Feeling a Fraud? It's Not Your Fault!

We can all work together against imposter syndrome.

Posted Jul 19, 2016

Magnascan/Pixabay
Source: Magnascan/Pixabay

You’ve finished that work project, sealed that deal, turned in that paper, finally got that new job or promotion. How do you feel? Pretty pleased with yourself? Or anxious, inadequate, and worried you’re about to be uncovered as the fraudulent loser you really are?

If you can’t accept your successes at face value, if you worry about being ‘unmasked,’ if you secretly think you’re just not good enough, you may be suffering from Imposter Syndrome.  Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes first investigated ‘Imposter Phenomenon’ in the 1970s, and it came to widespread public attention through Clance’s book on the topic in 1985.

Clance originally identified Imposter Phenomenon amongst high-achieving professional women, but more recent research has found these feelings of inadequacy amongst both men and women, and in many walks of life, though it seems to be especially prevalent amongst people working in a field where their gender or race makes them an obvious minority.

People who suffer from Imposter Syndrome struggle to recognise their own achievements, and when they do acknowledge some success, they typically put this down to either luck or sheer effort, assuming that others succeed through genuine talent.  Imposter Syndrome is not a psychiatric disorder in its own right: it does not feature in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5).  But, unsurprisingly, it can lead to clinical anxiety or depression, as well as more day-to-day unhappiness and stress.

Alongside this psychological research, Imposter Syndrome has become widely known outside narrow academic circles – it’s a staple topic when we discuss success and achievement in the workplace, especially for women.  Looking online you can quickly find pages with 3, 7, 10, 11, 17, even 21 ways to beat your Imposter Syndrome.  Popular tips include talking to others, keeping a ‘happy file’ of reminders of your success, and letting go of perfectionism (easier said than done).

For many people who grapple with fraudulent feelings, it’s a huge relief to know that there’s a name for this disquiet, that there are tips and lifehacks which may help, and, above all, that they’re not alone in feeling this way. One of the most distressing aspects of Imposter Syndrome is the illusion that everyone around you is achieving effortless superiority, whilst you are the only one who is struggling.

It’s great that we are now able to recognize and talk about Imposter Syndrome, and anything which helps people handle their insecurities is truly worthwhile.

But there is a risk that lifehacks, top tips, and self-help manuals can give us the impression that Imposter Syndrome is a problem for the sufferer to solve, a consequence of her own personality defects or irrationality.  We risk forgetting to ask a crucial question – what is it about our workplaces, our social networks, our culture, which makes it so easy for so many people to feel insecure about their own proven abilities?

How do we celebrate achievement?  Do we acknowledge that success requires a mixture of talent, hard work, and a generous serving of good luck for all of us?  How do we treat the ‘token woman’ or minority colleague – do we value their contributions in meaningful ways?  Imposter syndrome is a problem for all of us, if it means people aren’t flourishing and achieving all that they can.  And it will take all of our efforts to address this problem. 

We can start small.  Can you think of someone who’s quietly doing a terrific job?  Have you let her know?  Now’s a great time!

Find out more: Pauline Rose Clance, who first described Imposter Phenomenon, has a useful website; you can find an overview of recent psychological research on the topic here