This is Why You Feel Like an Impostor

What is imposter phenomenon and why are so many of us suffering from it?

10.21.16
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It’s 4AM, and my Whatsapp springs to life in a flurry of sudden noise and activity. Texts from Kate*, my best friend since high school, populate the screen.

K: Why do I always feel like I’m five steps behind?

K: I just did a prototype of the same exact shirt that some guy is wearing on the Sartorialist’s Instagram.

K: I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing half of the time.

K: …like I’m a kid who just can’t keep it together.

K: My apartment is dirty, I have two internet subscriptions that I have to cancel but I haven’t gotten around to, and I’m running around trying to be professional when really, I don’t know what the hell is going on…

Here’s the thing about Kate: She’s spent the better part of the last decade living in Milan (thus the texts at an ungodly time), working for some of the biggest names in fashion. In the last month alone, she’s designed suits for Ryan Gosling, Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender and George Clooney. It’s safe to say she’s a brilliant designer and she lives for her job. But texts like these have been coming worrisomely often.

And it’s not just Kate. In my last two years as the furtive ear behind Craigslist Confessional, one of the sentiments I hear most often, from millennials especially, is that they feel like their success is undeserved, accidental and likely mercurial. Unsurprisingly, there’s a name for that feeling: impostor phenomenon.

So what is impostor phenomenon? Why are so many of us suffering from it?

Psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term impostor phenomenon (IP) in 1978. While in graduate school, Dr. Clance took note of her own insecurity: I would take an important examination and be very afraid that I had failed. I remembered all I did not know rather than what I did. When she started teaching her own class, however, she noted the same feelings in her students — brilliant young minds who felt unworthy of their position at the university.

The feeling of being a fraud, of having slipped through the cracks, of having somehow bamboozled those in charge into giving you something, doesn’t stop with school. People who experience impostor phenomenon have a particularly difficult time internalizing their successes and are much more likely to chalk up achievements to anything but their hard work and intelligence. And unfortunately, these tendencies follow them into adulthood.

Initially, Drs. Clance and Imes pegged IP as a predominantly female issue. This, they thought, was due to the fact that “success for women is contraindicated by societal expectations and their own internalized self-evaluations.” Men, on the other hand, “tend to own success as attributable to a quality inherent in themselves.”

But there’s proof in subsequent literature and in Drs. Clance and Imes’ own research that men are equally susceptible to IP. “I had thought, with time, there would no longer be so many IP feelings, yet that is not true. The phenomena seems to be as relevant, or more, since my first writings on it in 1978,” Dr. Clance relayed over email.

If you’re a minority, if you grew up in a family that placed a high premium on success, or if what you’re doing diverges significantly from your peers, you’re very likely to have felt like an impostor. “Competition remain[s] strong and may be a contributing factor [to feelings of IP], but probably childhood factors are more important,” Dr. Clance continued.

Essentially, impostor syndrome is curiously common, and some markedly successful people — like Albert Einstein, former U.S. presidents and the biggest proponent of leaning in, Sheryl Sandberg — seem to be its marks.

So, what gives? Is impostorism simply a side effect of success? And is it something that needs to be cured?

In tackling that first question, I’m going to take it all the way back to Socrates and one of the most quoted wisdoms attributed to him: I know only that I know nothing. Often referred to as the Socratic paradox, this saying fleshes out a truth, that with knowledge and self-awareness also comes a heavy dose of humility. That the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. Thus, feeling like an impostor is perhaps a successful person’s way of reining in the ego — of making sure that she realizes, triumphs aside, that there is still so much to learn.

Yet in spite of so many people sharing these feelings, IP is seldom spoken about openly, precisely because no one is itching to confess self-doubt in a society that places so much value on confidence. As someone who scores high on the IP test, I want to know if these feelings will eventually wear off. Is there an impostor sweet spot? An age at which people are particularly vulnerable to feelings of fraud?

And what if one is only occasionally haunted by IP feelings? Can the same person vacillate between hubris and impostorism, thus making IP situational? Finally, is IP more dominant in certain generations (i.e. millennials vs. Gen X)? Has the ubiquity of social media affected the way our generation perceives and internalizes success? Is it easier to feel like an impostor when one is getting constant updates of the everyone’s perfectly filtered lives?

In my quest for answers, I reached out to Dr. Clance again. I received an email from her late one night. She said, simply: Mainly I want to state with emphasis that high IPs are well liked and respected and by definition are very successful.

And in that response, I think, is the end of the debate on the cure for IP. There isn’t one, but only because there’s nothing wrong with you. Putting a name to something and speaking about it openly helps normalize and socialize feelings that many of us share. It also helps us gain a better understanding of and handle on what’s holding us back, and what’s pushing us forward.

The goal isn’t to remove all doubt, or to stop questioning yourself, but rather to use these tendencies to your advantage. Ask for help if you need it, or for a promotion if you deserve it. Do it knowing that even the most successful and confident person has doubts. The true impostor is one who says she does not.

So, want to see how you score on the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale (CIPS)? Try these questions below, and then head here for the full test.

+ I have often succeeded on a test or task even though I was afraid that I would not do well before I undertook the task.
+ I can give the impression that I’m more competent than I really am.
+ I avoid evaluations if possible and have a dread of others evaluating me.
+ When people praise me for something I’ve accomplished, I’m afraid I won’t be able to live up to their expectations of me in the future.
+ I sometimes think I obtained my present position or gained my present success because I happened to be in the right place at the right time or knew the right people.

Let us know your thoughts, questions, and — if you feel like it — your score and job title. I’ll start: I’m Helena, lawyer by trade, writer by choice and my score is 70. And, with their permission, here’s some from my friends, too: doctor, female, 69; math professor, male, 64.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Collage by Emily Zirimis. 

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