What is impostor syndrome?

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Do you ever feel like you’re not as clever as people think you are, that you’re somehow fooling everyone, or that you don’t deserve the success you have achieved?

If you answered “yes,” you may have experienced impostor syndrome. And you’re not the only one.

Adapted from an article by Marie Reine Haddad, PhD, National Institutes of Health

What is impostor syndrome?

“Impostor syndrome” — also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome — is a psychological phenomenon, defined by the Caltech Counseling Center as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true.”

Psychologists Dr Pauline R Clance and Dr Suzanna Imes first coined the term in a 1978 article in Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. The two observed that many highly-accomplished women believed they were not actually smart, and had fooled anyone who thought otherwise.

As they wrote, “However, despite their earned degrees, scholastic honors, high achievement on standardized tests, praise and professional recognition from colleagues and respected authorities, these women do not experience an internal sense of success. They consider themselves to be ‘impostors.'”

Impostor syndrome: No, you are not a fraud

Impostor syndrome can manifest itself in several ways, including feeling like a fake, attributing success to luck or timing, or discounting success.

Often, impostor syndrome is associated with high-achieving, highly successful individuals. People in diverse fields, such as acting, teaching, academia, and the social sciences all may suffer from impostor feelings.

Golden Globe and Academy Award winner Kate Winslet once said, “Sometimes I wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and I think, ‘I can’t do this. I’m a fraud.'”

This idea did not seem unusual to me or uncommon in our scientific field.

To assess how much impostor syndrome might affect the National Institutes of Health community, I questioned 18 of my colleagues — 90 percent of whom have higher education degrees — about their own experience with impostor syndrome. When I defined its characteristics, 67 percent identified with the phenomenon. As I went into more detail, many said: “How did you know exactly how I felt?”

But what about the men?

In the original article about impostor syndrome, Clance and Imes wrote, “The question has been raised as to whether or not men experience this phenomenon. In our clinical experience, we have found that the phenomenon occurs with much less frequency in men and that when it does occur, it is with much less intensity.”

While my sample suggests that men experience impostor syndrome as often as women in our community, it may affect life outside the lab more often for females. Less than half of the men thought that impostor feelings affected their personal lives, but more than 73 percent of the women thought it did.

Could impostor syndrome originate in childhood?

Some psychologists posit that imposter syndrome originates from childhood experiences. For example, sibling rivalry may create a situation where a person, regardless of what they accomplish, sees the sibling as the “smart one.” The person will then be driven to find ways of getting validation for his or her intellectual competence.

Family expectations may also feed impostor feelings. A person may begin to distrust their family’s perceptions of their competence and start to doubt him or herself.

A postdoctoral fellow inThe Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) emphasized, “In basic research, the reward is very scarce. which leads to frustration,” creating impostor feelings.

Avoid destructive thoughts and become aware of impostor feelings

Many high-achieving people with impostor syndrome have trouble acknowledging their own accomplishments.

According to Joyce Roche, author of The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success, the first step to alleviating this syndrome is to avoid destructive thoughts, and to become aware of impostor feelings.

“I try to remind myself of recent successes in my career, and through that reinforce the positive attitude,” said a fellow NIH scientist. Another fellow suggested that keeping a written record of positive feedback about your competence can help.

Additional tips and career-related coaching can be found in the award-winning book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, by Dr Valerie Young.

As a result of a combination of therapeutic interventions, together with a personal commitment to change, Clance and Imes wrote, “a high achieving woman who has previously considered herself an impostor begins to allow herself to state and feel, ‘I am intelligent. I have learned and achieved a tremendous amount. It is all right for me to believe in my own intellectual abilities and strengths.’

“She begins to be free of the burden of believing she is a phony and can more fully participate in the joys, zest, and power of her accomplishments.”

Self-recognition can be difficult, especially if the roadblock is you. So, work toward not doubting your own abilities, and don’t fear embracing the success that you have earned!

Nancy J Price & Betsy Bailey

Nancy J Price & Betsy Bailey

We're Nancy and Betsy, and we've been adventuring in the digital world since the mid-90s -- truly making us that type of entrepreneurial internet pioneer Gen X is known for! We started Myria.com back in 1998 and later launched SheKnows.com -- among various other online and print projects. Our partnership has spanned decades and crossed state lines (multiple times!). Nancy currently resides Arizona, and Betsy's newest home base is Minnesota. It's been an incredible journey of collaboration and innovation. You can read more about our story here!

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