Nothing can stop a driven, successful person in their tracks like self-doubt. And there’s no self-doubt quite like imposter syndrome: the dawning belief that you are unintelligent or untalented and have fooled everyone to get where you are today – and that you’re sure to get found out.
The syndrome was first highlighted by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes in 1978. Clance herself was troubled with feelings along these lines at graduate school and later discussed them with her teaching colleague before they developed their ideas into a paper named The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.
“I would take an important examination and be very afraid that I had failed,” says Clance of her time at graduate school. “I remembered all I did not know rather than what I did. My friends began to be sick of my worrying, so I kept my doubts more to myself.
“When I began to teach at a prominent liberal arts college with an excellent academic reputation, I heard similar fears from students who had come for counseling. They had excellent standardized test scores grades and recommendations. One of them said, “I feel like an impostor here with all these really bright people.”
Today, Clance points out, when you describe imposter syndrome to somebody who has never heard of it, you will likely get the response: how did you know how I feel? That’s because the majority of us will suffer from imposter syndrome at some time in our lives.
Yes, even men. Two-thirds of women are afflicted by IS, not least due to the “early family dynamics and later introjection of societal sex-role stereotyping” that Clance and Imes describe, but the syndrome affects around 56% of men too. The skewed values and gendered assumptions of patriarchal society affect us all.
The problem is that these values and assumptions run deep. And if society is a tricky business, our minds are infinitely more complex. When you suffer from imposter syndrome, only brief glimpses of objectivity allow you to consider that you might be suffering from a syndrome, rather than actually being an imposter.
And it’s difficult to hear this diagnosis from somebody else because when someone tells you they think you have imposter syndrome your natural response is: sure, I’ve fooled them into thinking that I’m smart and talented, too.
So how can you defeat this condition?
Perhaps only by questioning those societal values and your own internalized definition of success in the first place. (Non-sufferers take note: it is also worth thinking about this if you don’t have imposter syndrome, for the sake of your own happiness and fulfillment and to ward off the chances of suffering from it in the future.)
Another former imposter syndrome-sufferer, Dr. Valerie Young, developed this idea by identifying five different flawed concepts of success that tend to be held by imposter syndrome sufferers. Depending on how you define success, you’ll perceive failure in a different way – and connect it uniquely to your own general fear of inadequacy.
For example, perfectionists tend to set themselves impossibly high standards. They work so hard at them that they achieve them frequently, but when they fall short it is all too easy to feel like a failure and a fraud. It would be much healthier to assess their talent and success by what they do achieve, rather than what they don’t achieve.
‘Natural geniuses’ likewise have high expectations of themselves. Success has always come easily and they’ve earned praise for their achievements rather than their efforts. So when they face a struggle, it feels like a personal shortcoming rather than a legitimate challenge.
How to Deal with Imposter Syndrome at Work
This new infographic is a great tool to help you identify whether you’re suffering from imposter syndrome – and what type you might be. Follow the advice below to start learning to value your unique qualities and blast past self-doubt to a new definition of success.