Have you ever felt like a fraud, and that all of your accomplishments have been the result of luck rather than competence? If so, then you may be experiencing something called imposter syndrome, a surprisingly common phenomenon that affects even the most indisputably brilliant individuals.
Though the science behind this strange form of self-doubt is still a little murky, numerous studies have highlighted our shared susceptibility for feeling like a phony. If ever proof were needed for the existence and validity of imposter syndrome, it can be found in a famous quote from the great Albert Einstein, who once proclaimed that “the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”
Is Imposter Syndrome A Mental Health Disorder?
imposter syndrome is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) — the diagnostic handbook used by health professionals published by the American Psychiatric Association — and as such is not considered to be a mental health disorder. Yet that doesn’t mean that it isn’t real or that it can’t cause distress. Rather, its exclusion from the list of diagnosable illnesses probably reflects the fact that it is a pretty normal part of the human experience, and encompasses a wide range of existential issues such as self-esteem and insecurity.
The term was first coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who wrote that the condition “is used to designate an internal experience of intellectual phonies… [who] persists in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.” In other words, it describes a state of mind whereby a person feels that they are not deserving of their success, position or status, and lives in fear that this inadequacy will soon be found out.
It’s important to note, however, that this belief isn’t necessarily a reflection of the reality, and often occurs in highly competent individuals who have genuinely earned their success. Nevertheless, those experiencing imposter syndrome tend to believe that they have fluked their way through life.
Does imposter Syndrome Affect men and women?
In their original study, Clance and Imes stated that the phenomenon “appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women.” After interviewing a number of high achieving women, they concluded that “early family dynamics and later introjection of societal sex-role stereotyping” drive the development of imposter syndrome in women who attain prestigious titles or accolades.
However, a later study by Clance found that imposter syndrome is in fact just as common in men as it is in women. More recent research has indicated that up to 82 percent of people may experience imposter syndrome, and that both men and women of all age groups are susceptible to it. A separate report on the prevalence of the phenomenon among staff at the US National Institute of Health (NIH) found that while men and women were equally likely to feel unworthy of their professional postings, women were much more prone to experience imposter syndrome outside of work.
imposter syndrome is also believed to occur at a higher rate among ethnic minorities. Interestingly, one study found that Asian Americans tend to experience the condition more than African Americans, despite the fact that the latter group feels more stress due to their minority status.
What Causes imposter Syndrome?
A number of theories have been suggested as to the cause of imposter syndrome, with Clance stating that “imposter feelings are shown to be associated with such characteristics as introversion, trait anxiety, a need to look smart to others, a propensity to shame, and a conflictual and non-supportive family background.”
Others have suggested that a tendency towards perfectionism is the major contributing factor, while social and familial pressures have also been recognized as potential drivers of imposter syndrome.
The bottom line is that scientists are yet to reach a consensus on the cause of imposter syndrome, and it appears likely that many different factors are involved. It is generally agreed, however, that mental health disorders like depression are not responsible for the development of imposter feelings, although they can often occur as a result of such self-doubt.
Ultimately, therefore, it appears that imposter syndrome can exist in many forms and affects a range of people across the professional and academic spectrum, though gender and ethnicity may play a role in determining the intensity of imposter feelings. No research has been conducted on treatments for the condition, although it has been suggested that the realization that imposter syndrome is normal and afflicts many other people can be hugely therapeutic.
After all, even Einstein felt like a fraud.