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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  • Sales and Marketing consultant by day, aspiring freelance writer by night. Score:89. Crap.

    • kbeesknees

      Are you me?

  • Molly D

    I truly don’t want to know anyone who has never felt like an impostor.

  • I have a lil theory about this in relation to why Impostor Syndrome seems to be more prevalent in women than men (or is at least expressed that way in the stats).

    Could it be that because men naturally have more testosterone, they are less likely to be plagued with second-guessing thoughts and feel generally more swaggy, self-assured and therefore comfortable with their own abilities and success? This is totally unsubstantiated, but I feel like it could contribute. Maybe????

    Oh, and I’m a law student with a score of 79.

    • Anni

      22 – product designer, neurotic type A personality, at dream company. IP: 41 – and my score was boosted by things like I would never tell someone about a promotion until it was finalized because it would be very embarrassing for it to not go through with it for whatever reason, not because I thought someone might take it from me because I wasn’t enough.

      I think part of the reason I barely seem to have this is because I have always felt that atleast work ethic/talent wise I have been enough, otherwise people would not ask me to take on things. I think the other thing that helps me is that I recognize that I am talented and work hard, but also that I am lucky, that I have been in the right place at the right time also and that most other people who do well have as well. When I have friends talk about feeling like a imposter, I think they forget that their co-workers also took just as much luck as talent to also get where they want to be. Most people have a lot of luck to become truly accomplished, and having that luck doesn’t discount your own hard work and skill.

      I am very good at what I do, and I love what I do but I also acknowledge that I went to a school where a creative fortune 500 company openly scouts for prospective candidates, and that I was lucky enough to get a big scholarship through hard work so I could afford it, in a year where they still have more money for scholarships. If I had gone to college 3 years later, I would have never gone to that school (scholarships drastically became underfunded), I would’ve never travelled to the US and I wouldn’t be who I am today nor have the opportunities that have allowed me to get to where I am. I wouldn’t be any less hardworking or talented, but without that luck and timing I probably wouldn’t be making the salary, or be part of the industry I am part of today.

  • CRC

    consultant, female, 25 yrs old, 86 IP

  • dk

    female; a year out of German-law-school-lawyer; immigrant; with an A+ sister m.d.; 72 IP

    • dk

      Oh, and I also got anxious that I won’t be achieving high score on the CIPS..

      • Helena

        haha!

        DK, first generation immigrants tend to score pretty high on the CIPS test. I think maybe it has something to do with taking the huge risk of moving to a new country, being an “outsider” (at least for a little while), and getting comfortable with a new identity. It would be interesting to know more about what the correlation is between immigrants and IPs.

  • blarrington

    PhD student, woman, 29 y/o, 65 IP

  • Leigh

    Operations director for a consulting firm, former non-profit executive director, MBA grad, 31 y/o female; 78

  • kbeesknees

    Female, aspiring writer by passion, graphic designer by trade. 29 y/o. like…80 or some crap I stopped counting them up because it was all 5’s help me.

  • Oana

    Molecular genetics PhD student at one of top 10 Universities in the world. Score: 73

  • grace b

    Sometimes things DO happen because you got lucky. I got a job after cold calling — even though I had almost zero requisite skills. I definitely did not belong! Did that mean I shouldn’t have taken it? No, because I learned something. But I just have a hard time wrapping my head around this one — lots of us feel like we don’t deserve success. But if you’ve worked hard and someone has promoted you, seen the good in you that you can’t see in yourself, or you’re experiencing the newness of success — appreciate it and treasure it. It is not guaranteed. Those are my off the cuff and top of mind thoughts.

  • Meredith T

    18 year old English major, hoping to be a writer. Score: 92 …oh dang.

  • lucy

    89. Yikes.

    I’m curious if there’s a relationship between perfectionism and impostor phenomenon. Or also anxious/avoidant attachment styles and IP.

    I say this because I have intense feelings of being a fraud/being “found out” in my personal life. I constantly question why people like me or want to spend time with me. I sometimes find myself feeling as though I “tricked” my boyfriend into being with me and dread that he’ll eventually realize that I’m somehow unworthy. These feelings amplify my attachment to and anxiety about my romantic relationship while driving me to avoid most social situations.

    • Lucy… sometime I wonder what my husband is doing with me? Why he married me and why he even loves me like he does. It’s horrible.

  • Ecommerce and Creative Director, 86. This “6. I’m afraid people important to me may find out that I’m not as capable as they think I am.” and this “13. Sometimes I’m afraid others will discover how much knowledge or ability I really lack.” The definition of how my mind works

  • Alycritter

    I yam what I yam, tha’s all that I yam – Popeye
    Words to live by for peace with who you are. IP – 31. I have lots of questions professionally and socially, and I’m not afraid to ask for help or advice. I surround myself with people who are also not afraid to admit their flaws. The only time I feel like an imposter is when I wear makeup:)

  • BK

    Masters student, female, 91 (down from 95 when I took it a year ago so….yay, I guess?)

