The term “impostor phenomenon” was coined in 1978 by Georgia State University psychology professor Pauline Clance and psychologist Suzanne Imes in a study of high-achieving women. These psychologists discovered that many of their female clients seemed unable to internalise and accept their achievements. Instead, in spite of consistent objective data to the contrary, they attributed their successes to serendipity, luck, contacts, timing, perseverance, charm, or even the ability to appear more capable than they felt themselves to be (i.e faking it). 24.

Clance (1985) describes a cycle of imposture that resonates with many sufferers:

Straight off the bat, let us not confuse malignant  impostors (individuals who wilfully adopt and maintain identities with superior achievements/virtues) with neurotic  impostors (individuals who feel like frauds, but are really quite accomplished)- thus the newer term “neurotic imposture”.

In my experience, the former are eventually exposed and ostracised, whilst the latter can suffer a whole lifetime of untreated angst. In an unsurprising contemporary popular media feeding frenzy, a plethora of ‘cures’ have recently been touted, with each purveyor claiming to have the definitive ‘treatment’ 2. – 22..

For your edification I have tabulated the majority of these below, scoring them on a 1- 6 scale from “1. Totally out there” to “6. Wait a Minute This Could Actually Help”. No responsibility taken of course……:

1. Totally out there/dangerous 2. Lame 3. Glaringly
Obvious
4. Clearly
Impossible
5. Food for thought 6. This could help
Do not apologise for
perceived mistakes
Be kind to yourself1. Seek support & share your feelings 24. Practise “neltiliztli”-  (“be in balance with yourself)” 3 Come off it- when you feel like a fraud it’s in relation to some perfection that never actually existed 4., 5. Stop comparing yourself to ‘that person’ 4.,5.,8.
Never use the words “just” and “any” Keep a file of the nice things people say about you 4., 5. The solution to feeling like an impostor is to be authentic 3. Admit that you’ve not found the perfect solution 4. Who were you as a child. What were you encouraged/discouraged to do/become 6. Realise that you are never you- you are constantly changing according to new information 4.
Expose yourself totally 4., 5. Say ‘it’s Impostor Syndrome’ 4. Accept that you have some role in your success 4., 5. Realise that nobody belongs here more than you do 4., 5. Try to help others who are suffering 4., 5. Identify your triggers 7.
Being wrong doesn’t make you fake 5. The best gift you can give the world is to move forward regardless of doubt 4. Take action- Impostor syndrome lives in abstraction 4. Expect initial failure 24. Realise that nobody knows what they’re doing 5. Find the one person you can say ‘I feel like a fraud’ to 4.
Stream of consciousness writing 4. Re-frame your experiences 7. Be you- be comfortable in your own skin 12. Just stop being a perfectionist 8. Seek out or become a mentor 24, 18. Authenticity is a hoax 4.
Be modest and humble 24. Be you 8. Faking things does actually work 4. Be comfortable in your own skin 12. Self-awareness is a major key to success 7. You can trust the system to have put you in vaguely the right job 15.
Look toward your intentions and personal values 12. Pause and check in with yourself 7. Many people live with impostor-ism13. Change your thinking 18. Reflect on just where you are now in your profession 6.
Fake it ‘till you make it 11., 12. List twenty things you know in your heart to be true about yourself 6. Identify specific outcomes that are directly or indirectly due to your contributions20. Just say ‘goodbye’ to your impostor syndrome 10. Know that this feeling is normal 24.
Keep a ‘success journal’ 20. Realise no one is perfect 18.

