Imposter syndrome was formerly known as the imposter phenomenon, a term coined by psychologists in the 1970s. Imposter syndrome can affect everyone from athletes and scientists to office workers. Though imposter syndrome was not formally recognized until recent years, it has likely existed throughout history.
Individuals with imposter syndrome describe feeling like they are not smart enough or good enough to be in their current position, that they are somehow a fraud, or that they are undeserving of everything they have worked for. Research suggests that imposter syndrome is a widespread phenomenon and impacts a majority of people at least once in their lives.
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What Is Imposter Syndrome?
First and foremost, what is imposter syndrome? The definition of imposter syndrome is feeling inadequate in professional-related endeavors despite having more than enough expertise and experience in a certain field. In other words, the meaning of imposter syndrome is such that high achievers or people who excel in their field feel consistently inadequate or fraudulent despite contrary evidence.
History of Imposter Phenomenon
Recognition of the imposter phenomenon goes back to the 1970s in the United States, where two psychologists observed it most commonly in high-achieving professional women. Around 1978, Doctors Clance and Imes started noticing that women in high achieving positions complained of feelings of self-doubt, incompetence and fear of not performing well in the future more than their male counterparts. Over time, they noticed imposter syndrome impacted males as well as females.
Symptoms of Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome can take on many different forms depending on the person who experiences it. Based on Dr. Clance’s imposter phenomenon scale, there are several imposter symptoms a person may exhibit. Some of these include:
- Feeling like success is impossible
- Feeling incompetent despite demonstrating competency
- Fear of not meeting another person’s expectations
- Feeling like past successes and hard work were only due to luck
- Feeling incapable of performing at the same level every time
- Feeling uncomfortable with receiving praise or congratulations
- Feeling disappointed over current accomplishments
- Feeling doubtful of successes
- Feeling constant pressure to achieve or be better than before
- Feeling stressed, anxious or depressed from feelings of inadequacy
Due to repeated feelings of inadequacy, a person struggling with imposter syndrome can develop other mental health conditions. For instance, negative feelings could lead to anxiety or depression associated with imposter syndrome.
Different Types of Imposter Syndrome
There are several different types of imposter syndrome. Dr. Valerie Young, an expert on imposter syndrome, categorized this condition by subtype. Each subtype is defined by a unique type of individual that falls under the umbrella of imposter syndrome. Most people who struggle with this syndrome fall into one or a mix of these subtypes. Imposter syndrome examples include:
1. The Perfectionist
The perfectionist represents a person with imposter syndrome that strives to be their absolute best, no matter the cost to their mental health. These individuals may be identified as typical “perfectionists” who set impossibly high standards for themselves.
2. The Superwoman/man
The superwoman/man represents a person with imposter syndrome that often struggles with work addiction. This person may feel inadequate relative to colleagues and continue to push themselves as hard as possible, regardless of the consequences on mental, physical and emotional health.
3. The Natural Genius
The natural genius represents a person with imposter syndrome that not only struggles with perfectionism but also sets out to achieve lofty goals on their first try. These individuals feel unworthy, guilty and shameful if they cannot easily complete a task or achieve a goal on their first go.
4. The Soloist
The soloist represents a person with imposter syndrome that has extreme difficulties asking others for help. Perhaps they may feel that others are not as competent as themselves or that they must prove their own worth through their productivity.
5. The Expert
The expert represents a person with imposter syndrome that never feels good enough despite being extremely knowledgeable. This person may feel like they are less experienced than their colleagues if they do not know an answer or have knowledge on certain topics.
Causes of Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome is not recognized as an official disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5). Nevertheless, it can be a debilitating and frustrating condition. The exact causes of imposter syndrome are unknown. It is likely that upbringing, personality and genetic factors all play a role in the development of imposter syndrome. Some work environments may also be more likely to trigger imposter syndrome than others. In high achieving fields like science, engineering, politics and banking, for example, individuals are always competing to be the cream of the crop.
Recognizing Imposter Syndrome in Your Team
Dr. Clance, one of the original doctors to first start documenting imposter syndrome, developed the Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale. This scale features an imposter syndrome quiz that scores individuals based on how many imposter characteristics they exhibit. After an individual takes the imposter syndrome test, they can start to recognize imposter syndrome in themselves or their professional colleagues. It is important to facilitate open communication with individuals that exhibit one or more symptoms of imposter syndrome to ensure they receive the support they need.
How to Deal With Imposter Syndrome
How can a high achieving person overcome imposter syndrome? Like other mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression, it may be beneficial for people who struggle with imposter syndrome to pursue psychotherapy or talk therapy. However, there are many other ways in which a person can deal with imposter syndrome. Some helpful tips for treating imposter syndrome include:
- Discussing feelings of inadequacy with others (e.g. with friends and family or at individual or group therapy)
- Helping others going through a similarly difficult time
- Taking things one day at a time
- Setting clear, measurable and realistic goals
- Questioning negative thoughts and beginning to replace them with positive thinking
- Stopping comparing abilities to that of other people
- Focusing on face-to-face situations versus the virtual world (e.g. social media)
- Performing meditation exercises and learning to accept thoughts, feelings and emotions, even if they are negative
- Moving forward despite negative feelings
If you or a loved one struggles with imposter syndrome and co-occurring addiction, The Recovery Village can help. Contact a representative today to discuss imposter syndrome and addiction treatments together.
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Cuncic, Arlin. “Imposter Syndrome and Social Anxiety Disorder.” Very Well Mind, June 17, 2019. Accessed June 29, 2019.
Mercier, Suzanne. “What causes the Imposter Syndrome?” 2016. Accessed June 29, 2019.
Salkulku, Jaruwan. “The Imposter Phenomenon.” The Journal of Behavioral Science, 2011. Accessed June 29, 2019.
Wilding, Melody. “The Five Types Of Impostor Syndrome And How To Beat Them.” May 8, 2017. Accessed June 29, 2019.
Woolston, Chris. “Faking It.” Nature Jobs, January 27, 2016. Accessed June 29, 2019.
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