Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud".

[1] Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds, and do not deserve all they have achieved. Individuals with impostorism attribute their success to luck, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent than they perceive themselves to be.[2] While early research focused on the prevalence among high-achieving women, impostor syndrome has been recognized to affect both men and women equally.[1][3] Impostor phenomenon is not a mental disorder, yet there is research describing various management styles for this internal experience.

The term impostor phenomenon was introduced in 1978 in the article "The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention" by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes.[4] Clance and Imes defined impostor phenomenon as an individual experience of self-perceived intellectual phoniness (fraud). The researchers investigated the prevalence of this internal experience by interviewing a sample of 150 high-achieving women. All of the participants had been formally recognized for their professional excellence by colleagues, and academic achievements by degrees earned, and top ranking scores on standardized testing.[4] Despite the consistent evidence of external validation, these women lacked the internal acknowledgement of their accomplishments. The participants explained how their success was a result of luck, and others simply overestimating their intelligence and abilities. Clance and Imes believed that this mental framework for impostor phenomenon developed from factors such as: gender stereotypes, early family dynamics, culture, and attribution style. The researchers determined that the women who experienced impostor phenomenon showcased symptoms related to depression, generalized anxiety, and low self-confidence.[4]

Clance and Imes stated in their 1978 article that, based on their clinical experience, impostor phenomenon was less prevalent in men. They noted that further research was necessary to determine the effects impostor phenomenon has on men.[4] Following the publication in 1978, more research has determined that this experience occurs in demographics outside of just high-achieving, successful women.[citation needed]

In more current research, impostor phenomenon is studied as a reaction to particular stimuli and events. It is a phenomenon (an experience) that occurs in an individual, not a mental disorder. Impostor phenomenon is not recognized in the DSM or ICD. Yet, studies have shown that individuals who experience this phenomenon have often been diagnosed with a mental disorder(s) as well.[citation needed] Examples of these mental disorders include depression and anxiety,[4] although no clear connection between impostor phenomenon and these other disorders has yet been established.[citation needed]

Impostor experience may be accompanied by anxiety, stress, or depression.[4] Impostor experience is associated with thoughts such as:[5]

The first scale designated to measure characteristics of impostor phenomenon was designed by Clance in 1985, called the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale (CIP).[6] The scale can be utilized to determine if characteristics of fear are present, and to what extent. The aspects of fear include: fear of evaluation, fear of not continuing success and fear of not being as capable as others.[6]

In her 1985 paper, Clance explained that impostor phenomenon can be distinguished by the following six dimensions:[2]

Clance noted that the characteristics of these six dimensions may vary. By this model, for an individual to be considered to experience impostorism, at least two of these aspects have to be present.[2] Clance theorised that the most important aspect to understand the manifestation of this experience can be seen through the impostor cycle she created.[4]

The impostor cycle, as defined by Clance,[2] begins with an achievement-related task. An example of an achievement-related task could be an exercise that was assigned through work or school. Once the assignment has been given to the individual, feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, and worry immediately follow. The cycle accounts for two possible reactions that stem from these feelings. Either the individual will respond by over-preparation or procrastination.[2]

If the individual responds with procrastination, this initial response will turn into a frantic effort to complete the job. Once the task has been completed, there will be a brief period of accomplishment and feeling of relief.[2] If positive feedback is given once the work has been completed and turned in, the individual will discount the positive feedback.

If the individual responded to the task with over-preparation, the successful outcome will be seen as a result of hard work. If the individual responds by procrastination, they will view the outcome as a matter of luck. In the impostor cycle, gaining success through hard work or luck is not interpreted as a matter of true, personal ability.[2] This means that it does not matter which mechanism the individual used to complete the task. Even if the outcome results in a positive response, the feedback given has no effect on the individual's perception of personal success. This leads to the individual to discount positive feedback.

This sequence of events serves as a reinforcement, causing the cycle to remain in motion. With every cycle, feelings of perceived fraudulence, increased self doubt, depression, and anxiety accumulate. As the cycle continues, increased success leads to the intensification of feeling like a fraud.[2] This experience causes the individual to remain haunted by their lack of perceived, personal ability. Believing that at any point they can be 'exposed' for who they think they really are keeps the cycle in motion.[4]

Studies on impostor phenomenon have received mixed reviews regarding the presence of impostor phenomenon in men and women.[2] Clance and Imes investigated this experience in high achieving women in their 1978 study.[4] Following the publication of this study, researchers have investigated impostor phenomenon in both men and women. Clance and Imes suggested that this experience manifests in women more so than men.[4] A study in 2006 looked at gender differences when explored the potential relationship between the feeling of being an impostor, and the achievement of goals. The researchers concluded that the women who participated in this study experienced impostor phenomenon more so than the men who participated.[7] Other research has shown that women commonly face impostor phenomenon in regards to performance. The perception of ability and power is showcased in out-performing others. For men, impostor phenomenon is often driven by the fear of being unsuccessful, or not good enough.[8] Despite these differences, there is a greater amount of literature regarding impostor phenomenon and gender differences stating that it is spread equally among men and women.[8]