  • 808kate

    Clinical pediatric dietitian and grad student, 28 years, 67. I’m pretty new to the profession and I’m surrounded by brilliant and experienced dietitians and other healthcare workers. So I guess, not too bad? “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.” <— is me

  • Writer, female, 66.

  • I’m finding that the best way to combat IP is to cultivate self-love. Acceptance of who I am, who I have yet to become, and all that I will never be.

  • Tess

    This is definitely problem that afflicts women, and I think we’ve sort of internalized it. I was talking to my bf about my struggles with it, and he just couldn’t relate. He said he feels he merits what he has, and it rubbed me the wrong way. For us girls, this notion of self-deprecation has become so normalized, it’s what we expect, so to hear someone say they think they deserve what they have, came off as cocky. But it’s not cocky at all, why should we feel like it’s wrong to say: yes I have a lot, but it didn’t come from no where, it is all a product of my intellect and hard-work

    • Helena

      Absolutely agree, Tess. Owning your success shouldn’t be considered cocky.

      I think that while IP affects both men and women, it’s much more of a “stigma” for men to outright admit that they feel like impostors. One of my good friends from law school (male, late 20’s) wrote me an email in response to this article. He said that, “while [he tries] to be a positive person, [he’s] not exactly thrilled by [his] present success” and he reads a lot of these questions “almost sarcastically.”

      I take some solace in Dr. Clance’s email about IP’s being successful and well liked, though.

  • Olivia Hansen

    Senior BFA Acting major. I scored an 89… I’m pretty sure every actor/artist feels like they’re an impostor. The pressure we put on ourselves to produce “good” work is tremendous. Especially since there is no way to measure success or talent in theatre. My default is “I’m terrible, I can’t possibly be good enough.” This is very insightful. Thank you for exploring & sharing!

    • Helena

      You’re so right. This is spot on for all creative types–we vacillate between “this is awesome, I did so well, I am so talented!” to “this is absolute drivel, I haven’t a shred of talent, I must be stopped.”

      Gratefully, we all have that internal drive that keeps us creating. And, of course, wine.

  • Sarah

    “no one is itching to confess self-doubt in a society that places so much value on confidence” All of this!

    One of the most important things that I have learned in trying to combat IP (and general anxiety in life) is to only compare yourself to yourself.. e.g. feel like you don’t know anything? Think back to 1 week / 6 months / 1 year ago and judge how far you’ve come, who you’ve been in that time. There is always someone out there doing it differently (someone would say better, someone else would say worse) but all that matters is that you’re growing & learning.

    24, climate science PhD, no-test-necessary

  • Sarah Miller

    82; minority; architect; married with stepson and always told I am the most put together… No idea how I did it/ am doing it.

  • Irene Carpini

    So I scored 90 and I feel like I must have cheated on this test too

  • Erin

    Law office bitch by day. Burlesque dancer by night. IP score 95…and no surprise there.

  • Rebecca Lake

    I think this is very much a problem in individuals who are artistic. I always feel like an absolute imposter. It never seems to feel like I have done anything good enough… or if i have, i feel like the credit received is to heavy.

    I think this really hits home for me. I was working at a job that I didn’t feel like I deserved, for people who I thought were far smarter than I. I was 21 at the time and after my 22nd birthday I was offered a promotion and I freaked out. Part of me didn’t feel smart enough or good enough to take it (and I was SO YOUNG) so I took a long time to talk to them about it and eventually left. Of corse after leaving I felt incredible existential angst and fear so I left the country to travel to the other side of the world. Now I have all these aspirations and I’m constantly feeling upset because I don’t think I can do any of them… I just don’t think I’m talented or smart enough. BUT I AM… I just cant convince myself.

    This has opened up my optimism and kicked me in the butt to stop being such a damn egg. I thank man repeller for always pulling me out of my head.

  • isabelle

    Um there’s a name for this??? (I got an 89….Christ)

    I can relate to a lot of this – achieving great personal successes and then waiting for someone to tell me that there’s been an error and take it away. To not tell people about great things happening until they are set in stone. Anxiety that I won’t be able to live up to past (high) standards I’ve set for myself. As of right now I got what is pretty much my dream job in a great city and I’m supporting myself and I still wonder if it’s not real. My life is by no means perfect and I struggle with depression/anxiety but I would still say that I am a generally successful person. It’s good to know I’m not the only one who feels like a phony adult who is entrusted with way too much!

  • Saira

    I think it may be caused by refusing to follow an internal logic and instead be driven by external indicators of “success” which ultimately aren’t successful because they don’t please your deepest being…
    That is my experience.

  • I Love Quiet Sundays

    Professional artist/small business owner/beginning blogger, 53. I noticed that I generally don’t think I came by success by luck. I recognize that I work hard and I like it when people recognize that. I have the most anxiety when I have to be directly evaluated. Like the pressure of any sort of test drives me crazy with anxiety.

    Though I also hate it when people say something’s “good” but then come back later and say something is “better”. Like if I do one design and then later that day I poke at it and do another and they like the second one better, I do feel like the person kind of lied the first time in not giving me a real critique. So that bothers me.

    Nice article!

    Chris | http://www.ilovequietsundays.com