We are all impostors
Why impostor syndrome doesn't exist
Soon after the publication of the Grapes of Wrath its Nobel prize winng author John Steinbeck wrote these words in his journal:
“I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were. This success will ruin me as sure as hell. It probably won’t last, and that will be alright.” (Steinbeck 1990).
Despite his evident success, John Steinbeck felt like a fraud. He felt like an impostor.
I feel like an impostor a lot of the time. I rarely feel totally ready to take on a new challenge. I sometimes feel like I’m winging it. Maybe I am, but certain situations, or certain people bring out that familiar sense in me of being an impostor.
One consolation is that I am not alone. Many people, and a lot of successful people, like Steinbeck, sometimes feel like impostors.
At first glance, the idea of impostor syndrome doesn’t make any sense. What reasonable person, when presented with objective, independent, evidence of their success, concludes that not only they are undeserving of that success but in fact they are a fraud?
I’ve been thinking about this over the past few weeks and as a result, I’ve changed my mind about the whole idea of impostor syndrome. I don’t think that it exists. Even the phrase ‘impostor syndrome,’ is misleading and potentially harmful. Let me explain why.
The history of impostor syndrome:
Back in the 1970s, two psychologists in the US, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes were also puzzled by this paradox, and came up with the idea of impostor syndrome to explain it. Clance and Imes published their classic paper that introduced the world to impostor syndrome in 1978. They interviewed 150 high-achieving women. Despite the tangible and independent evidence of their ability, the women consistently played down and generally minimised their accomplishments and attributed their success to luck or to other people overestimating them. The phrase ‘impostor syndrome’ really took off. It seemed to strike a chord with the experience of many people.
Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes
The research was done in the mid-1970s and was a product of its time. And, just like Abba, punk rock and The Bay City Rollers, the phrase ‘impostor syndrome’ soon became a part of popular culture. Imposter syndrome became one of those rare psychological terms (like ‘denial’) that have passed into everyday language.
It took hold because it offers an interesting straightforward explanation for the feelings of anxiety and self-doubt that we all experience when asked to do a difficult task. Clance and Imes described imposter syndrome as being a pattern of doubting one’s accomplishments and fearing being exposed as a fraud. It’s actually more common than you might think with up to 82% of both women and men experiencing impostor syndrome at some point in their life (Bratava et al 2020).
The psychology of impostor syndrome
Impostor syndrome is a specific psychological process. It begins when you are given a task you don’t feel quite ready for. You start to experience feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, and worry. You could respond to these feelings in a number of ways. You could become obsessed with the task and over-prepare or avoid the task and procrastinate.
When you get the task done, you experience relief and maybe even a brief feeling of accomplishment. This is usually short lived because you then start to think about the task and come to the perfectly reasonable conclusion that the outcome had very little to do with any innate ability you might have.
If you over-prepared, the successful outcome was obviously a result of overwork rather than personal ability. You had to work twice as hard as an average person to get the same result.
If you avoided and procrastinated the success was down to luck and the fact that you had to wing it.
So whether you procrastinate or over prepare, any positive feedback is discounted. Success is attributed to luck or working twice as hard as anyone else, rather than your ability. With every cycle, your feelings that you might be a fraud increase. Your self-doubt, low mood, and anxiety begin to grow. This is a self-reinforcing vicious circle with increasing success leading to the feelings of being a fraud becoming stronger and the corresponding fear of being found out feeding this negative feedback loop.
This is a helpful way to understand how our thoughts and feelings get into this destructive negative feedback loop, and the feeling of not being quite good enough reinforces itself. But, only so far. It’s a superficial understanding and it's flawed. If we look beneath the surface of the idea of impostor syndrome there are many more factors contributing to the experience.
Why the idea of impostor syndrome is flawed
Like the Bay City Rollers, and TDK casette tapes, impostor syndrome was a product of the 1970s. It reflected the culture of the time. Patricia Clance was born in 1936 and grew up in the America of the 1950s and 60s. This was a society with a particular view of the role of women, and their place in society. It was a very individualistic culture. For the most part, women either stayed at home, or worked in traditional female roles. Few women worked in senior management or professional jobs. The 150 subjects in the study would have been considered unusual in 1970s America and certainly would have stood out in the ocean of male faces running corporate America. When you think of it like this, it isn’t difficult to understand why these women might have felt like impostors. One of the things missing from the idea of impostor syndrome is that it is context dependent. It is something that arises from the relationship between the person and society. It doesn’t just reside within the person. This brings me onto my second point.
The actual phrase ‘impostor syndrome' is misleading. An impostor is a person who pretends to be someone else to deceive others, usually to defraud them. The experience of the person with impostor syndrome is the reverse of this. In impostor syndrome, it’s usually other people reassuring the person with impostor syndrome that they are good at their job, with the person finding it difficult to believe this and trying to hide their lack of confidence.
The word ‘syndrome’ means a set of medical signs and symptoms that occur together and are associated with a particular disease or condition. Impostor syndrome isn’t by any stretch of the imagination, a disease, psychological or otherwise. This way of seeing an experience as an individual disorder is a reflection of the highly individualistic culture of America between the 1950s and 1970s – the culture that the researchers lived in. It is a reflection of the social and political context of that society. Having said this, for the sake of clarity and ease of reading and carry on using the term.
Impostor syndrome is an individual vulnerability that gets triggered by a particular situation or particular type of person. Most people with impostor syndrome don't feel like impostors all the time.