The feeling of being a fraud that is emphasised in the impostor phenomenon is not uncommon. It has been estimated that nearly 70 percent of individuals will experience signs and symptoms of impostor phenomenon at least once in their life.[9] This can be a result of a new setting, academic or professional. Research shows that impostor phenomenon is not uncommon for students when entering a new academic environment. Feelings of insecurity can come as a result to an unknown, new environment. This can lead to lower self confidence and belief in abilities.[6]

Impostor phenomenon can occur in other various settings. Some examples include:

In relationships, individuals with impostorism often feel like they do not live up to the expectations of their friends or loved ones.[6] It is common for the individual with impostorism to think that they must have some how tricked others into liking, and wanting to spend time with them. Feelings of being unworthy, or deserving of the beneficial relationships they possess.[6]

There is empirical evidence that demonstrates the harmful effects of impostor phenomenon in students. Studies have shown that when a student's academic self-concept increases, the symptoms of impostor phenomenon decrease, and vice versa.[8] The worry and emotions the students held, had a direct impact of their performance in the program.

Common ideas of impostor phenomenon in the classroom include:[6]

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin investigated the impact impostor phenomenon has on students, specifically students of color. They found that the feelings the students had of being a fraud resulted in psychological distress.[10] Students of color often questioned the grounds in which they were accepted into the program. They held the false assumption that they only received their acceptance due to affirmative action- rather than their extraordinary application, and qualities they had to offer.[10]

Research has shown that there is a relationship between impostor phenomenon and the following aspects:

The aspects listed are not mutually exclusive. These components are often found to correlate among individuals with impostor phenomenon. It is incorrect to infer that the correlational relationship between these aspects cause the impostor experience.[6]

For individuals with impostor phenomenon, feelings of guilt often result in a fear of success. The following are examples of common ideas, and statements that lead to feelings of guilt, and reinforce the phenomenon.[7]

In a 2016 interview, Caroline Webb suggested that feelings of impostor experience are potentially healthy and beneficial for one's career trajectory.[11] This conclusion stems from understanding that everyone has a comfort zone, and personal/professional growth is likely to occur when people step out of their comfort zones.[11]

In their 1978 paper, Clance and Imes proposed a therapeutic approach they used for their participants/clients with impostor phenomenon. This technique encompasses a group setting where various individuals meet others who are also living with this experience. The researchers explained in their 1978 paper how the group meetings made a significant impact on their participants.[4] They proposed that it was the realization that they were not the only ones who experienced these feelings. The participants were required to complete various homework assignments as well. One assignment consisted of the participants recalling all of the people they believe they have fooled, or tricked in the past.[4] Another take home task was to have the individuals write down the positive feedback they would receive. Later, they would have to recall why they received this feedback, and what about it made them perceive it in a negative light. In the group sessions, the researchers also had the participants reframe common thoughts and ideas about performance. An example would be to change: "I might fail this exam" to "I will do well on this exam".[4]

The researchers concluded that simply extracting the self-doubt before an event occurs helps eliminate the feelings of impostorism.[4] It was recommended that the individuals struggling with this experience seek support from friends and family.[4] Although impostor phenomenon is not a mental condition, it can still effect an individual in a tremendous way.[9]

Other research on therapeutic approaches for impostorism emphasise the importance of self-worth. Individuals live with impostor phenomenon commonly relate self-esteem and self-worth to others. A major aspect of other therapeutic approaches for impostor phenomenon focus on separating the two into completely separate entities.[8]

In a study in 2013, researcher Queena Hoang proposed that intrinsic motivation can decrease the feelings of being a fraud, that result from impostor phenomenon.[6] This includes a serious of re-framing current ideas. The following are examples listing within Hoang's 2013 paper:[6]

Hoang also suggested that implementing a mentor program for new or entering students will minimize students' feelings of self-doubt. Having a mentor that has been in the program will help the new students feel supported. This allows for a much smoother, and less overwhelming transition.[6]

Impostor experience can be addressed with many kinds of psychotherapy.[12][13][14] Group psychotherapy is an especially common and effective way of alleviating the impostor experience.[15][16]

Various individuals who are often seen in the spotlight have shared that they have/had experienced feeling like a fraud. Journalist Diana Crow stated, "I spent a lot of time not applying to awards for a couple of years."[9] When she did receive some of those awards, it reinforced the feelings of impostorism. She stated, "There's a little bit of wondering whether what won an award is actually award-worthy."[9]

The following list includes other well known individuals who have reportedly experienced this phenomenon as well: