Think about the last time someone paid you a compliment—particularly in a professional context. How did you feel?
Did you accept that admiration graciously and confidently?
Or were you immediately overcome with uneasiness instead? Did you explain away your own achievement as a team effort or a stroke of good luck? Did you feel completely undeserving of that praise and positive attention?
If you’re nodding your head, then you’ve probably experienced imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome defined
“Imposter syndrome essentially means that, despite someone’s education and expertise, they do not feel like they belong in the professional spaces that they work within or that they are not truly an expert,” explains Dr. Stephanie Williams, Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist and the Clinical Director of Integrated Psychological Assessment Services.
It boils down to feeling like you’ve conned everybody into thinking you’re smart or qualified. Dr. Christina Spragg, a Corporate Mental Wellness Consultant and Licensed Psychologist, explains that you’ll see it play out in a number of ways including:
- Believing that others have overestimated your abilities
- Attributing your success to some factor other than your intelligence or ability
- Fearing that you’ll be exposed as a fraud
The term “imposter syndrome” has become a bit of a buzzword in our modern working world, but it’s been around for decades. “Imposter phenomenon” was originally coined in a 1978 study by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes that looked closely at highly-successful women who believed “they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”
The term eventually morphed into “imposter syndrome,” which has continued to gain traction and popularity.
But some experts argue that “syndrome” is a misnomer. “It’s not pathological, especially given the connection to systemic oppression,” says Dr. Jill Stoddard, a Licensed Psychologist who has a book about imposter syndrome coming out in the fall of 2023. “I like imposter phenomenon (which is what Clance and Imes originally called it in 1978), imposter experience, and imposterism.”
What factors contribute to imposter syndrome?
But, where exactly do these fraudulent feelings come from? Many surface-level explanations are out there, and several point to gender or age as the culprits—that women or young professionals are far more likely to distrust their own expertise.
There is some truth to that. However, there’s far more at the root of imposter syndrome. Research shows that your personality, family environment, and more can all contribute to this phenomenon.
Some research indicates that the unique characteristics of your personality can make you more prone to feeling like a sham.
“Recent studies show a correlation between imposter syndrome and scoring high in the Big Five trait of Neuroticism—the tendency to experience negative emotions such as fear, sadness, anxiety, guilt, and shame,” explains Molly Owens, CEO of Truity.
That same research also shows a negative correlation between imposter syndrome and Extraversion (which is the tendency to seek stimulation from the outside world, particularly in the form of attention from other people).
“This research suggests that individuals who are high in Neuroticism and low in Extraversion, or Introverts, are the most likely to experience symptoms of imposter syndrome,” Owens says. “This doesn’t mean that anyone with these traits will experience imposter syndrome, but it provides further insight into how personality traits play a role in this phenomenon.”
Upbringing and family environment
As odd as it seems, imposterism is particularly prevalent among high-achievers—people who are already thriving and successful. Even strong and high-profile role models like Maya Angelou and Sheryl Sandberg have admitted to feeling like phonies.
“It made no sense to me,” Dr. Stoddard says of when she first noticed this trend herself. “Shouldn't racking up achievements ‘fix’ imposter syndrome? But it seemed the opposite was true.”
Some researchers and experts say that all comes back to your upbringing. “I've noticed that those who were raised in an environment with high criticism and the use of shame to control behavior often develop an inner voice that is critical. Behaviors often become perfectionistic, and the person may become a high self-monitor [by] actively trying to control how others are perceiving them,” explains Dr. Spragg.
That fuels a vicious cycle, with many women in particular saying that self-imposed pressures and harsh self-criticism lead to even more doubt about their own knowledge and capabilities. And that self-doubt follows them as they climb the ladder.
“It turns out for many, the higher you climb, the more you’re expected to know, the worse you fear your incompetence will be discovered,” says Dr. Stoddard.
Oppressive systems and social constructs
Although some research has attempted to separate the imposter phenomenon from demographics, anybody would be remiss not to recognize the biases and oppression that fan the flames—particularly for women and people of color (and especially women of color).
