What is the Imposter Syndrome?

In a recent interview conducted for Time magazine former First Lady Michelle Obama asked inaugural poet Amanda Gorman, who wrote the stirring poem “The Hill We Climb,” “No matter how many speaking engagements I do, big audiences always trigger a little bit of imposter syndrome in me. Can you talk about how you’ve learned to deal with that…?” Gorman responds, “Speaking in public as a Black girl is always daunting enough… that in itself is inviting a type of people that have not often been welcomed or celebrated in the public sphere. Beyond that, as someone with a speech impediment, that imposter syndrome has always been exacerbated because there’s the concern — is the content of what I’m saying good enough? And… is the way I’m saying it good enough.”

Here we have two gifted, intelligent, and accomplished women — albeit in different parts of their life journey — revealing a very deep-rooted fear that millions of people share, regardless of gender, age, and level of achievement: the imposter syndrome. So what exactly is the imposter syndrome?

The term imposter syndrome is actually know by many names: fraud syndrome, imposterism, imposter phenomenon, imposter experience. The initial term imposter phenomenon was introduced by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in their paper “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” published in Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice (Volume 15, Fall 1978). The researchers defined imposter phenomenon as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness which appears to be particularly prevalent among a select sample of high achieving women.” Many of these individuals are unable to internalize their success and thus dismiss their abilities and achievements, attributing them to luck, timing, help of an individual — or even error. These individuals may experience doubt, rumination, stress, anxiety, or depression. Clance notes thats imposter syndrome is not a pathological disease that is inherently self-destructive, but rather interferes with the psychological well-being of a person. Despite the doubt and stress they may feel, individuals are able to fulfill their work requirements. In contrast to the imposter syndrome, consider the Dunning-Kruger Effect which is a cognitive bias where a person who is incompetent at something is unable to recognize their own incompetence. Moreover, that individual has a false inflated sense of confidence about their supposed competence.

In their clinical experience during the 1970s, Clance and Imes found that the imposter phenomenon occurred with much less frequency and with less intensity in men. To address the prevalence of the phenomenon in women, they wrote: “Certain early family dynamics and later introjection of societal sex-role stereotyping appear to contribute significantly to the development of the imposter phenomenon. Despite outstanding academic and professional achievements, women who experience [this] persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample objective evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the imposter belief.” The psychologists present the four factors which contribute to this phenomenon: (1) gender stereotypes, (2) early family dynamics, (3) culture, and (4) attribution style. Subsequent research over the decades by other psychologists has shown that the imposter syndrome is widely experienced by men and women. In a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science (Volume 6, 2011), researchers Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander note that an estimated 70% of people will experience at least one episode of imposter syndrome in their lives. Additional research has also identified a wider range of factors including: family expectations, overprotective parents (take note helicopter and tiger parents!), racial identities, perfectionism, low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety.

In 1985, Clance developed the first scale to measure the characteristics of the imposter phenomenon: the Clance Imposter Phenomenon scale (CIP). The scale measures three levels of fears: (1) fear of evaluation, (2) fear of not continuing to be successful, and (3) fear of not being as capable as other people. Clance also identified the six dimensions of the imposter phenomenon: (1) the imposter cycle, (2) the need to be the best, (3) characteristics of superman or superwoman, (4) fear of failure, (5) denial of ability and dismissing praise, and (6) feeling guilt and fear about success.

Over two decades later, in 2011, educational leadership expert Valerie Young published The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. After extensive research, she identifies five subgroups that experience imposter syndrome:
(1) The perfectionist: “It isn’t done yet, it could be done better.”
(2) The super person: “I should be great at everything.”
(3) The natural genius: “If I were actually good at this, it would not be so difficult.”
(4) The soloist: “I should be able to figure this out on my own.”
(5) The expert: “I can never know enough.”

In an article for Time titled “How to Deal with Imposter Syndrome” (June 20, 2018), journalist Abigail Abrams interviewed psychologist Audrey Ervin to find out how to deal with imposter syndrome. Ervin made these recommendations:
1. Acknowledge the negative thoughts and put them in perspective: do they help or hinder?
2. Reframe the thoughts and value constructive criticism.
3. Share your thoughts and feelings with trusted friends or mentors.
4. Do not let doubt control your actions.

Have you ever felt like an imposter?


If you enjoyed this essay, you might enjoy my book, Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf, based on my popular blog, Atkins Bookshelf. The blog explores the world of ideas — through books, movies, music, quotations, and the English language — for the intellectually curious. At the heart of Atkins Bookshelf is a lifelong love of books and literature; its goal is to educate, entertain, and inspire.
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President of Alexander Atkins Design, a leader in philanthropic graphic design for nonprofits & schools; author of Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf.

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