The roots of impostor vulnerability
For most of us (not everybody) our impostor syndrome has its roots in our childhood. If you were a bright kid who had supportive and encouraging parents, you would have learnt two important lessons: attention is linked to performance and you have to suppress your own needs to please others. You prefer to go to the park with your friends, but being highly conscientious you decide to stay in and finish your homework. It is easy to lose yourself when you do your best to please others. You grow up with a highly competent outward facing self which hides an anxious and often needy internal self. It is that part of yourself - that sub-personality - that emerges in certain situations or with certain types of people. That is what gets labelled as impostor syndrome. Your personality is made up of many sub personalities - all competing for the driving seat. The ‘impostor’ is only one of these - it isn’t the whole. But, when it’s in the driving seat, it just feels like it’s the whole of you, and that’s the problem.
As a kid you tell yourself that you have to excel to earn attention and as an adult you tell yourself the same story. It’s always the first stories we tell ourselves that are the hardest to let go of.
What to do about it.
If you experience a loss in confidence in certain situations or with certain people, here are a few ideas about what you can do to regain your temporary loss of confidence.
The psychologist Tim Wilson found that students who are at risk of dropping out of their university courses told themselves stories about how they weren’t coping because they weren’t academic enough (Wilson 2011). He used a 30 minute intervention to help the students edit their stories along the lines of most people find university difficult at first, but then find it easier and go on to do well. When he did this, dropout rates fell dramatically. His book, Redirect, is terrific and I would recommend reading it. So, if you are prone to impostor syndrome, edit your story to say that most people find difficult situations tough – it’s normal. It’s normal to feel like an imposter some of the time. However, with practice and persistence, most people get over it. Tell yourself that you know from your own personal experience that when you start something new, it’s often very difficult but becomes easier with time and practice.
We see the world from the inside out.
Always remember that you observe the world and other people from the inside out. When you do anything challenging, you will be aware of what is going on around you. However, you will also be painfully aware of all your faults, shortcomings, self-doubt. On the other hand, you only see other people from the outside – you see the face they choose to present to the world. It’s easy to see other people as being all confident and yourself as being full of doubt. But that isn’t true.
The next time you are in a situation where you feel like an impostor or feel that you are not good enough, remember that you are only aware of your feelings and not the feelings and psychological state of the other people around you. Maybe they feel as scared as you.
Feelings do not equal facts.
Towards the end of his life, Albert Einstein said to a friend
“the exaggerated esteem in which my life work is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler” (Holt, 2005).
So, if you sometimes feel like an imposter, you are in good company. Objectively Albert Einstein was a genius and yet he thought of himself as an involuntary swindler. How can you explain this? Well maybe Einstein had temporarily abandoned the scientific method and based his conclusion on feelings rather than fact. Feelings aren’t facts, and just because Albert Einstein felt like an involuntary swindler, it didn’t make him an involuntary swindler.
Just because you feel like an impostor it doesn’t necessarily follow that you are an impostor. When you feel like this, take a breath and think of some objective evidence that proves that you’re not an impostor. Look at your CV, look at your qualifications, remember that an interview panel appointed you to your job and chose you over other people. Assess whether you are really impostor on this tangible evidence, not ephemeral emotions.
Aim to be good enough rather than perfect.
The biggest tip on avoiding impostor syndrome is to strive to be good enough rather than perfect.
Donald Winnicott was a psychoanalyst and paediatrician who worked in London in the 1950s. He found that many mothers who became depressed would say that they wanted to be the perfect mother. Mothers who didn’t experience depression, just did their best to look after their children and be good enough. Winnicott concluded that perfectionism leads to depression. Ultimately, perfection is impossible and being unable to settle for anything less than perfection will always lead to disappointment. You have set yourself an impossible Sisyphean task. Winnicott said that we should all just do the best we can with the gifts we have and aim to be good enough, rather than perfect, which is good advice for life.
We are all impostors.
When Alexander Solzhenitsyn described the tyranny of the Soviet regime in his book The Gulag Archipelago, he said something very profound about the human condition:
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states nor between classes nor between political parties either – but right through the centre of every human heart” (Solzhenitsyn, 2003).
I’ve adapted this to help us think differently about impostor syndrome:
“The line separating self-confidence from impostor syndrome and the saboteur exists, not between individual people or groups, but through the centre of every human heart.”
In other words, it’s not that some people are disabled by impostor syndrome - we all have that potential deep within us.
Impostor syndrome is a myth because people who suffer with it are not imposters and it is not a medical syndrome.
Impostor syndrome happens when vulnerability inside us becomes triggered by a certain context – we experience a temporary loss of self-confidence in certain situations or with certain people.
This has its roots in childhood
Remember that we can change the story we tell about ourselves.
We experience the world from the inside out – we are aware of our own vulnerability but not the vulnerability of others.
Feelings do not equal facts just because we feel like an impostor it doesn’t make as an impostor.
The line that divides the self-confident from the impostor doesn’t lie between individuals or groups but down the centre of every human heart.
Badawy, R. L., Gazdag, B. A., Bentley, J. R., & Brouer, R. L. (2018). Are all impostors created equal? Exploring gender differences in the impostor phenomenon-performance link. Personality and Individual Differences, 131, 156–163.
Bravata, D. M., Watts, S. A., Keefer, A. L., Madhusudhan, D. K., Taylor, K. T., Clark, D. M., Nelson, R. S., Cokley, K. O., & Hagg, H. K. (2020). Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 35(4), 1252–1275.
Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice: The Official Journal of Division 49, Group Psychology and Group Psychotherapy of the American Psychological Association, 15(3), 241.
Steinbeck, J. (1990). Working Days: The Journals of “the Grapes of Wrath”: 1938-1941 (Reprint edition). London: Penguin.
Solzhenit︠s︡yn, A. I. (2003). The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-56: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. Random House.
Wilson, T. (2011). Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. Penguin UK.