You probably know what it's like to feel like an impostor. You just got hired for a terrific new job, and you end up telling yourself you got lucky. You’re throwing a huge party, but you're certain the guests will know that you really have nothing interesting to say. You were chosen by the professor for an award, but you think they’ll take it away again when they find out you really aren't qualified.
If you can relate to any of these examples, you might be experiencing a phenomenon known as "impostor syndrome." It describes a pattern of doubting your own successes and harboring the chronic fear of being found out to be a total fraud because you think you're not as competent as you seem.
This syndrome is widespread: According to a 2011 article in the Journal of Behavioral Sciences, about 70 percent of people will experience it at some point during their lives. It’s more common among those who are starting out on something new, like going to graduate school or taking on a new job. And it’s pernicious because the fear of being found out is so much a part of impostor syndrome that hardly anyone talks about it, which makes it very hard to detect.
Impostor syndrome or impostor phenomenon (IP) was originally identified in the late 1970s by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. At the time, they were writing about women in high-profile jobs, but they later recognized that it was prevalent among the male population as well.
There’s no way to tell what kind of situation will inspire an impostor phenomenon reaction; sufferers may feel very competent in one area while doubting themselves severely in another. “Impostors” also tend to fall into vicious cycles of behavior. They may be paralyzed with fear over not being “good enough,” and thus they may excessively over-prepare.
Think of the host who works for days in the kitchen to serve multiple, elaborate dishes at a dinner party, because he or she believes that otherwise, the party will not be a success. Afterward, if the party goes well, the host may become convinced that the unnecessary effort has been essential, and may then continue to over-prepare for later events.
IP can cause significant psychological difficulties, like shame, guilt, depression, anxiety, heightened stress, or low self-esteem. And perhaps worst of all, it affects the impostor's willingness to take chances or to be optimistic about the future.
It’s not always easy to pin down what causes IP or the perfectionistic tendencies it can inspire. Sufferers have difficulty internalizing their own accomplishments—but why?
In some cases, the phenomenon can be tied to the sufferer’s family of origin. An “impostor" might have grown up feeling as though high grades were essential to earning one's parents’ love, or as if the parents would never be pleased no matter what one accomplished. Or perhaps the parents often praised their child for being “smart,” unwittingly setting up a sense of absolutist meritocracy—the notion that the child was either smart or dumb, successful or failed, with nothing in between.
Importantly, though—according to the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development—there is one factor that can reliably trigger impostor syndrome, and that is belonging to an under-represented minority group. Discrimination against such groups makes some people feel as though they are separate from those around them, and that those others may even harbor negative, stereotypical beliefs about their competence.
Consider the experience of women in science, working amidst overwhelming numbers of men. Without the built-in comfort of looking and sounding like the typical person in the field, these women may feel as though they do not belong, as if they must work twice as hard to prove that they deserve the job they already have. Essentially, when you feel different from your peers—whether because of race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other trait—you may feel like an impostor who will soon be found out.
If you feel this way—if you struggle to believe that you deserve everything you've accomplished—there are some tried-and-true ways to cope. First of all, you’ll need to start “watching yourself think,” and observing the ways your thoughts can turn against you. Identify the specific triggers of your impostor-like feelings.
When you know what these are, start questioning them critically in your thoughts and challenging them in your behavior. Make written lists of the real things you've accomplished, as a reminder of your capabilities. In these lists, be honest with yourself about the things you do well, and of which you should feel proud, as well as the things you might have to work on a bit. (Which is fine; you’ll need to give yourself permission to be imperfect.)
Perhaps, when consolidating your skills like this, you might think about sharing your expertise by teaching or mentoring someone else. You should also confide in someone you trust: a friend, a mentor, or a parent. You’ll most likely learn that you aren’t the only one who suffers from these feelings, and you might begin to understand that they are not only common, they're normal.
When you take on a new project, don't expect instant success. In fact, try to anticipate the opposite. Most first drafts aren’t very good; why should yours need to be perfect? And while you work, stop unnecessarily comparing yourself to others. It's never good for you! If you believe other people are better than you, you'll feel bad, but even if you tell yourself you’re better than they are, you’re still taking an invidious, unhealthy approach to that relationship.
Remember that other people—even the non-impostors—are not smarter or more confident than you are. They are merely able to reframe problems in less negative, less absolute terms—as challenges, perhaps. They absorb criticism as suggestions about how they can change for the better. They also believe that it’s OK to ask for help when necessary.
In the end, if you compulsively doubt your successes, it may help a lot to remember that these feelings are common. Everyone has a moment of doubt, every once in a while. It’s not possible to go through life without them.
And it's not a bad thing to realize that you don't fully know what you're doing, not all of the time. Be reassured that it’s normal to go on learning and growing throughout your life. As you do, you’ll also learn how to get through those moments without compromising your own confidence and effectiveness.
“Good enough" is a very important idea; paradoxically, it’s often better than “perfect."
Author's Note: A previously posted version of this article did not appropriately cite Drs. Clance and Imes' original academic article on the impostor phenomenon. For a self-test, to see if the description fits you personally, please visit this link.
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Clance, P.R., & Imes, S.A. (1978). The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Interventions. Psychotherapy: Theory Research and Practice, 15, 241247
Cokley, K., McClain, S., Enciso, Alicia, & Martinez, M. (2013). An Examination of the Impact of Minority Status Stress and Impostor Feelings on the Mental Health of Diverse Ethnic Minority College Students. Journal of Multicultural Counseling & Development, 41(2), 82-95.
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