Impostor Syndrome. Is it a thing?

October 19th, 2019

"I'm a fraud", "sooner or later, they are going to find me out", "any success I've had, it's just down to luck, pure luck", "those prizes on my mantlepiece? Someone will come and take those away when they realise I don't really deserve them."

If any of these phrases have echoed around your head at any stage in your life, you have an idea of what 'Imposter Syndrome' is all about.

Imposter Syndrome. Great name, isn't it?

And yes, it is definitely a thing.

Einstein had it. So did Maya Angelou. So have lots of very well known people. In fact, Imposter Syndrome was a phrase first coined by the American psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Clance in their seminal 1978 paper, The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention, a study which is still available to read online.

Imposter Syndrome describes the phenomenon experienced by many, many people, that may be characterised as essentially a feeling of insecurity, that any success achieved has not been deserved. A feeling of being about to be 'found out'. A key defining factor of Imposter Syndrome is that the one who has these thoughts about themselves will struggle to reconcile outward success with how they feel inside. It's an internal feeling that any number of external, tangible truths, such as a row of awards on a mantlepiece, or a screenshot of an email awash with compliments on a job well done, seems unable to diminish.

Who suffers more? Men or women?

Going back to the original authors who came up with the phrase Imposter Syndrome - Drs Imes and Clance - note that their study did in fact focus on the phenomenon in women. The fact that this was 1978, and high achieving women may have felt themselves more in a minority, may well have had something to do with that. In any event, Clance and Imes' decision to focus on women does not mean that Imposter Syndrome is confined to women. Look at Einstein, who once confessed to a friend that he felt "an involuntary swindler".

However, the question as to whether as many men suffer from Imposter Syndrome as women is a tricky one, because unless those who are experiencing such thoughts utter them, we are none the wiser. It's probably true that more women have confessed to feelings of inadequacy over the years than men, although there are some notable exceptions; the multi-award winning actor Tom Hanks, for example. Unfortunately, there are still some dividers between the sexes which may mean men feel less comfortable admitting how they truly feel, and it's to be hoped that with time this situation will continue to improve.

What causes it?

The thing about Imposter Syndrome is that it is often expressed by those who have displayed outward signs of great success in their life; academically, professionally or otherwise. So, you might say that success is one of the triggers of the condition, but that wouldn't really be quite accurate. After all, plenty of successful people are perfectly happy to enjoy their achievements, from which they rightly derive a great sense of self-worth.

However, it would also be true to say that you can't really have Imposter Syndrome without at least some of the outward trappings of success.

So that's one thing.

But, the causes are really deeper. As we touched on above, feelings of insecurity that are already present are ripe to be exaggerated into a more entrenched feeling of Imposter Syndrome. A feeling of not being loved enough, not being good enough, of having to reach for goals that are not really achievable - these are all triggers for the syndrome. Indeed, it has been linked to a demanding family life and overprotection when young, although these are by no means the only causes.

Is it a mental illness?

Imposter Syndrome is not a mental illness, although it is true that it can be linked to illnesses such as anxiety or depression.

How do I overcome it?

The first thing to realise, if you have experienced feelings similar to those described in this post, is that you are absolutely 100 percent not alone. Just Google the term and you'll find all sorts of people talking about that feeling of being 'found out' or 'discovered' at being really a fraud. Many, many people suffer from it.

There are no easy answers when it comes to trying to rid yourself of some of the worst feelings of being an imposter, but here are a few tips to try:

  1. We said above that Imposter Syndrome was an intensely internal feeling that took no account of external trappings. If you have been lucky enough to be successful in your chosen field, and that success has resulted in tangible rewards - a prize on your shelf, a glowing reference from your employer, a published book, or a good review - make yourself look at these things. Read that email. Read your good review. Think to yourself, "I achieved this. Me, and no-one else. It wasn't luck. I am proud of myself." Try to believe it.
  2. When you are having thoughts about being 'found out', why not ask yourself this - "who are they, exactly?", "who is it that I imagine is coming to my office to turf me out on to the street?", "are they a shadowy group of people who only come out looking for me and my mistakes?" Once you force yourself to recognise that you really have no idea who these people are, who are going to come and tap you on the shoulder and tell you to stop being successful because you don't deserve it, you will start to realise how powerful your imagination really is!
  3. It's an old 'un but it's a good 'un, simply do this, smile at yourself in the mirror before you head out of the door in the morning. When you're feeling really jittery and down, it's hard to do, but make yourself. Smiling helps you relax. It also helps you to see yourself as others do, a confident, smiling person - because you are!