Imposter Syndrome

by | Nov 14, 2018


Do you ever feel that you are a fraud and will be found out? For example Jodie Foster reflecting on winning an Oscar said she had thought “it must be a fluke” and “I thought everybody would find out, and they’d take it back. They’d come to my house, knocking on the door, ‘Excuse me, we meant to give that to someone else. That was going to Meryl Streep.’”

Similarly Emma Watson (most known for play Hermione in the Harry Potter movies) related that “I’d walk down the red carpet and go into the bathroom, I had on so much makeup and these big, fluffy, full-on dresses. I’d put my hands on the sink and look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘Who is this?’ I didn’t connect with the person who was looking back at me, and that was a very unsettling feeling.”

Even John Steinbeck wrote in his journal “I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.” He thought his characters were “so much stronger and purer and braver” than he was.

Dr. Pauline Clance first identified what is now known as the “Imposter Syndrome” or “Imposter Phenomenon” in the 1970s while working with high-achieving women who felt as if their achievements weren’t deserved and that they would be exposed as frauds.

Further research revealed that this feeling of intellectual dishonesty and unworthiness is quite common. This summary research paper from researchers Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander states that “Feeling like an impostor seems to be widely experienced. Subsequent research has shown Impostorism affects a wide range of people.” For example, Impostorism:

  • has been observed to affect both genders (even though initially it was thought to only apply to females);
  • occurs in people with different occupations such as college students, academics, medical students, marketing managers and physician assistants;
  • Occurs across different cultures;
  • And, it is estimated that 70% of people will experience at least one episode of this Impostor Phenomenon in their lives.

The Sakulku and Alexander paper states “for impostors success does not mean happiness. Impostors often experience fear, stress, self-doubt, and feel uncomfortable with their achievements.”

Dr. Clance, who discovered the Imposter Syndrome, identified six potential types of Imposter Syndrome:

One: The Imposter Cycle. This is a self-perpetuating cycle of achievement and Imposter anxiety. Here’s a diagram:

Diagram from the Sakulku and Alexander Paper

Two: The Need to be Special – the Very Best. Imposters often have been top achievers, but in “a smaller pond.” When they reach a larger pond, such as college or the working world they may not feel as smart and special as compared to others and thus doubt their abilities and achievements.

Three: Perfectionism. Also known as the Superman/Superwoman Effect. Many Imposters expect to everything perfectly. They’ve set too high a bar and thus feel like their are not high achievers or worthy.

Four: Fear of Failure. This is similar to perfectionism. Many Imposters have a heightened fear of failure that can lead to feelings of shame and humiliation if not performing at the very highest standards.

Five: Denial of Competence and Discounting Praise. People with Imposter Syndrome have trouble accepting praise and internalizing their success. They view their success as due to luck or external factors. What can seem like false modesty might actually be Imposter Syndrome.

Six: Fear and Guilt About Success. For Imposters, “when their successes are unusual in their family or their peers, Impostors often feel less connected and more distant. They are overwhelmed by guilt about being different and worry about being rejected by others.”

Does any of this sound like you? Here is a self-assessment to see if you might be struggling with Imposter Syndrome: IP Self-Assessment

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome: From my research,people with  severe or persistent cases of Imposter Syndrome should probably talk to a therapist. Other steps include:

  1. Acknowledge it is an issue for you
  2. Realize that it is very common – you are not alone
  3. Journal about it. Often writing it down can help one gain perspective on problems and gain perspective.
  4. Engage in regular, positive self – talk.

1 Comment

  1. Interesting post, John.
    I think the criteria by Dr. Clance can be applied to conclude a multitude of different syndromes.
    But for me, I think the Impostor Syndrome is a foreign concept.
    For the most innocent interpretation, it’s self-imposed guilt complex. For others it’s an inner gnawing that they persist in being willing and accomplished frauds.


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