What are the signs and symptoms of imposter syndrome?
How do we deal with unrealistic expectations and feelings of self-doubt?
Learn what to look out for and how to break the cycle!
In 2009 Taylor Swift entered the stage at the MTV Video Music Awards (VMA) to accept her award for Best Female Video. A few moments into her acceptance speech, Kanye West famously interrupted her, stating that the award should have gone to Beyoncé.
A seemingly choked and confused Taylor Swift stopped her speech, as the crowd started booing Kanye. In the 2020 Taylor Swift Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, Swift describes the feeling that she did not belong on that stage.
This stands in contrast to the fact that the previous year her album sold 7 million copies worldwide, and her 2009 album Fearless was the bestselling album in the US that year and sold about 12 million copies worldwide.
Clearly, she, if anyone, belonged on that stage.
Defining Imposter Syndrome
What is it that makes a platinum-selling artist doubt their right to success? It could be a case of imposter syndrome. The imposter syndrome (sometimes referred to as imposter phenomenon, or imposter feelings) was first described in 1978, by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in the article The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women.
In their study, they talked to over 170 women in the academic world, all with one thing in common – that despite their success, degrees, and professional recognition, they did not feel successful. They felt like frauds.
People who experience this are unable to accept their success and often explain their success with factors outside of their control, like luck, instead of actual ability. As a consequence of this, they expect to be exposed as frauds, or imposters, at any time.
Key Characteristics Of Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome is not yet a clinical diagnosis and does not appear in the main diagnostic manuals like DSM-5 or ICD-10. According to research (Leary et al., 2000, p. 747), however, imposter syndrome has certain specific key characteristics:
The feeling of being a fraud: The person feels like they are faking their abilities, or that other people are wrongly assuming they have the right abilities for the task at hand.
Fear of being exposed: The person expects others to find out about the “fraud” at any time, and that they will be exposed as a fraud.
Trouble owning up to success: Any success is discredited or attributed to external factors as luck, instead of being attributed to personal qualities and behaviors.
Stuck In The Imposter Cycle
Clance (1985) outlined the dynamics at work in the imposter phenomenon with the Imposter Cycle. The model describes how the perception of oneself as an imposter is maintained, even in the face of great success.
Here’s how Clance’s Imposter Cycle works:
The person gets assigned, or starts, a new task or project.
Symptoms of anxiety emerge.
The anxiety is managed by over-preparation or procrastination (avoidance) followed by intense preparation.
Upon completion, there is a feeling of relief.
Positive feedback is disregarded since success is not seen as a reflection of ability. It was rather related to luck or hard work, and if you needed to work that hard you can’t be that competent in the first place.
The feeling of being an imposter increases, as does anxiety and possible depressive symptoms.
And the cycle continues…
In a recent systematic review, which included over 60 studies with a total of over 14 000 participants, one conclusion was that imposter syndrome could impair job performance. Imposter syndrome was also linked to depression, anxiety, burnout, and job dissatisfaction (Bravata et al., 2019, p. 1262).
So, the problem with imposter syndrome is the anxiety, depression, and psychological discomfort it creates. It also makes it hard to properly enjoy any successes you have. It may also lead to you not taking on any new projects, so you don’t have to experience any discomfort, or even worse, be exposed as a “fraud”.
Coping With Imposter Syndrome
So now that we know more about imposter syndrome, and what makes it prevail even in the face of great success, what can we do about it?
The authors conclude that to date there are no specified treatments for imposter syndrome. But since there is a strong link to anxiety and depression, it’s important to identify individuals in need of treatment for those specific diagnoses (Bravata et al., 2019, p. 1262).
Even though imposter syndrome is not a formal diagnosis and lacks specific treatment recommendations, there are some useful strategies reported in the available science on the subject:
In a recent study, looking at the self-reported efficiency of different ways of managing imposter feelings, collegial support, and mentoring is perceived as an effective strategy (Barr-Walker, Werner, Kellermeyer, & Bass, 2020).
This is further supported by studies (Bravata et al., 2019, p. 1262, Matthews & Clance, 1985) that report people experiencing imposter feelings often think they are the only one who feels this way, which increases feelings of isolation.
Talking with others about imposter feelings breaks the isolation. It is a well known and established belief that increased social support is important for coping with the negative effects of stress (Uchino, 2009).
So maybe you can find a friendly online community of like-minded people where you can discuss these feelings (a particular Hive comes to mind…).
Zoom In On The Right Things
People with imposter feelings tend to tone down their accomplishments and abilities and enlarge perceived failures.
Training yourself to put the magnifying glass on the good things others have said about your work, or the things you did really well, is also an often-recommended way of dealing with imposter feelings (Barr-Walker, Werner, Kellermeyer, & Bass, 2020).
After all, habitually turning your attention to perceived mistakes will probably give you a distorted view of reality.
People experiencing imposter feelings tend to attribute their success to external factors as luck.
They also often think that if they were actually talented, they wouldn’t have to work so hard (Bravata et al., 2019, p. 1262).
So if this is relatable for you, try to cope with these feelings by redefining and reframing your definition of success by using this type of thinking:
Successful people work hard for it.
Successful people make their own luck.
The meaning you give to words, and how you define different concepts, affect your thinking in ways that are not always helpful.
In summary, imposter feelings can negatively impact your quality of life, and in the worst-case scenario can lead to depression and anxiety. You should be able to enjoy your success, however big or small. Hopefully, this editorial can be of some help for you on your way!
If you want to read further about this issue, I’ve referenced my sources for this article below.
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. (2019) Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 35(4), 1252–1275. <https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-019-05364-1>
Clance, P.R., & Imes, S.A. (1978) The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention, Psychotherapy, 15, 241-247.
Clance, P. R. (1985) The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the fear that haunts your success. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree.
Leary, M. R., Patton, K. M., Orlando, A. E., & Wagoner Funk, W. (2000) The Impostor Phenomenon: Self- Perceptions, Reflected Appraisals, and Interpersonal Strategies. Journal of Personality, 68(4), 725–756. <https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-6494.00114>
Matthews, G., & Clance, P. R. (1985) Treatment of the Impostor Phenomenon in Psychotherapy Clients. Psychotherapy in Private Practice, 3(1), 71-81. doi:10.1300/j294v03n01_09
Uchino, B. N. (2009) Understanding the Links Between Social Support and Physical Health: A Life-Span Perspective With Emphasis on the Separability of Perceived and Received Support. Perspectives on Psychological Science,4(3), 236-255. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6924.2009.01122.x