The Imposter Syndrome
Updated: Mar 16
This term was first coined in 1978 by two psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes to refer to high achieving women who are unable to recognize their accomplishments or successes despite clear external evidence. They have got ahead in the world but believe that this is through luck, timing or circumstance or that they have somehow deceived others into thinking that they are more intelligent or competent than they are.
They live with a persistent fear that they are frauds and will be found out.
Subsequently this term has been generalized to anyone who has similar thoughts and feeling patterns.
The quotes of several famous people indicate that they felt this way. Albert Einstein is attributed to have written “The exaggerated esteem with which my life work is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler”.
A general way of thinking is “what on earth am I doing here?” But they will probably not have a problem recognizing or affirming others who hold positions they have worked their way to get to.
This syndrome does not refer to people whose progress is accelerated through contacts or policies and who may genuinely lack the experience or competence to be where they are. In this instance, any anxiety about being found out will be realistic and either the person can look for mentors to train them to be competent, surround themselves by an experienced team to compensate for where they might under function or alternatively become defensive and deny their incompetence, claiming that it is jealousy or conspiracy that is behind any criticism of their work. This last group does not believe that they are imposters.
In the real meaning of Imposter Syndrome, the person who is actually competent and has reached and maintained their position, whatever it is, through their own talents and hard work, has to manage unrealistic anxiety about being exposed.
There are several ways in which this fear is managed:-
The person does not hasten their downfall by telling anyone in the workplace about their fears or feelings – they tend suffer in silence.
Their thoughts are that they do not deserve to be where they are.
They will work harder and harder i.e. raise the bar to prove themselves as they do not know when their performance is actually good enough. The fear is “the harder I climb or achieve, the further I will fall when found out, so I must keep ahead of this”.
This manifests through:-
- pointing out all one’s flaws before others can
- misinterpreting feedback
- over preparing
- piling up qualifications
- passing up opportunities for promotion to avoid failing
- avoiding being in the spotlight
Thinking tends to be polarized i.e. “if I don’t know everything, I know nothing”
While a person who genuinely believes that they have earned and deserve the position they hold may try and use opportunities to come to the attention of those with influence, someone with Imposter Syndrome believes that every contact with seniors is a potential risk.
Not surprisingly, the person with IS does not necessarily take joy in their accomplishments and is at risk to sabotage their potential in order to stay in a comfort zone.
Dealing with Imposter Syndrome
It is important to try and understand why you hold onto these beliefs. It might be that your society or family give implicit or explicit messages about achievement. However, if you are surrounded by people who support you realizing your potential, the problem lies with you. If possible, release yourself of people in your life who contribute to your insecurities.
Recognize the difference between self -esteem and false pride. Taking pride and ownership of where you are is a healthy response. Remember that this is a result of choices you have made in your life. It is unlikely that you landed up succeeding by accident. Look for evidence of your competence and how you favour supporting signs that you are a great pretender. Feelings are not facts. Where you do need help or training, ask for it. Take the risk of moving from the shadows into the light and see what happens.