Whilst clearly most pop. media sources have chosen to trivialise neurotic imposture in favour of pumping out quick and easy ‘how to’ guides for combatting the problem, several sources (including the watershed Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries 2005 article 24.) expose the ‘darker side’ of the ‘condition’ such that a review of diagnostic criteria (neither the DSM-V or the ICD-10 flag imposture of any type) to include malignant neurotic imposture (a cluster of behaviours which is distinguished by a large component of self-handicapping) is conspicuously absent and, in the view of this author, sorely needed to promote understanding and remediation of the multifarious damages meted to the sufferer themselves, their families, their workmates, and the many others damaged collaterally,

In extreme cases, neurotic impostors bring about the very failure they fear. This self-destructive behaviour can take many forms, including procrastination, abrasiveness…inappropriate womanising or substance abuse on the job.

Neurotic impostors can, and do, damage the organizations they try so hard to please. Their work ethic can be contagious, but because they are so eager to succeed, they often become impatient and abrasive. Neurotic impostors are extremely tough on themselves and thus not predisposed to spare others. They drive their employees too hard and create a gulag-like atmosphere in their organizations, which inevitably translates into high employee turnover rates, absenteeism, and other complications that can affect the bottom line. Moreover, neurotic impostors can intimidate others with their intensity. And because they don’t have what it takes to be effective leadership coaches, they are not generally talented in leadership development and succession planning. 24.

It turns out that indeed there is some crossover between the two as evidenced by the fact that some indicators of inauthenticity (from reputable and statistically tested instruments- (eg The Authenticity Inventory (AI3))  resonate strongly with neurotic imposture descriptors-

I find it easy to pretend to be something other than my true self,

People close to me would be shocked or surprised if they discovered what I keep inside me, and

I often deny the validity of any compliments I receive.

For completion, the concept of self-doubt is also deserved of inclusion in this discussion:

Self-doubt is surely a universal human trait, but we vary in our ability to suppress, ignore, and/or manage such feelings. What is perhaps somewhat unique about impostor syndrome among academics is that “it’s the successful who tend to suffer from it: In order to feel like you’re faking it, you need to have already reached a certain level in your discipline.” As Kate Bahn (Chronical of Higher Education) puts it, it’s “a twisted version of the Socratic paradox—the more you know, the more you feel like you know nothing.

Notwithstanding the not insignificant body of research regarding authenticity, it is apparent that neurotic imposture is a very different species, and is best typified by the lament of the so-called over-educated underachiever

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. 1.

Ring any bells ? Time for a quiz, prepared by pioneering researchers Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes 24 : this may be found at http://www.paulineroseclance.com/impostor_phenomenon.html where the object of the self-test is to ’help individuals determine whether or not they have impostor characteristics and, if so, to what extend are they suffering’. A shorter test is reproduced here:

Answer the following questions to see whether you feel like an imposter or not.

(1) You feel that you have fooled people in some way or have given the impression that you are more capable than you really are.

Very rarely = 1           Sometimes = 2                 Almost always = 3

(2) You feel that your achievements are mainly down to good luck, other people’s help or that the achievements weren’t that big of a deal anyway.

Very rarely = 1           Sometimes = 2                 Almost always = 3

(3) You find it hard to understand or accept how someone like you could be in the position you are in or be doing what you are doing.

Very rarely = 1           Sometimes = 2                 Almost always = 3

(4) When you achieve something, for example, a qualification, a good result on a test, or a job promotion you feel that there must have been some sort of mistake, maybe a clerical error or a computer error.

Very rarely = 1           Sometimes = 2                 Almost always = 3

(5) When you make a mistake or something goes wrong you feel worried that this could expose you as a fraud or prove that you don’t know what you are doing.

Very rarely = 1          Sometimes = 2                 Almost always = 3

(6) Despite your achievements you feel that at any moment someone will come along and tap you on the shoulder and say “We need to have a chat. You don’t belong here.”

Very rarely = 1           Sometimes = 2                 Almost always = 3

(7) You find that each new success or achievement, instead of being a source of satisfaction, just increases the pressure to achieve the next time.

Very rarely = 1           Sometimes = 2                 Almost always = 3

Add up the total

So how did you score?

1-7: That’s pretty unusual, but good for you.

