In this article, you will learn:
- What is Imposter Syndrome?
- Characteristics of Imposter Syndrome
- Imposter Syndrome Symptoms
- Imposter Syndrome Types
- History of Imposter Syndrome
- Imposter Syndrome Test / Assessment
- What Causes Imposter Syndrome?
- How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome?
- Racial Imposter Syndrome
In this article, we will discuss imposter syndrome definition, imposter syndrome symptoms, and how to deal with imposter syndrome.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
The imposter syndrome definition was first given by Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1985.
Define Imposter Syndrome
Both Clance and Imes stated that Imposter Phenomenon refers to an internal experience of intellectual phoniness. Highly successful individuals typically experience this syndrome.
In other words, successful individuals experience the feeling of fraudulence. This is because they believe their achievements are underserved. They continue to doubt their own accomplishments and thus have a fear of being exposed as a fraud.
These feelings exist despite the fact that there is objective evidence of their accomplishments.
Imposters no doubt are highly successful. However, they attribute their success to external factors like luck over their own capabilities.
As a result, they consider themselves to be frauds. This is based on their self-created belief that they are not truly deserving of the success that comes their way.
Hence, they live in a fearful state that one day they would be exposed. It is important to note that people with Imposter Syndrome measure their competence through an internal set of standards. Further, these internal standards are never fulfilled at any point in time.
But, in reality, such individuals are high achievers and ideally should measure their competence by their achievements.
Further, Impostor Syndrome affects both men and women across various cultures, professional positions, occupations, and levels of achievement.
A estimated that 70% of people will experience Imposter Syndrome at least once.
In fact, there are many celebrities who acknowledge that they experience the feeling of being imposters.
Both Clance and Imes reported Imposter Syndrome as a phenomenon occurring exclusively in women.
However, further work on Impostor Syndrome suggests that even men experience such a phenomenon.
Characteristics of Imposter Syndrome
There are six characteristics that indicate Imposter Phenomenon as suggested by Clance. These are as follows:
I. Imposter Cycle
As per Clance, the imposter cycle is one of the most fundamental characteristics of the Imposter Phenomenon.
A. Receiving an Achievement Oriented Task
The cycle begins when an individual is assigned an achievement-oriented task.
Such tasks may include:
- a therapist achieving success in overcoming the General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) of his patient.
- a professor responsible for the high performance of his/her students
- a medical practitioner responsible for undertaking a successful operation
- a student performing well in an examination
B. Experiencing Anxiety or Self-doubt
Once such a task is given to an imposter, such an individual experiences extreme anxiety, self-doubt, or worry.
As a result of these anxiety symptoms, the imposter reacts to such symptoms in extreme ways.
While studying a group of female students and faculty members, Clance observed the imposters belonged to one of the two groups. She named one group as ‘Sensitive’ and the other as ‘Bright’
Women in this group were considered less intelligent relative to an intelligent sibling or family member. In fact, they were considered sensitive and socially adept.
Such women were repeatedly made to feel that they can never be as intelligent as their intellectual siblings. This was despite the fact that such women had a number of accomplishments to their kitty.
Furthermore, a part of the personality of a sensitive woman believed what she was made to feel by her family members. However, another part of such a woman disapproved of it.
However, her family members did not approve of her academic achievements. Instead, they attributed intelligence to her bright sibling in the family.
As a result, such a woman seeks validation for her intellectual competence. At the same time, she secretly doubts her intellect. This is because she believes that external factors like her feminine charms or social skills are responsible for her success.
This group included women who were considered intelligent and superior in every way. This included personality, talents, and appearance.
Such women were made to believe that there is nothing that they cannot do.
‘Furthermore, such women have also narrated the instances of their excellent performance as an infant repeatedly.
In short, the women in this group were considered perfect by their family members. However, when such women encounter challenging experiences in the outside world, they find it hard to achieve such things.
Although they are obligated to fulfill the expectations of their family. This is despite the fact that such women understand that they do not have the capacity to perform such challenging tasks.
