Do you ever feel like you are, in some way, a fraud? Despite your successes in life – your good grades, your professional accomplishments, the high praise you receive from others – have you felt like you will eventually be unmasked as an impostor? This feeling is surprisingly common, and has been termed the Impostor Phenomenon (or Syndrome). It’s not a “real” disorder (you won’t find it in the DSM), but it is a very real phenomenon that affects many genuinely successful people.
First described by Clance and Imes (1978), these feelings are especially prevalent among graduate students, who feel they have been let in by accident, and they will eventually be unmasked as intellectual frauds. This is a concertn that is particularly relevant to the readers of this blog. However, the Impostor Phenomenon often lingers with highly successful professionals. A partial explanation could be that the more we progress in an area, the more we become aware of the limitations of our knowledge and abilities. This is not a new idea; Bertrand Russell said “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” But that may not be the whole story; many researchers have suggested the Impostor Phenomenon disproportionately affects women, raising the question of whether internalized negative self-stereotypes may be working to sabotage perceived self-efficacy and the internalization of success.
There is still a lot we don’t know about the Impostor Phenomenon – its frequency, distribution among demographic groups, ultimate causes, and how to reduce its negative effects. Much more empirical research is needed. But we can say for sure that if you feel like your successes have somehow been an accident and that it is only a matter of time before you are unmasked, you are by no means alone, and you share this feeling with many of the bright and talented. If you do feel this way, try talking with your friends and advisors about it. You may be surprised to learn just how common it is to feel like an impostor.