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.
The COVID-19/Mental Health Coping Toolkit page has a wide range of resources to support better mental health and wellbeing.