So, as children, such women have increased doubts about their capabilities when they start going to school.
Although they perform brilliantly at school, they have to put immense effort in to such a performance.
This is against their internal belief that they can do anything with ease. So, such women start considering themselves as dumb when they start realizing that they cannot live up to their internal standards.
As a result, such women start questioning their parents’ perceptions of them and their own capabilities.
C. Overpreparation or Procrastination
The next step in the imposter cycle is that the imposters react to such anxiety or worry in extreme ways. They may either overprepare or showcase procrastination initially.
Overworking is a self-perceived pattern of the imposter cycle. It becomes problematic when the imposter puts an effort that exceeds the amount of energy required to produce a work of reasonable quality.
Such extreme behavior interferes with an impostor’s other priorities. It is important to note that the imposter recognizes his overworking pattern.
However, such an individual is unable to break the imposter cycle.
As per Clance, an individual may showcase four types of behaviors. The first type of behavior involves diligence and hard work.
While observing the participants in her experiment, women constantly experienced fear that their stupidity would be discovered.
As a result, they start studying or working hard to prevent such a discovery. Further, she observed that their hard work finally paid off. This was because the performance of women was excellent.
The reason behind such a performance was the following cycle that they experienced.
The Imposter Cycle
- worry about intelligence
- work hard and use cover-up strategies
- received good grades on outstanding performance
- getting approval from authorities and experiencing good feelings temporarily
No doubt the feelings of success made such women happy for a temporary period of time. However, it became extremely challenging for them to give up the imposter cycle.
For instance, women developed the unstated but vague belief that if they would think about succeeding, they would actually fail.
Further, such a belief turns into a ritual that guarantees the women apparent success. However, in reality, success is an empty one. And the feelings of happiness are short-lived.
This is because the underlying sense of phoniness remains intact.
Such imposters may react to anxiety symptoms by procrastinating to perform the task initially.
Further, immense preparation follows such procrastination.
D. Getting Success
The imposter feels accomplished, relaxed, and happy on task completion. This is because they get immense success after working hard for the achievement-related task.
In addition to this, they receive positive feedback about the successful accomplishment of such tasks from higher authorities.
But, this feeling is quite short-lived. This is because the imposter does not give credit to his/her own capability for such an accomplishment.
Rather, he/she denies his/her success and behaves in the following four ways as per Clance.
Prepare too Hard
We have already explained this behavior in the above point. Let’s move onto the other three types of behaviors that the imposter portrays.
The second type of behavior that the imposter displays is to engage in some sort of intellectual inauthenticity.
At times, the imposter may not reveal his own ideas or opinions.
He/she may give suggestions supporting the viewpoint of their supervisors or seniors.
Basically, such an individual engages in to intellectual flattery. For instance, a student may quote numerous studies that align with his/her senior’s opinion.
However, in reality, such a person does not believe in those views at a personal level.
Else, he/she remains silent in the face of the opposing viewpoint.
As a result of such behavior, the imposter feels that if he/she reveals his/her own opinions, he/she might be considered unintelligent.
This prevents the imposter from knowing whether or not his own views would have been assessed as sensitive.
This situation contributes to the imposter phenomenon.
Use Charm and Perceptiveness to Win Approval
Imposters use charm and perceptiveness to get approval from their seniors.
Clance observed that women use charm in a way to be liked and recognized as an intellectual.
However, in reality, she believes that she is not an intellectual.
In fact, such a woman seeks a mentor who helps her in believing that she is an intellectual.
For such a thing to happen, she first selects an individual who respects her. Further, she tries to impress this individual.
She may perform various actions indicating she understands the concern of her mentor. In addition to this, she volunteers to assist the mentor with the tasks important to the mentor.
In fact, such a woman may even get sexually involved with her mentor.
All of this leads to keeping the imposter syndrome intact.
This is because of two reasons.
Reasons For Keeping Imposter Syndrome Intact
First, such a woman does not believe her mentor when he claims that she is an intellectual person.
This is because she believes that her mentor gave such an opinion based on other characteristics that she possesses.
