Imposter syndrome or what psychologists refer to as imposter phenomenon is a psychological term referring to a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud. These feelings of inadequacy and self doubt, are generally accompanied by anxiety and, often, depression.
It is important to note that Imposter Syndrome is not an actual syndrome or disorder but a term coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, when they found that despite having adequate external evidence of accomplishments, people with imposter syndrome remained convinced that they don’t deserve the success they have.
We know from the research that imposter syndrome is in large part a reaction to specific circumstances or situations. So while you may feel fully confident speaking to a group of people who you assume are less experienced than you, addressing your peers and colleagues could bring up these feelings of self doubt and uncertainty.
William Somerville, a phd clinical psychology student at The New School in New York City, doubted his abilities. A lot. He had been through rigorous training, enough college to make anyone exhausted and completely broke, along with a level of specific interest that was the height of his chosen profession. He was about to embark on a residency leading therapy sessions with inpatients on a psychiatric unit. Somerville says, of his doubt leading up to his residency, "There's a sense of being thrown into the deep end of the pool and needing to learn to swim," he says. "But I wasn't just questioning whether I could survive. In a fundamental way, I was asking, ‘Am I a swimmer?'"
Somerville later realized that his doubt, which felt so individual and particular, what I’m really trying to say is special, was actually pretty common. In fact 70% of the population report similar feelings of uncertainty when not only trying something new, but even when performing a task that they have mastered. So what gives? Well, enter imposter syndrome - although let’s be clear, it’s not a syndrome, it’s a phenomenon.
“The impostor phenomenon seems to be more common among people who are embarking on a new endeavor,” says Imes. In other words, graduate students like Sommerville may be particularly susceptible.
Ultimately, the impostor phenomenon becomes a cycle. Afraid of being discovered as a fraud, people with impostor fear work toward perfectionism. When they succeed, they begin to believe all that anxiety and need to be perfect was just. Eventually, they develop what is known as superstitious reasoning. "Unconsciously, they think their successes must be due to that self-torture," Imes says.
An estimated 70% of people experience these impostor feelings at some point in their lives, according to a review article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science. Impostor syndrome affects all genders and races, but women and people of color remain more susceptible. Now 70% is an interesting number. When I read a high stat like that relating to something that seems to pertain to a fear of thinking you are the only person in a room feeling that way, I like to stop for a second. Now 70% is high. That breaks down to 7 out of every ten people. Meaning if you are giving a presentation at work or to a group, chances are more people in the room are doubting their own expertise than not. You are not alone, not even in the slightest. Add to that, 70% in studies usually refers to reported cases. Meaning that the percentage is actually probably higher. When I see a number like this, I like to gather other stats to kind of weigh what 70% of people experiencing imposter phenomenon actually looks like in real time. So here are some other fun numbers: 70% of the population has dry skin. 64 % of the population wears glasses and 67% of american households have pets. Have you ever walked in a room wondering if you were the only person with dry skin or with a pet? Kind of puts the commonality of it in perspective.
When faced with a situation where we feel doomed to fail, it’s important to acknowledge both sides of the continuum - I talk about a continuum a lot, it’s an important part of psychoanalytic thinking. In essence, we must ACKNOWLEDge BOTH SIDES OF THE COIN. IF WE PLAY THE TRACK YOU ARE DOOMED TO FAIL, WE MUST RECOGNIZE THAT WE HAVE JUST AS GOOD OF A CHANCE TO SUCCEED. It’s about the numbers. Most people in the room feel the way we feel. WE have just a good chance nailing this and having everyone think we are deserving of our accomplishments as the opposite. In fact, if most people in the room feel the same way, wouldn’t the chance that they would believe our abilities and position be even greater? Through empathy, I think our chances of being taken for an expert are higher.
Working through Imposter phenomenon or imposter syndrome is kind of like working through anything else. Practice and a commitment to changing a behavior. We have to choose it everyday. Inch by inch, bit by bit. Brene Brown talks about perfectionism a lot, which is closely tied to imposter syndrome. She says that with perfectionism, “the hope is to be beyond judgement. And there is no such thing.” NOw I love these kinds of totalities. We will never be beyond judgement. There will always be someone out there saying something or thinking it. We cannot change that, but we can change how we respond to ourselves.
For more on IMPOSTER SYNDROME listen to JOY IS NOW Episode 7 with Christina Loff