What Is… Imposter Syndrome

risk factors and vicious cycle of imposter syndrome

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is imposter syndrome.

I’ve seen a number of people write about this topic lately, so I thought I’d join in. The term imposter syndrome was first used in a 1978 paper in the journal Psychotherapy Theory, Research, and Practice. The study found that high-achieving women failed to recognize their own accomplishments despite considerable evidence of those accomplishments. They also came up with excuses to invalidate the positive feedback they received from others.


While imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon, it is not considered to be a form of mental illness. Research is mixed on whether it occurs more in women or equally in men and women. Racial and ethnic minorities may be more likely to experience imposter system as a result of entrenched stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination.

Up to 70% of people will experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. It can occur in a variety of settings, including work, school, and social interactions. A number of factors can make people vulnerable to imposter syndrome, including depression, anxiety, perfectionism, low self-esteem, and family expectations.

The imposter cycle

The imposter cycle begins after a task is assigned and causes anxiety and self-doubt. Two behaviour patterns can set the cycle in motion. Someone may procrastinate and finish at the last minute, or they may over-prepare. After the task is completed, the procrastinator discounts positive feedback because they attribute their success to luck rather than ability. Someone who over-prepared may also discount positive feedback because they attribute any success to hard work rather than their own abilities. The pattern will then continue to repeat itself, as the person fears being exposed as a fraud.

Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale

One way of measuring imposter syndrome is the Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale. Dr. Clance was one of the researchers that first proposed imposter syndrome. A PDF version of the scale is available on Dr. Clance’s website, which you can fill out and score yourself. This version of the imposter test calculates your score and shows whether you have none-mild, moderate, significant, or intense imposter syndrome.

Reducing imposter syndrome

The University of Waterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence identifies strategies that can help to combat imposter syndrome:

  • talk about it
  • recognize that thoughts/feelings aren’t facts
  • accentuate the positive
  • recognize that it’s okay to make mistakes and ask others for help
  • change your self-talk
  • imagine positive outcomes rather than worst case scenarios
  • recognize and reward your accomplishments

I took the Clance imposter test and fell into the none-mild range. Looking back I can’t think of a time when this was ever an issue for me. I’ve certainly made my fair share of mistakes, but it never made me feel like a fraud. At least part of that is because regardless of what skills I may or may not have had, I’ve always been confident in my intelligence and my ability to use that intelligence to learn what I needed to. It’s something that my parents valued and praised, and it was pretty apparent in school that things came a lot easier to me than to other students. So even in settings where perhaps my skills weren’t as strong, I felt like my brain was good enough.

Have you experienced imposter syndrome?

You can find the rest of the what is… series in the Psychology Corner.


Mental health coping toolkit

The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.

32 thoughts on “What Is… Imposter Syndrome”

  1. I definitely have it because I’ve been told my life that I can’t do anything and in school and writing I’m nervous because I don’t think I’m good enough for those things.

    But I try to remember all the positive feedback I get and focus on that

      1. True even now I think that I’m not sure I’ll be a good peer support person. But the cmha head emailed me yesterday to tell me great I’m doing and they like my passion.

  2. I told my Partner I got a 90/100 on the online version. He asked how I avoided a “perfect” score. I noted there was a question about how frequently I thought others were *more* intelligent than me. He nodded, “Oh, got it. So as long as Trump voters exist, you will have a modicum of self-esteem not because you think *you* are intelligent per se, but because you at least aren’t *that* willfully dumb” And…yeah, pretty much.

    1. LOL, yeah, some people set a really low bar, don’t they? My intelligence was one thing I never questioned much, but most other abilities, skills, and traits I struggle with confidence.

  3. Ouch, I scored just over 80. Unfortunately this is something I struggle with a lot. Just recently when I had my probation review in work I was convinced my bosses were talking about a completely different person when they were discussing my accomplishments. It takes just one mistake to muddy anything positive I’ve done πŸ™

  4. Great post. It sounded like a lot of my classmates suffered with this. I scored 92 and can’t say I’m surprised! Good to know that I may not actually be as rubbish as I think, haha!

  5. I scored 95, but I think “what if I don’t actually have imposter syndrome but am actually a failure?”. My whole life, I’ve been called stupid and I seriously burned out hard at my last job and was constantly told I wasn’t good enough… So I feel I’m really the fraud. *embarrassed*

    1. I think failing at specific things and feeling like a fraud/imposter are separate things. I also think the general belief that “I am a failure” is far more likely to be associated with imposter syndrome, effects of bullying, or self-esteem issues than failing at specific tasks. So I most definitely do not think that you really are the fraud.

  6. That was a nice ‘quiz’ for the weekend. I scored 62 and I didn’t think it would be so high! The thing that I know about me is that I find it difficult to accept compliments. I do attribute them to external factors. When somebody tells me I look good, I think; yes that’s true, it is a nice dress.
    When I do something well I don’t think about it but rather focus on how to do well next time too. I discard successes like that I see now. This puts some stress on me. So I guess I am my own imposter sometimes.
    Thank you for this post, I believe I can practice to maybe ‘hold on’ to a succes instead of passing over it. Maybe it will help me recover to see the good things that I do.

      1. That is a good tip, thank you. I guess I’ll need to see the successes first. I still have an allergy to lists, maybe I need to work out a fun way to visualize the progress I make. I think it will be helpful to me. πŸ™‚

  7. Yes, I feel like this. Oxford is not a good place to go to if you want to avoid imposter syndrome, too many super-confident, super-intelligent people to keep up with. I rapidly became convinced that I was only there because they had a quote of students to accept from a state school background. I feel an imposter in my career too, that I’m not a ‘real’ librarian. And I feel an imposter in my religious community, that I’m not really religious enough to ‘pass’ (although, as I hope to post on my blog later, sometimes not fitting in is a good thing).

  8. I don’t have it. When I do well on something I always feel happy and accomplished. It makes me feel like I tried hard and succeeded. I always accept compliments because they helped me feel good for what I did

  9. With a 98, I definitely have this. I used to think that allowing yourself to think that you have Impostor Syndrome was thinking too highly of yourself. But now I know its got more to do with how you react to your accomplishments rather than the accomplishment in itself.

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