Secondly, such a woman continues to believe that she would not need the approval of an outsider if she would have been brilliant in reality.
She thinks that she should have had internal confidence in her capability.
Thus, getting approval from her mentor proves that she is not an intellectual.
Counterattitudinal Behavior to Gain Acceptance
At times, the imposters develop a counter attitudinal behavior to avoid negative consequences.
Let’s consider women in Clance’s study as having imposter characteristics.
These women believed that displaying confidence in their own capabilities would result in negative consequences.
This belief was based on the premise that independent women are viewed as hostile within society.
Further, a woman’s femininity is questioned when she is successful.
Thus, women do not accept their own accomplishments due to an underlying fear that they will be rejected or considered less feminine.
They also believed that achievement-oriented girls do not portray sex-appropriate behavior.
Therefore, such women showcase their intellectual mastery to the world outside. But, at the same time have fear of the negative consequences of being a successful woman.
II. Need to Be the Very Best
Imposters secretly internalize the feeling that they need to be the very best relative to their peers.
Clance observed that imposters are typically high achievers. Thus, they have been often at the top of the class throughout their school years.
However, such individuals realize that there are people who are way exceptional as compared to them once they enter the university.
It is at that time they get an understanding that their own talents and capabilities are not unusual.
As a result, they often disregard their own talents and consider themselves to be dumb when they are not the very best.
In other words, imposters disregard their success as they find a gap between their actual performance and the ideal standard.
III. Superman or Superwoman Characteristics
Clance suggested that the characteristic of ‘Need to be the Very Best and ‘Superman/Superwoman’ aspects are related to each other.
People who have perfectionist tendencies typically showcase this characteristic of the imposter phenomenon.
Such people have an expectation that they would do everything flawlessly. And such a tendency is evident in every aspect of their life.
As a result, they set high and unachievable goals. Besides this, they also have high and almost impossible standards for self-evaluation.
Thus, imposters are overwhelmed and disappointed due to the setting of high standards. Additionally, they often over-generalize themselves as failures when they are unable to achieve their perfectionist goals.
IV. Fear of Failing
Imposters often experience immense anxiety symptoms when they are given achievement-related tasks. This is because they have an underlying fear of failing to perform as per their own ideal standards.
Imposters feel highly humiliated and shameful when they commit mistakes or errors. They also go through such feelings when they are not able to perform the given tasks at the highest standard.
Clance and O’Toole claimed that the fear of failure is the underlying motive of most of the imposters.
As a result, such individuals are not able to achieve all they are capable of achieving. They do not have a realistic sense of their own competence.
Further, they do not internalize their strengths. Also, imposters do not accept their deficits and enjoy their successes.
In fact, such individuals may turn down the opportunities to advance as they have immense anxiety and fear of failure.
Such feelings undermine their ability to function at their highest level.
This may deter them from achieving their dreams.
V. Continuous Denial of Competence
As mentioned earlier, imposters find it challenging to internalize their success. They find it difficult to accept appreciation from the outside world.
In addition to this, they believe that they are not responsible for their accomplishments.
In fact, such accomplishments were possible as a result of external factors like luck and not their own capabilities.
Imposters not only consider the positive feedback from others as invalid. But they also discount the objective evidence of their accomplishments.
In other words, they focus on evidence that proves that they are incompetent. In fact, they even go to the extent of developing arguments to prove that they do not deserve appreciation for their achievements.
VI. Fear and Guilt Related to Success
Imposters often have fear and guilt about their success. Such feelings arise from their underlying belief that they would fail in all their pursuits.
This belief develops as a result of their immense responsibilities and societal expectations. Women expect themselves to take on many responsibilities apart from work.
Even society expects them to take on various roles. For instance, they have to care for their children, home conjugal relationships, parents, family, etc.
Besides, they also expected to perform well at their workplace. Such expectations give rise to feelings of guilt in women.
The internal conflict that they go through creates a barrier to their own sense of competence and empowerment.
