92. Imposter Syndrome

Your success and achievement is the result of your efforts, talents and skills–not luck! So why do many of us still feel like we don’t belong, or even worse, don’t deserve the kudos, rewards, titles and positions that we possess? The answer: Imposter Syndrome.  

Imposter syndrome was “discovered” in the 1970s by two psychologists, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanna Imes.  They studied graduate and undergraduate students and found it to be very prevalent in women, ultimately designing a scale and a test to identify levels of imposterism – see the link to the test below.  Imposter syndrome is not a mental health diagnosis or condition, rather it is an experience most of us have at some point – and many experience it frequently – up to 80% according to some studies.

Imposterism is the persistent inability to believe one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts; the internal experience of believing one is not as competent as others perceive one to be, a fraud.  It is the belief that success and achievement are luck or a coincidence.  In low doses, these feelings and beliefs are just part of the human experience.  In higher doses, imposterism interferes with our ease, meaning and joy at work.  

Imposterism looks like:

  • An inability to realistically assess our competence and skills
  • Attributing success to external factors
  • Berating your performance
  • Fear you won’t meet expectations
  • Setting very challenging goals and feeling disappointed when you fall short
  • Perfectionism 

And it feels like anxiety,fear and self-doubt.

Interestingly, recent data suggests it is just as prevalent in men – and the effects on men may be more significant and these effects cause more significant impacts to performance. 

We can be more vulnerable to imposterism by our upbringing (valuing of achievement, controlling parents, high-levels of conflict); a new experience or challenge; our personality (anxious, lack of confidence, perfectionism).

Consistently, the smart folks have similar strategies to address the imposter syndrome.  First – mindset – what if we take the approach that imposter syndrome is a growth opportunity rather than a deficit?  Second – tell the truth – the imposter is like a mean friend – call her out with your higher self, your own heroine – or your Sage (remember the foil to our Saboteur?).  Have you really always failed? Is this experience really certain to be a disaster?  Consider other situations that have been successful – or even not a failure – draw on experiences where your decisions and actions have worked out and apply them to the current situation – spend time revisiting positive experiences and feedback.  Peter Shepherd, who has an excellent TedTalk on this subject, calls it the two-step – like a dance – when a negative thought arises, address it with an evidence based analysis of your experience.   

Clance IP Scale

Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review – PubMed (nih.gov) 

The Surprising Solution to the Imposter Syndrome | Lou Solomon | TEDxCharlotte – Bing video

What if imposter syndrome is a good thing? | Peter Shepherd | TEDxUniMelb – Bing video