What is impostor syndrome, why does it occur, and what can you do about it?
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 syndrome known as the impostor phenomenon. 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% 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, hardly anyone talks about it, which makes it very hard to detect.
Impostor phenomenon (IP) was originally identified in the late 1970s by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. At they time, they were writing about women in high-profile jobs, but they later recognized that IP was prevalent among the male population, as well. There are several main types of “impostors.”
Perfectionists, for instance, set goals that are far too high to accomplish, and then when they can’t hit every target, they feel as if they’ve failed. IP is also found among people who consider themselves experts, and are desperately afraid of looking like they don’t know everything they claim to know. Other people can’t bear to ask for help, on any task, and when they realize they cannot accomplish something alone, they feel like phonies.
Still other “impostors” have come to believe that they are naturally gifted, and that they should always be able to do well without exerting much effort. If one small task turns out to be out of reach, their sense of their own innate superiority can flip on its head, such that they feel like failures.
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,” and thus 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.