As a result, their level of accomplishment gets impacted.
Imposter Syndrome Symptoms
In case you experience a minimum of the following two symptoms, then you may be experiencing imposter syndrome.
- Self-doubt, fear, or generalized anxiety about success
- Finding difficulty in accepting the positive feedback or appreciation received from others
- Attributing external factors like luck, feminine charms, etc as the real causes for success
- Disregarding their own abilities, skills, and talents
- Setting unrealistic goals
- Overworking out of fear of one’s own incapacities getting discovered
- Low self-confidence leading to not believing in one’s own ideas or opinions
- Feeling humiliated and disappointed at times for one’s current accomplishments
- Comparing one’s one capabilities with people around
- Feeling disappointed and discouraged if one is not the best
- Have fear of important people evaluating one’s capabilities
Imposter Syndrome Types
Imposters are high achievers. However, they measure their competence through internal standards and not through their achievements.
Further, these internal sets of standards are unrealistic in reality. Dr. Valerie Young, a leading expert on imposter syndrome, claims that there are five imposter syndrome types.
Perfectionist imposters are the ones who expect their competence to be 100% perfect. They consider anything less than perfect as a failure.
Such an individual always focuses on how he could have performed something in a better way.
Such imposters set excessively high and unrealistic goals. Further, they often experience self-defeating thoughts and behaviors when they are unable to achieve such goals.
Likewise, they also set unrealistic standards for their self-evaluation.
Due to their need to do everything flawlessly, they have a tendency to overwork.
A natural genius imposter is the one who measures his competence by how easily the achievement came to him/her.
Such an individual considers hard work and perseverance as negative traits. This is because such an imposter believes that success should have come more naturally to him.
They have these underlying beliefs because as a child, they were made to believe that they will perform well in all aspects of life.
Be it their profession, relationships, appearance, other talents and skills, etc.
However, when such individuals face the real world, they realize that there are exceptional people apart from them.
It is at that point in time they get an understanding that they are not good in everything they do.
Superman or Superwoman
An imposter having superman or superwoman aspects perceives his/her competence as the ability to manage various roles and responsibilities. And that too at the same time.
As a result, such imposters believe that falling short in any of the roles would mean overall failure.
This is despite these people having major accomplishments in various aspects of their life.
They want to be perfect as a parent, caregiver, professional, conjugal lover, etc
An imposter who is an expert measures his competence by the amount of knowledge or skill he possesses. Such individuals fear being exposed as unintellectual or inexperienced.
As a result, he does not want important people to evaluate his performance and discover his incapacities.
He has an understanding that he would feel humiliated or disappointed in case the consequences of success are negative.
A soloist is the one who measures his competence only if he attains that accomplishment completely on his own.
He considers seeking help from others or additional resources as a sign of failure.
History of Imposter Syndrome
Study by Clance and Imes
Clance and Imes first coined the term ‘Impostor Phenomenon’ in 1978. This term was used to refer to an internal experience of intellectual phoniness among high achieving women.
Both Clance and Imes observed that such women have a persistent belief that they are not intellectual.
Further, they considered that they had acted in a fraudulent manner in case people thought about them otherwise.
These women experienced such feelings despite having academic and professional achievements.
Furthermore, such women lived with an underlying fear that their incapacities would eventually be discovered.
As a result, they suffered high levels of anxiety and over-performed to hide their assumed inadequacies.
Furthermore, such women do not experience a sense of accomplishment when they succeed.
This is because they disregard their own capabilities for such accomplishments. And attribute external factors such as luck or over-evaluation as the factors responsible for their success.
In fact, they even discount their own intelligence by attributing their success to feminine charms and other interpersonal skills.
Clance and Imes asserted that the imposters keep their feelings of intellectual phoniness a well-guarded secret.
Such an assertion comes from a study by Steward and Winter conducted in 1974. They compared career-oriented and non-career-oriented college women in their study.
Secrets Revealed By Career Oriented Women
On asking such women to reveal three secrets, the career-oriented women listed the following secrets.