This indicates that you rarely doubt your achievements and don’t spend a lot of time wondering whether you are a fraud or not. In fact you’re probably surprised to hear that some people do question their abilities and doubt their achievements.

8-14: Most people will fall in this range.

Most of us will experience some imposter feelings from time to time, perhaps in a new situation or where you are going to be evaluated. The more often you experience them, the more potential they have to impact on your life.

15-21: You quite often question your abilities and achievements, and feelings of being a fraud are common.

Imposter feelings are causing you some worry and probably having an impact on what you think, feel and do. This can have quite a limiting effect on your life.

Disappointingly bland and unoriginal is the urban dictionary’s  take on the subject (come on guys!):

When someone who believes their own accomplishments were simply because of luck,  trickng others into thinking they are intelligent, or timing. When in reality they did them on  their own. It’s seen among people who are in higher education, or high achieving jobs.

Moving on to Wikipedia- whilst there is an enumeration of signs and symptoms, demographics, prevalence, management, and therapy (all very interesting), there is a dearth of reputable information regarding causes. Hendriksen24. and others list these as including “parenting mistakes”  (including “parentification”– the child taking on emotional or other responsibilities that normally rest on the parent),

“You’re smart” implies that “smart” is a ‘you’ve-got-it-or-you-don’t’ characteristic. Either you’re smart or you’re not, and there’s nothing you can do to change that. Therefore, whenever kids make a mistake, they question the “smart” label. “If I got a C this once, then maybe I’m not smart after all?  Mom must be wrong.” As a result, it decreases their willingness to try new things, for fear they might prove their label wrong. This lays fertile ground for Impostor Syndrome.

Certain dysfunctional families—particularly those in which parents are overinvested in achievement and where human warmth is lacking— tend to produce children who are prone to neurotic imposture. Individuals who have been raised in this kind of environment seem to believe that their parents will notice them only when they excel. As time goes on, these people often turn into insecure overachievers.24.

and, from another source,

Studies have shown that telling your kids they’re intelligent and beautiful is actually more harmful than that they’re ugly and stupid (for which one can simply consider the source) as there’s no natural defence for a compliment. Kids were given easy problems and asked why they were able to do them and the pretty and smart kids said it was because they were pretty and smart while the dumb and ugly kids said it was because the problem was easy. Then, they gave the kid impossible problems and asked why they weren’t able to answer. The smart and pretty kids admitted it may have been due to them not being as smart and pretty as they had assumed while the dumb and ugly kids were more able to identify the problem as damn hard. Then, they gave the kids another easy problem and the pretty and smart kids couldn’t do em since their lack of intelligence had been “proved” Quora, 2015, Maginnis,J.

and another,

Individuals who were parentified as children are more likely to report impostor feelings in adulthood. Results indicated that parentification and the impostor phenomenon are moderately correlated (r = .37). No significant gender differences were found for either construct. With regard to racial/ethnic differences, no significant differences were found in parentification scores; however, Caucasians endorsed significantly higher impostor phenomenon scores than African Americans. The results suggest that the impostor phenomenon can be explained, in part, as a significant long-term effect of childhood parentification. 31.

whilst others bemoan the side effects of “discrimination”,

Women, racial minorities, or LGBT individuals may feel like they’re living a high-achiever’s version of the Sesame Street song, “One of These Things is Not Like the Others.”  Individuals who don’t match the majority of a group or culture often feel illegitimate or fake, despite their qualifications and accomplishments.

“toxic shame”,

Professional counsellor and author John Bradshaw has spent his career studying human affect, and toxic shame is a specialty of his. It struck me that toxic shame may have a significant connection to the imposter syndrome since, as Bradshaw observes, “many highly gifted, super achieving and successful people are driven by a deep-seated chronic depression, resulting from their true and authentic selves being shamed” (Bradshaw ch. 3). This concept pairs quite naturally with cultures—whether academic or corporate—that are “so focused on assigning blame” 26.

