Have you ever felt undeserving of your talents, accomplishments, or rewards? A feeling sometimes described as being a fraud or pretending to be something that you are not is more common that one might believe. Interestingly, this deceptive feeling is experienced by a significant majority of people who by society’s standards are considered successful, accomplished human beings. This feeling, or phenomenon, may also impact our behavior positively.
Impostor syndrome, also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a term coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes referring to high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as [a]”fraud.” Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Some studies suggest that impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women, while others indicate that men and women are equally affected. The term “impostor syndrome” first appeared in an article written by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes who observed many high-achieving women [who] tended to believe they were not intelligent, and that they were over-evaluated by others. Imes and Clance found several behaviors of high-achievers… with imposter syndrome:
- Diligence: Gifted people often work hard in order to prevent people from discovering that they are “impostors.” This hard work often leads to more praise and success, which perpetuates the impostor feelings and fears of being “found out.” The “impostor” person may feel they need to work two or three times as hard, so over-prepare, tinker and obsess over details, says Young. This can lead to burn-out and sleep deprivation.
- Feeling of being phony: Those with impostor feelings often attempt to give supervisors and professors the answers that they believe they want, which often leads to an increase in feeling like they are “being a fake.”
- Use of charm: Connected to this, gifted [people] often use their intuitive perceptiveness and charm to gain approval and praise from supervisors and seek… relationships to help… increase abilities intellectually and creatively. However, when the supervisor gives… praise or recognition, [they] feel… this praise is based on… charm and not on ability.
- Avoiding display of confidence: Another way that a person can perpetuate their impostor feelings is to avoid showing any confidence in their abilities. A person dealing with impostor feelings may believe that if they actually believe in their intelligence and abilities they may be rejected by others. Therefore, they may convince themselves that they are not intelligent or do not deserve success to avoid this.
While studies have primarily focused on women, one recent study has suggested that both genders may be prone to impostor syndrome on similar levels.
The outcome of impostor syndrome may result in more humble beings who work harder and seemingly discern what is necessary to meet others’ needs.
According to Oliva Goldhill: Some of the most successful people in history have suffered from secret fear that they’re terrible at their jobs. “I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people,” John Steinbeck wrote in his diary in 1938. “I always feel like something of an impostor. I don’t know what I’m doing,” echoed actress Jodie Foster, speaking at a 2007 Women in Entertainment Power 100 event where she was the guest of honor.
In his 1994 Inaugural speech, Nelson Mandela encourages us to let our talents shine:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, ‘who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to manifest the Glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And, as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
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