- hidden fear and guilt about appearing more competent than they believe they actually are
- feelings of inferiority
- fear of failure in an important task
These secrets were not similar to the ones revealed by non-career-oriented women.
Later in 1978, Clance and Imes were challenged regarding their belief that the impostor problem was more widespread among high-achieving women than men.
However, there are no direct experimental measures to validate the construct of impostor syndrome.
But research in the areas of the attribution theory and sex-role stereotyping support the assumption that more women feel like imposters than men.
Study by Deaux and Frieze
Deaux and Frieze reviewed a number of studies. These studies indicated that women have a lower expectancy of their ability to perform well in various tasks relative to men.
Such findings are generally based on the following principles of attribution theory:
- The unexpected outcome will be attributed to the temporary cause
- Such an outcome would be attributed to a stable cause.
It was observed that women attributed their own success to external factors like luck and task ease relative to men.
Men were more likely to attribute their success to their internal capabilities.
Thus, the external and temporary factors that women used were not at all aligned with the feeling of honor in one’s achievements.
Such feelings also do not indicate confidence in one’s own ability to perform well in the future.
Furthermore, high-achieving women using such attributions often felt inadequate and less confident. Also, they felt anxious about their phoniness being discovered.
The attribution studies did not showcase any differences between men and women in respect of actual task performance.
Thus, one could conclude from such studies that differences in attributions were due to the differences in the ways men and women viewed themselves.
Study By Paul Rosenkrantz, Susan Vogel, Helen Bee, Inge Broverman, and Donald M Broverman
Research in the area of sex-role stereotyping suggests that both men and women view men as competent. And women as expressive and full of warmth.
Paul Rosenkrantz, Susan Vogel, Helen Bee, Inge Broverman, and Donald M Broverman carried out this resaerch .
Considering such a belief, it is quite reasonable to expect that women internalizing feminine sex-role stereotypes are likely to experience internal conflicts.
Provided such women are high achievers specifically in the areas of competence traditionally restricted to men.
Then Kagan and Kohlberg also argued that people who have self-concepts based on gender behaved in a way that is consistent with the internalized sex-role standard.
In 1963, Maccoby asserted that girls who were independent, dominant, and achievement-oriented did not possess sex-appropriate behavior.
As a result, they had to pay a price for it in the form of experiencing anxiety.
Imposter Syndrome Test
Pauline Rose Clance developed the Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scales (CIPS). This imposter syndrome assessment helps to understand the manner in which you compare yourself with others.
It is a multiple-choice questionnaire that helps in understanding whether an individual has imposter phenomenon characteristics or not.
To take the test, click here.
What Causes Imposter Syndrome?
There are a number of causes why people suffer from impostor syndrome. These include:
- style of parenting
- social stigma
- family expectations
- sex stereotype
How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome?
1. Labelling Impostor Like Feelings
Many people having imposter feelings suffer in silence. This is because their core feeling is that of fear of getting discovered. Therefore, the first step in dealing with imposter syndrome is to recognize and name imposter-like feelings.
This will help imposters in understanding their feelings of inadequacy in the right context.
Such an initiative also helps them in sharing their feelings with others and not suffering alone.
2. Objective Evaluation of One’s Capabilities
It is usual to have some feelings of self-doubt. However such feelings should not lead a person to believe that he does not deserve success.
Imposters often discount their own success. Thus, feeling usually doubtful is different from feeling humility like impostors.
This is because they believe that they have somehow managed to fake their success in front of their seniors.
For instance, the superman or superwoman type of impostor focuses on his shortcomings.
Further, they disregard their accomplishments. Such people can evaluate their achievements and skills in an objective manner.
Such an assessment would help them to cope with feelings of self-doubt.
One way to do this is to list one’s own achievements and core skills used to get those achievements.
This will help them in shifting their focus from their weaknesses to strengths. However, some impostors feel stressed while listing their achievements and strengths in an objective and truthful manner.
Such individuals can take guidance from their mentors. The mentors can help them in recognizing the impostor’s feelings as both common and irrational.
