The impostor syndrome is a non-clinical phenomenon that makes extremely intelligent and successful people doubt their own abilities. Such individuals consider themselves to be frauds, who believe that they somehow made it through to the top of their careers by sheer luck and unexpected results.
“Certain early family dynamics and later introjection of societal sex-role stereotyping appear to contribute significantly to the development of the impostor phenomenon.”
―Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes
There are people in this world who, despite being successful, feel less than average and constantly demean their abilities. Even though such individuals have made significant contributions to society and in their respective professional fields, they live with the nagging feeling of having fooled the world at large. They feel undeserving of the accolades bestowed upon them, and that guilt drives them to do even better so as to prove themselves wrong.
This constant upheaval within oneself has a non-cynical diagnosis known as the ‘impostor syndrome’, which has made many successful individuals undergo years of suffering and self-loath. Thus, the one significant difference between general feelings of low-esteem and impostorism is that impostor syndrome is often associated with high achievers and successful individuals. This Buzzle article discusses the nuances of the impostor syndrome in further detail.
Impostor Syndrome Definition
Although impostor syndrome is not a recognized psychiatric condition, it has been covered extensively by several publications. According to experts, people suffering from this syndrome feel like frauds despite being actually competent. Such individuals find it hard to credit themselves for their hard work and achievements. Instead, they give undue credit to fate, luck, and others for their own success. This belief of inadequacy stems from the lack of faith that these individuals have in themselves and their own abilities.
Impostor Syndrome Quiz
Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes
The term ‘imposter phenomenon‘ was coined by clinical psychologists, Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes. This phenomenon was inspired through an interview conducted in 1978 by the duo on 150 extremely successful women, who felt no sense of achievement despite having earned considerable success and praise for their contributions.
These women thought themselves to be phonies, held the strong belief that they were not intelligent, and had somehow managed to fool people into thinking otherwise. For instance, female students suffering from impostor syndrome felt that they did not deserve to belong in their graduate school because the admission committee had mistakenly admitted these women. Similarly, these female students attributed their high scores to fate, luck, mistake in grading, and lenient marking by professors.
The feeling of inadequacy and phoniness manifested into clinical symptoms, such as:
- Long-term depression
- Lack of self-esteem and confidence
Features of Impostorism
According to the duo, impostor phenomenon has certain unique features which are:
- They think that people have mistakenly inflated their perception of the impostor’s abilities.
- That the impostor is living in constant fear of being discovered and his/her actual and less-than-mediocre abilities shall be revealed.
- The innate tendency of the impostor is to attribute his/her success to external and unrelated causes, such as luck, more than expected efforts, and help from other sources.
- Since these individuals are afraid of being found, they work harder than others, which leads to more success and praise. All this makes these individuals feel all the more guilty and phony.
- Such individuals try their best to give the right answers, and do the acceptably right things, even though they may personally disapprove of their acts. This tiff with their inner self makes them treat themselves as frauds.
- Individuals with impostor syndrome often downplay their own intelligence in order to avoid being rejected by others.
The impostor syndrome was thought to have been more evident among women; however, with more research, it was found that men also experienced feelings of impostorism. The studies carried out by Kay Deaux in The Behavior of Women and Men (1976) provided ample evidence that women have considerably lower expectations from themselves as compared to their male counterparts and would often justify their failure with lack of personal ability, as compared to men, who blamed their failure to lack of luck or greater difficult standards of task.
On the other hand, the 1985 academic survey carried out by Mary Topping and Ellen Kimmel revealed that men scored higher in having experienced feelings of impostorism, such as fearing failure and appearing incompetent to others.
Causes of Impostorism
Differential Family Attitude
Sometimes, children belonging to one family are labeled and treated differently. One child is identified as the ‘intelligent one’, while the other is labeled as the ‘sensitive one’, even though the child being identified as sensitive may prove to be more intelligent than the other sibling. Either children can develop impostor syndrome if neither are able to live up to the expectations of their parents.
For instance, a child who is identified as intelligent may feel pressured into participating in quizzes, despite not wanting to. This child may feign illness, truly believe himself/herself to be dumb, or think that himself/herself is not smart enough to participate in the quiz, so as to unconsciously avoid having to participate in the quiz competition.
Another scenario could be when the child being identified as the sensitive one tries to prove his/her parents wrong by scoring more marks than the sibling and doing consistently well in academics. However, the parents continue to overlook the accomplishments of the so-called sensitive child and continue to treat him/her as per their own preconceived notions of the child’s abilities. Having failed to gain the parent’s confidence, henceforth, the sensitive child will begin to question his/her own intelligence and attribute every act of success to flukes and unexpected results, that are not related to his/her own individual abilities and intellect.
Parental Pressure and High Expectations
The child may also develop impostor syndrome after feeling burdened by having to constantly prove himself to his parents, who consider the child to be perfect. Parents may pressure the child into feeling like an impostor, if the child is unable to cope with the expectations of the parents. Therefore, even though the child has been raised to believe that he is perfect, he realizes that he too experiences challenges and finds it difficult to overcome problems. Nonetheless, the child pretends to be at ease despite undergoing stress and confusion, because he is too scared to alter the impression created by his parents about him. So, the child will silently suffer and work harder to accomplish a task, rather than seek help. Therefore, the child ends up feeling like an impostor because he feels he isn’t actually perfect and is pretending to be one, because he has to hide his fear of failure and being found out by his parents. Thus, when the child actually succeeds, the success feels fake and uncalled-for.
How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome
You’re not the only one having to deal with this feeling of being a faker. Instead, consider seeking counseling so that you can speak about your insecurities openly and in complete confidence.
Consider speaking about your feelings of being an impostor with family, close friends, or other individuals who have expressed having experienced similar feelings as well. Knowing that you’re not alone and there are others who have been coping with similar feelings, can help you overcome such harmful preconceived notions about yourself.
Deflect Impostor Thoughts
Learn to recognize the issues or scenarios that trigger impostor thoughts to plague your mind. Learn to deflect such thoughts with positive reinforcements, ones that help you feel secure in your own abilities and feel like a genuinely successful person, who deserves credit for his/her accomplishments.