What is impostor syndrome?

This symptom of low self-esteem affects countless people from all walks of life

Amanda Sellers, Staff Writer

Did you know that you’re not actually as talented as you think you are? Experts say that someday everyone will know that you’re a fraud and that you don’t actually amount to anything at all. All your achievements were a fluke. All your accomplishments are a coincidence. You are a boundless abyss of conditional success; your luck will dry up like a beached whale. And eventually, all the people who admire you will discover that you are nothing more than the carefully constructed facade that you’ve steadily fabricated over the last 20 years. That you’ve tricked them into believing in your intelligence and you were actually a lying master of deception all along. 

Impostor syndrome is debilitating and is an exhaustive symptom of your magnificently low self-esteem. It is a combination of the romanticization of certain aspects of life and the extremely self-deprecating image you’ve created yourself in. When you look at your portfolio, your resume, your record of accomplishment, you see someone that isn’t you, couldn’t be you, there’s no possible way that was you. Any second now, someone will knock on your door, call you, email you: sorry, you aren’t meant to be here, we’ve made a mistake and you don’t actually belong here. 

Maya Angelou, an internationally acclaimed writer and poet, has expressed that even she has experienced feeling like an impostor. “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'” Why do those who are exceptionally skilled and talented often feel like they’re an impostor in a crowd of authentic originals?

The term ‘impostor phenomenon’ first showed up in the 1978 article “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” by Dr. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. The article recalled the study of 150 high achieving women in the United States, all of which had been formally recognized for their professional excellence and academic achievement. Regardless of the external validation and obvious markers of their success, they were exceedingly doubtful about their own performance. While early studies focused on how prevalent the impostor phenomenon was in women, it has been recognized in both men and women fairly equally. 

Sandeep Ravindran of The Open Notebook, a science journal and non-profit organization, says that nearly 70% of people will experience impostor syndrome at least once in their life. The impending sense of failure and superhuman expectations you hold for yourself are just some of the key symptoms to this phenomenon. 

There are six key markers of the impostor syndrome:

  •         The impostor cycle (anxiety over a task – over preparation or procrastination – accomplishment -the  feeling of relief – discount of positive feedback – perceived fraudulence)
  •         Being a perfectionist
  •         Characteristics of a superhuman i.e. someone who seems to be good at everything
  •         Extreme fear of failure
  •         Denial of ability and the discount of praise i.e. can’t take a compliment
  •         Feeling guilty about being successful (‘Oh I was just lucky’) 

“…nearly 70% of people will experience imposter syndrome at least once in their life.”

Clance has stated that while the degree of each of these markers may vary, at least two of them will be prevalent to experience impostor syndrome. While the symptoms of impostor syndrome are visible in those who already have issues with depression and self-esteem, impostor syndrome is not exclusive to those with mental illness. More commonly, it reveals itself in individuals with markedly ambitious goals and seems to be a product of many things: family expectations, overprotective parents, racial identities, higher academic environments and excessive self-monitoring are just a few factors.  

So what is the cure? Is there a cure? Can you ever feel like you’re enough? 

Study shows that a therapeutic approach is very helpful. It’s mostly effective in a group setting when one can share their experiences with others also experiencing the same thing. Another conclusion is that simply removing self-doubt before an event happens helps foster positive feelings and eliminates the idea of impostorism. Other approaches seek to emphasize self-worth and things like daily affirmations, although can be embarrassing at first, are key to raising confidence and implementing positive ideas about the self.

Thinking you’re worth the time and space you take up, and the effort you’ve expended to get to where you are, is only the first step to understanding you belong. It’s not a conditional statement; you didn’t get to where you currently are by conning all the people around you. You belong because you’ve worked hard to belong. That’s it. There’s nothing else to consider.