth about those, they wouldn’t think I was good enough.” The chase for brass rings was on: “I didn’t think I deserved my past achievements unless I pursued a new one.”

Yalamanchili has since assembled a dizzyingly varied and impressive CV. He’s been a brand manager at Procter & Gamble, a Democratic nominee for Congress in Ohio (he lost to a Tea Partier), the head of a tech company, and a contestant on The Apprentice. Fears that he has to do more to prove himself are quieter for Yalamanchili now, though it hasn’t been an instant turnaround. “I’ve been wrestling with this since I was 17.”

One incident pushed Yalamanchili at least partway out of the impostor mindset: In 2014, he fell down a flight of stairs and was badly injured. Convalescing made him pause to actually recognize his achievements. “I thought, ‘What good is any of this if I’m not allowing myself to enjoy some of my luck?’” Luck perhaps, but also talent and years of hard work.

Photo by Jonathan Sprague

Berenice Mendez, 26

Mendez was raised in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, just across the Texas border. When she enrolled at the University of Texas, El Paso, impostorism quickly crept in. “I had a feeling I shouldn’t be there because I wasn’t a citizen,” she says. “My peers had more money, and so many concepts were foreign to me, like GPA.”

After working for a local graphic design firm after graduation, Mendez applied for jobs in San Francisco. “I did phone interviews and thought I did horribly. I wanted to cry and hide. Then I got called back for second rounds.”

Mendez was hired by HelloSign, which furnishes electronic signatures. “When people complimented my work, I thought they were just being nice or believed I was good considering my circumstances—being a Latina and a noncitizen,” she says.

“I was hypervigilant about not making mistakes. I struggled to say ‘no’ to projects. My boss picked up on it. She said, ‘You can show me sketches, you don’t have to have a finished piece.’ But my mentality was that I’d sold myself as a hard worker, and I had to live up to that.”

After a year, the twin imposter qualities of sky-high standards and an inability to accurately judge one’s own performance led Mendez to be (happily) surprised when her boss gave her a significant raise. “I’m working on my impostorism,” she says. “At the same time, feeling that I have to prove myself is part of how I work. I prepare a lot before I do things. That’s not necessarily bad.”

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