“the myth of “success”,

(This) instructs us that there is an objective yardstick to measure our worth, intelligence, and abilities when really there’s often no such entity even capable of making those kinds of judgments. Standardized tests would have us believe otherwise, and the imposter embodies the idea of a standard by holding themselves to outrageously high ones. The problem with believing that there is an objective way to truly measure worth or what you deserve is that you also end up making assumptions about what other people deserve. Harsh self-judgment encourages harsh judgment of others. This is why the person who suffers from imposter syndrome is not only toxic to themselves but also to other people in their lives such as their families and colleagues. 26.

the side effects of a “meritocratic system”,

High achievers are only high achievers when compared to others. Such folks have been compared to others their whole lives—when earning grades, winning awards, being admitted into colleges, landing jobs. They often come out on top, which does two things. First, they value the process of comparison because they have done well by it.  Second, they are extra alert to the process. Awareness of being evaluated and caring deeply about the outcome is an important mindset for success, but when it backfires, it lays a foundation for feeling like a phony

a particular cluster of “personality traits”,

In 1916 Freud described a type of personality that falls ill as a consequence of success. Like Lady Macbeth, this person is “wrecked by success.” Intriguingly, Freud’s case studies, with one exception, all revolved around women, sex and marriage. A “typical” case involved a wayward young woman whose lover finally proposed marriage. On obtaining this cherished desire she promptly undermined her fiancé, neglected her house and “soon succumbed to an incurable mental illness” (Freud 1957, 316). Freud located this reaction to success in the “forces of conscience” (Freud 1957, 330). More specifically, Freud described success-illnesses as an Oedipal dynamic. Like all forms of guilt it derived from desire to possess and to destroy one’s parents. Oedipal conflicts in childhood filled the ego with guilt, to the extent that it intervened to prevent a wished-for desire from happening. 29.

a function of “birth order”,

Birth order also influences the development of neurotic imposture. Feelings of imposture are more common among firstborn children, reflecting the new parents’ nervous inexperience and greater expectations of these children. For example, older children are often expected to help out in the care of brothers and sisters and are held up to younger siblings as models of maturity. 24.

“Cognitive distortions”, (especially ‘black and white thinking’, ‘catastrophysing’, ‘discounting’, ‘mind-reading’, and ‘filtering’)

( nb This is the stuff of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) administered by psychologists on a daily basis)

…this distortion in his cognition caused him to dramatize all setbacks—he blew small incidents out of proportion and cast himself as the helpless victim. …. lived with the misconception that he was the only one prone to failure and self doubt, and this made him feel even more insecure and isolated. Like other neurotic impostors, he focused on the negative and failed to give himself credit for his accomplishments. He also harmed his career by becoming a master of catastrophysing—reaching exaggerated conclusions based on limited evidence. 24.

“Gender constraints”,

The vicious cycle begins when the impostor Women and the Impostor Phenomenon Women who reach successful positions that conflict with their family of origin’s way of thinking about gender roles are especially prone to feeling fraudulent. The gender socialization that women are often exposed to—for instance, being told that they should become nurses or secretaries when choosing a career—tends to augment their sense of imposture when their achievements rise above those expectations. Ironically, this feeling might, at an unconscious level, carry benefits: A woman might be able to deal with ambivalence about her real career achievements by keeping them out of conscious awareness. Inner confusion develops into genuine neurotic imposture for many women when they reach critical junctures in their lives concerning marriage, work, and children.

These decisions are especially difficult for women who have had traditional mothers. Consciously or not, women tend to compare their chosen roles with the roles their mothers played. The fact that working women choose not to stay at home but rather to pursue a career—a lifestyle so different from what they witnessed as children— often makes them feel like bad mothers to their own children and bad wives to their husbands. Gender role socialization isn’t the only thing that makes women more vulnerable than men to neurotic imposture. The fact that businesswomen have to function in an environment dominated by men compounds their insecurity, because when women are successful, they’re not the only ones who suspect imposture.