Such guidance can help them in reducing stress and diminish the sense of isolation. This technique can be very useful to the soloist type of impostor. This is because realistic feedback from mentors can change their deep-rooted beliefs.
3. Thought Stopping and Shipping
It is a cognitive intervention that an imposter can practice himself. The very aim of this intervention is to interrupt the problematic thoughts that an imposter usually has.
Natural Genius and Expert imposter types usually go through such problematic thoughts. The very idea of this technique is to be cautious of negative thoughts and to replace such thoughts with something positive.
It is important to note that an imposter can generate such positive thoughts by showcasing self-compassion and being kind towards oneself.
Such behavior will allow the imposter to generate a more constructive and uncritical view of his own capabilities.
It is a term typically used in business literature. This refers to the concept of not waiting until an idea is perfect before presenting such an idea.
This technique compels an individual to move outside his comfort zone and perform tasks.
As a result, it acts as a strong stimulus for growth and creativity.
The Shipping technique especially works for Perfectionist and Expert Type imposters. It allows an individual experiencing imposter feelings to forgive one’s mistakes and build self-compassion.
4. Professional Therapy
People suffering from imposter syndrome can take the help of professionals. Such professionals take counseling sessions that help imposters to break the cycle of imposter-like thinking.
Further, they are apprised with various tools to get rid of impostor-like feelings.
Professional therapies help imposters shift their fixed mindset to a growth mindset.
They help such individuals to view setbacks as an inseparable part of learning and growth.
In other words, they are taught not to accept setbacks as evidence that they are imposters.
Some of the ways in which professionals nurture a growth mindset in imposters include:
- viewing struggle as an opportunity
- appreciating the impostor for making a well-directed effort instead of focussing on intelligence alone
- encouraging self-reflection while setting goals
- providing multi-faceted feedback
5. Stop Comparing
People suffering from imposter syndrome often compare their performance and capabilities with other people.
They compare themselves with others. This is especially when they perceive others as more competent.
As per research, an individual either views his environment as a learning opportunity. Or a place to compare himself with peers.
Such feelings depend upon the type of environment the individual is exposed to on a day-to-day basis.
When an individual perceives his environment as an opportunity to learn, it gives way to a more stable form of motivation to the individual.
Whereas, an environment that compels an individual to compare himself with peers gives strength and anxiety to such an individual.
Thus, an environment that exposes an individual’s inadequacies suppresses his creativity and intellect to understand things.
This is because such an environment gives fear of embarrassment to the individuals.
Therefore, exposing individuals to a more supportive environment can help imposters manage their feelings of self-doubt.
Furthermore, it can go a long way in maintaining the well-being of such individuals.
Racial Imposter Syndrome
Racial Imposter Syndrome refers to the one in which, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) individuals feel like a fraud or believe that they are not capable. Impostor Syndrome is unusual if it is exercised in respect of a specific race.
This is because it is associated with racism and cultural assimilation. Cultural assimilation occurs when individuals in a particular society cannot be distinguished from those of the group dominating such a society.
As a result of racial assimilation, the individuals lose their sense of self. In other words, the dominating aspects of their identity that made them unique in the first place.
Due to such a change in one’s identity, the individuals go through anxiety.
Furthermore, they constantly question their accomplishments and capabilities.
Thus, racial assimilation leads to internalized feelings of inferiority. Such feelings lead to impostor syndrome and have a great impact on the functioning of the racial imposters.
Such people may be considered for leadership roles. However, they reject taking up such roles because they have the fear of failure. Or believe that they don’t deserve this position at the workplace.
This means that racial impostor syndrome lowers confidence which is a key characteristic required to lead, undertake risks, work as a team with others.
How Students of Color Confront Impostor Syndrome?
Students of color experiencing racial impostor syndrome need to accept their true identity. Furthermore, they need not come under the grip of racial assimilation.
In addition to this, they must challenge their negative thoughts and stop behaving like a perfectionist.
Further, such students need to have positive self-talk and be self-compassionate.