In the fall of 1978, Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice published an article written by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes of Georgia State University. The paper focused on a group of women with a number of achievements to their name who, “Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, … persist in believing that they are really not bright.” To describe these women, the authors coined the term “imposter phenomenon.”
The paper documents many women in high positions in academia who feel that they do not belong in their positions, and that their elevation to their positions was either due to someone being kind to them or them fooling people into believing they are more qualified than what they actually are.
The imposter phenomenon, it turns out, is not actually a mental disorder of any sort (even though it’s commonly called “imposter syndrome”), nor is it something that only affects women as was initially theorized (follow-up studies into the matter showed that it’s equally likely to affect men, but men are less likely to acknowledge it). In fact, Clance told Slate magazine in 2016, “If I could do it all over again, I would call it the imposter experience, because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness, it’s something almost everyone experiences.”
Instead, it’s a phenomenon experienced at least once by almost 70 percent of people, according to a 2011 academic paper in the International Journal of Behavioral Science. Iconic individuals from Tom Hanks and John Green to Sonia Sotomayor and Maya Angelou have talked about their experiences with the phenomenon, with the latter famously saying “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”
The phenomenon manifests itself in many forms, ranging from a tendency to dismiss or deflect compliments about one’s achievements, to outright denying the significance of one’s own accomplishments.
This pattern of thinking, unfortunately, is not broken by achievement. In fact, it seems that no matter how much an individual achieves, they may find themselves prone to feelings of being a fraud or a simple inability to see their accomplishments as being significant. In some cases, the more one achieves, the more anxious they become as they worry that they will be “exposed” as an imposter.
“I don’t know that I would call myself successful because I feel that I have not succeeded in completing anything in particular,” a top scholar who asked to remain anonymous said. In spite of this, this student has an impressive list of achievements: In addition to being in the Honors College, she is pursuing a double major in statistics and computer science. She is also part of computing organizations on campus, is musically inclined and writes for a campus publication.
Many would look upon this list of achievements and be willing to make the case that this top scholar is, indeed, successful. The top scholar acknowledged that some people may call her “smart,” but said that she doesn’t believe it. “If anything, I’m just a person who works hard at pretending to be smart, and I think that a lot of people have the capacity to do that, too,” she said.
She is by no means alone in this regard. Another student — a junior in the International Business and Chinese Enterprise program — who asked to remain anonymous expressed similar sentiments. The IB student spent his sophomore semester abroad, in addition to other academic achievements. “I frequently dismiss compliments and question whether I am truly deserving of praise,” he said, mirroring many of the sentiments expressed by the top scholar. “My accomplishments, as I see them, could just have easily been achieved, and in fact have been, by many others,” he said.
The saying goes that comparison is the thief of joy, but both the top scholar and the IB student disagreed, saying that while sometimes burdensome, the tendency to compare to others can also provide a source of motivation.
“I think it’s only natural that when a group of people who achieve highly are put in one place, they will all wonder if they’re good enough because they all feel like there’s someone else better than them,” the top scholar said, referring to the Honors College. “That anxiety of not being good enough is what drives me to be more ambitious, and even though it can be unhealthy sometimes, without it, I don’t think I’d be as passionate about my goals as I am today.”
The IB student noted that comparing yourself to others is not always the best approach. “There is always going to be something better, someone that may have a higher-paying job or social standing. The grass is always greener on the other side,” he said. “If you go through life comparing what you have to others, you won’t be happy.”
Nonetheless, even acknowledging these things, it can still be a challenge for those enduring the imposter experience to keep their inner voice from becoming an inner critic.
“I believe myself to be my worst critic,” the IB student said, noting that his internal focus on what he could have done better oftentimes overshadows his ability to focus on what he did well.
It’s important to note, however, that both students say not all of their hesitance to label themselves successful derives from the imposter experience. Some of it is a factor of being young and hoping to accomplish more. “I really have not accomplished enough to be proud of anything big,” the top scholar said, adding that she tries to focus on planning ahead. “I don’t think I’ve reached a stage in my life where I can label myself a success given what I have done,” the IB student said.
Numerous self-help websites and psychologists have published list after list with advice on addressing the imposter experience. They say identifying when you are dealing with feelings associated with the imposter experience while also acknowledging that the feelings are normal and to be expected with success are important foundations. The key, however, is knowing when these feelings are serving only to hold you back rather than bolster your motivation to be better.
Perhaps what’s most important, however, is recognizing that the imposter experience is almost universal, and that experiencing it is perfectly normal. The process of self-help means reminding yourself of your successes and challenging the internal temptation to discredit yourself. Next time you find yourself dismissing a compliment, or feeling the need to give one back, try smiling and accepting it instead. Ditto for the things you’ve accomplished: Instead of wondering whether or not it was significant, try focusing on the tasks you had to overcome to get there.