Many of their competitive male colleagues likewise assume that chance or an affirmative action program—not talent or skill—was responsible for the success. Though few men will express such an opinion publicly, subtle insinuations from male colleagues add to a woman’s fear that the “luck” won’t last. As a result, many very gifted women don’t know that they have superior talents. Moreover, if they do realize it, they are more likely than men to hide those talents and to play dumb as a strategy for dealing with others’ envy and their own recurring feelings of self doubt.

“self-handicapping and shame-proneness”,

Impostor tendencies were significantly correlated with behavioural self-handicapping (r = .52, p < .001), and with shame-proneness (r = .54, p < .001) more than guilt-proneness (r = .28, p < .001). Regression analyses indicated that self-handicapping and shame-proneness were the best predictors of impostor tendencies (r 2 = 0.43). Based on these results it seems that strong impostor tendencies are related to, and best predicted by, self-handicapping behaviours and shame-prone affect. 30.

“nothing! it does not exist” (ie it is just a fact of modern life)

..Lawyers are all right, I guess — but it doesn’t appeal to me,” I said. “I mean they’re all right if they go around saving innocent guys’ lives all the time, and like that, but you don’t do that kind of stuff if you’re a lawyer. All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot. How would you know you weren’t being a phony? The trouble is, you wouldn’t.33.

and,

to some extent, of course, we are all impostors. We play roles on the stage of life, presenting a public self that differs from the private self we share with intimates and morphing both selves as circumstances demand. Displaying a facade is part and parcel of the human condition. Indeed, one reason the feeling of being an impostor is so widespread is that society places enormous pressure on people to stifle their real selves. 24.

And, finally, (in a real coup d’état), the effects of just “being human”,

The cause is being human. As Dr. House says, “Everybody lies” (and 80% of products popular in surveys never sell). Dr. Paul Ekman (basis for TV show Lie to Me) says we all lie about three times every ten minutes. In fact, the MMPI (the grandfather of all personality tests) uses the failure to admit the fear of getting caught is the only thing keeping you from say sneaking into a movie theatre without paying as evidence of a lying personality as science has long documented we all know deep down (if honest) what thieves and liars we are. We’re all fakes; we’re all impostors.Quora, 2015, Maginnis,J.

Now suitably primed cognitively, (I feel) it apposite to introduce some actual narratives:

e.g………………I know what you are going through. This “imposter syndrome” is very familiar to me. When I am successful in one or more areas and people do admire the success, I am always thinking: “but….” (this could have done better/I am not as good as they think/maybe someone will unmask that I am doing things wrong/ and so on). it is a kind of being a perfectionist and not wanting to fail, mostly because of your own high standards.

and……………I experienced imposter syndrome with my GCSE results this summer. I got 10 A*, the highest in my school, but I didn’t really take much time to be proud of it. I knew I’d done well all round but I didn’t want to make others feel bad about their results.

Now I’m doing A levels and consistently getting As but I still feel like it’s a fluke and I will have to work even harder to achieve a ‘real’ A. Although it gives me a challenge to match up with my GCSEs!

and finally…………. I got a bad case of imposter syndrome on two occasions when I got a “best science fiction artist” award – one national in 2007, and one on a European level in 2012. I thought there were better artists more deserving of the award, that it was too early in my career and I haven’t even proven myself yet, that people must have voted for me because they like me as a person, and not because my work is objectively better… My entire experience of receiving this honour was tainted. I really wish I knew how to appreciate it better. I’d go back and say to my younger self that she deserved all of it.

In conclusion, as tantalisingly close to a final ‘ah-ha’ understanding of my own ‘imposter syndrome’, I must admit that I am unable to supply an ending to this laborious journey.

Instead I bow out with a plea for more research into the confluence of giftedness and neurotic imposture (with or without obsessive-compulsive co-morbidity); c’mon you young people!; I don’t have a lot of time left!

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