Is impostor syndrome real, and does it affect women more than men?

Feeling Like an Impostor Is Not a Syndrome

Feeling Like an Impostor Is Not a Syndrome

How to get ahead at work.
April 12 2016 6:25 PM

Feeling Like an Impostor Is Not a Syndrome

It’s a totally normal part of experiencing success.

imposter syndrome.
So many imposters.

BartekSzewczyk/Thinkstock

In the 1970s, psychology professor Pauline Rose Clance noticed that many of the accomplished female students who sought counseling at Oberlin College, where she worked part time, had a curious mental habit. Despite strong track records, these women felt that they didn’t deserve their success. They attributed their achievements to luck and felt sure that they would be “found out” and kicked out of school. “I saw these people who had gone to the best schools, often private schools, had highly educated parents and excellent standardized test scores, grades, and letters of recommendation,” Clance later recalled. “But here they were, saying things like, ‘I’m afraid I’m going to flunk this exam.’ ‘Somehow the admissions committee made an error.’ … ‘I’m an Oberlin mistake.’ ”

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a former Slate associate editor.

These feelings were familiar to Clance herself, who had had similar thoughts during grad school. So she and her colleague Suzanne Imes began interviewing these women and eventually wrote up their findings in a paper called “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women.” They theorized that women were uniquely predisposed to the impostor phenomenon, “since success for women is contraindicated by societal expectations and their own internalized self-evaluations.” Clance later devised a scale to help identify people with impostorism, which asked participants how much they agreed with statements such as “It’s hard for me to accept compliments or praise about my intelligence or accomplishments,” “At times, I feel my success has been due to some kind of luck,” and “I often compare my ability to those around me and think they may be more intelligent than I am.”

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You’ve probably heard of impostor phenomenon—or, as it’s more commonly called, impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome has been rediscovered and named “the workplace anxiety du jour” for women. In the internet age, it’s launched 1,000 trend pieces and personal essays. And it has been embraced by feminists who see it as a partial explanation for women’s failure to achieve workplace parity with men. Perhaps because it’s commonly called a “syndrome,” impostorism is often referred to as something you “have” or “suffer from,” as though it’s a diagnosable and treatable condition like schizophrenia or a cold. (See, for instance, an Entrepreneur essay called “Easily Diagnose and Treat Impostor Syndrome.”)

In truth, impostor syndrome doesn’t fit the clinical criteria for a psychological syndrome, which is defined as a cluster of symptoms that causes intense distress or interferes with a person’s ability to function. “I’m not sure when it began to be called a syndrome, but I do think that somehow that’s just easier for people to think about than phenomenon,” Clance told me. “They’re not quite sure what phenomenon means.” For the recent book Presence, Clance told Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy, “If I could do it all over again, I would call it the impostor experience, because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness, it’s something almost everyone experiences.”

And the popular understanding of impostor syndrome as a form of internalized sexism is a few decades behind the research. Clance and Imes originally theorized that impostorism was a gendered phenomenon, but subsequent studies found no difference in self-reported impostor feelings among male and female college students, professors, and professionals. In 1993, Clance conceded that her original theory of impostor syndrome as a uniquely female problem had been incorrect, since “males in these populations are just as likely as females to have low expectations of success and to make attributions to non-ability related factors.”

Additional studies have belied the notion that impostor syndrome is a rare or debilitating condition, because, as Clance told Cuddy, it turns out almost everyone has it. “Researchers have found impostorism in dozens of demographic groups,” writes Cuddy in Presence:

… including but not limited to teachers, accountants, physicians, physician assistants, nurses, engineering students, dental students, medical students, nursing students, pharmacy students, undergraduate entrepreneurs, high school students, people new to the Internet, African Americans, Koreans, Japanese, Canadians, disturbed adolescents, “normal” adolescents, preadolescents, adult children of high achieves, people with eating disorders, people without eating disorders, people who have recently experienced failure, people who have recently experienced success … and so on.
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That “and so on” includes case studies from virtually every field and every background. Under “People who have reportedly experienced the syndrome,” Wikipedia lists Neil Gaiman, Sheryl Sandberg, Sonia Sotomayor, Emma Watson, and Albert Einstein. It’s possible some of those high achievers were just being self-deprecating—when an interviewer asks if you’ve ever felt like a fraud, it might come across as cocky to say, “Nope, I’ve always felt I totally deserved my success.” But some of them seem to have had it pretty bad. Gaiman, for instance, says he used to have elaborate fantasies of someone knocking on his door to make him stop writing and get a real job, and Jodie Foster similarly thought she’d be forced to give back her Oscar. Sometimes it seems that everyone who’s accomplished anything has felt like he or she didn’t deserve it.

So why do we still talk about impostor syndrome as a women’s issue? Cuddy suggests that men are less likely to talk about feelings of impostorism than women are because of “stereotype backlash,” or social punishment for failing to conform to stereotypes (in this case, the stereotype that men are assertive and confident). Clance agrees. “I think women are more likely to say some of their doubts and fears, and there’s more cultural pressure on men not to do so,” she said.

Impostorism also seems more political and potentially consequential when women experience it. We know that women don’t reach the upper echelons of management in the same numbers as men, but we don’t always agree on why—and women’s insecurity is an appealingly simple explanation that takes the blame off employers. The author of a 2011 book called The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It acknowledged in an interview that men and women experience impostor syndrome in equal numbers but said she decided to aim her book at women because “80 percent of my speaking engagements come at the request of women for their female employees or students. More importantly, I aimed the book at women … because chronic self-doubt tends to hold them back more.” Whether women are more held back by chronic self-doubt than by discrimination and systemic obstacles is open to debate.

Impostor phenomenon may be much more common than the psychologists who coined the term originally thought, but that doesn’t make it meaningless. The scale Clance developed to identify impostorism has been shown to distinguish feelings of being an impostor from other issues like depression, anxiety, and self-esteem, which makes it useful for identifying feelings of fraudulence that have gotten out of hand. And Clance and Imes have done the world a service by identifying and describing impostorism: Simply learning that impostor syndrome is a thing, and that lots of people experience it, can be helpful in lessening impostorism’s intensity (for most people). “Many people can live with it, and it changes as they get experience in a job,” says Clance. “Often knowing that a lot of other people experience it is helpful.”

The actress Maisie Williams recently garnered headlines for saying, “We should stop calling feminists ‘feminists’ and just start calling people who aren’t feminist ‘sexist.’ ” Similarly, maybe we should stop calling people who experience impostor syndrome “people who experience impostor syndrome” and start calling people who don’t experience impostor syndrome “overconfident weirdos.” The truth is everyone who’s successful owes some of their success to luck. Most people have a hard time accepting compliments. And there’s an even chance that most of the people around you really are more intelligent than you are—and a better than even chance that they know more than you do about certain topics. Of course you should seek help if feelings of fraudulence are interfering with your life, or accompany symptoms of depression or anxiety, but moderate impostorism might just be a sign that you’re a normal, mildly insecure, conscientious person.

Clance thinks there may even be advantages to experiencing the impostor phenomenon. “Most high-IP people that I have worked with are liked and respected and they’re competent,” she said. “The humility that IP people have can be appealing.” Plus, wouldn’t you rather underestimate your abilities than the other way around?

Need career advice? Got a problem at work? Email theladder@slate.com.