One study found that imposter syndrome was especially prevalent among ethnic minority groups. And, even Clance and Imes’ foundational study focused on women of a specific race, age, and education level and, as a result, excluded many groups. The psychologists themselves described their sample as “primarily white middle- to upper-class women between the ages of 20 and 45.”
“While the research on this is mixed, it appears to be the case that people with a history of marginalization may be more prone to this experience,” states Dr. Stoddard. “If you’ve been told you don’t belong at the table (e.g. BIPOC in white spaces, women in men’s spaces, LGBTQI+ in cis/straight spaces, etc.) and you don’t see people like you at those tables, you may be more vulnerable to experiencing imposterism.”
From chronic underrepresentation of women and people of color in leadership roles to the Eurocentric model of professionalism, plenty of our modern social constructs and expectations fuel these fraudulent feelings and emotions.
“It can be as ‘innocent’ as someone questioning the legal credentials of a young Latina woman or the rigorousness of a Black doctor’s education or implying that someone was solely a diversity hire,” adds Dr. Williams.
Overcoming imposter syndrome
Strike a power pose. Create a document filled with glowing compliments that you can read for a quick confidence boost. Learn to give yourself a rousing pep talk.
They’ve all been suggested as ways to kick imposter syndrome to the curb. But, are they actually the antidote you need to shut down your inner critic and find a greater level of self-assuredness?
Well, maybe. Sort of. Partially. The answer is complicated.
Experts agree that you can learn to recognize and manage the feelings and concerns that you’re a good-for-nothing con artist who’s bound to be exposed. However, a quick and easy fix probably isn’t going to cut it.
Making changes on a broader level
For starters, there’s a lot that needs to change on a broader level—beyond personal reflection and responsibility.
“Even as we know it today, imposter syndrome puts the blame on individuals, without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that are foundational to how it manifests in both women of color and white women,” write Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey in a piece for Harvard Business Review. “Imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.”
From sponsoring and mentoring women of color to collecting employee feedback to gathering data about promotions, Tulshyan and Burey offer many strategies in a separate article that leaders and organizations can use to eliminate imposter syndrome within their own work environments.
Making changes on a personal level
Systemic change is needed to truly end imposter syndrome once and for all. But, there is still work that you can do on an individual level. In fact, it’s when both of those things happen that real positive changes occur.
“I have seen many professionals that I have worked with conquer those negative internalized views while also placing boundaries in the oppressive systems that initiate those beliefs,” explains Dr. Williams.
On a personal level, we “don’t have a delete button for our thoughts and feelings,” shares Dr. Stoddard.
With that in mind, it’s helpful to understand the reflexive thoughts you have in moments of fear and shame so that you can consciously change your response. Dr. Spragg sets up the example of sending an email only to realize that you made a spelling error. You might have a reflexive self-critical thought like, “Ugh, I’m such an idiot!”
“We then have a choice to leave the criticism unchecked or to disentangle it from our sense of identity a bit,” says Dr. Spragg. Ask yourself why you’re bullying yourself for making a simple human error. Where did you learn to expect perfection from yourself? How can you apply self-compassion instead?
“In this way, we chip away at the relationship between trying to behave perfectly in order to avoid shaming ourselves in the event that we make a mistake. We learn that we can, in fact, make a mistake and still be kind to ourselves,” Dr. Spragg continues. “Over time, we feel less crystallized in the ‘imposter identity’ and more like a human who is trying and learning and growing.’”
Imposter syndrome shouldn’t be the norm
You don’t have to look far to find someone who has experienced imposterism—it’s likely that you’ve even experienced it yourself.
In some ways, it’s become a staple of our working worlds. Most people feel like they’re “faking it until they make it.” And, in a culture that emphasizes humility (especially among women and people of color), even the most qualified and successful experts will downplay their own skills and achievements.
But, just because something is prevalent doesn’t mean it should be accepted as an unrelenting reality.
Imposter syndrome can be addressed, managed, and perhaps even eliminated. But first we all need to trust that we have the courage, ability, and know-how to make the necessary changes. And as research shows, trusting ourselves is the hardest part.