Impostor experience (most commonly referred to as impostor syndrom but also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome) is a concept describing when a person experiences an inability to internalize their accomplishments and/or have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud or impostor.

The term was coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes.[1] Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiences it are convinced that they don't deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they really are. While early research focused on the prevalence among high-achieving women,[1] impostor experience has been found to affect both men and women about equally.[2][3]

Background Edit

The impostor syndrome tends to be studied as a reaction to certain stimuli and events. It is not perceived to be a mental disorder, but it has been the topic of research for many psychologists. Though traditionally perceived as an ingrained personality trait, impostor syndrome has more recently been studied as a reaction to certain situations. Under this interpretation, it is a response experienced by many different people to situations that prompt such feelings. Though certain people are more prone to impostor feelings, experience them more intensely than most, and can be identified through the use of personality scales, evidence does not support impostor syndrome to be a distinct personality trait.[4]

The term "impostor syndrome" first appeared in an article written by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes who observed many high-achieving women tended to believe they were not intelligent, and that they were over-evaluated by others.[1] Another framework for understanding impostor syndrome is to rename it "impostor experience". In the words of Clance, "If I could do it all over again, I would call it the impostor experience, because it's not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness, it's something almost everyone experiences."[5] Reframing the vocabulary shifts one's perspective to help them understand they are not isolated in this experience.

Signs and symptoms Edit

Impostor experience can take form differently for everyone. Some common signs that someone may be feeling like an impostor are:[6]

Impostor experience can present itself through thoughts such as:[7]

  • "I must not fail"
  • "I feel like a fake"
  • "I just got lucky"

Impostor experience may be accompanied by anxiety, stress, or depression.[1]

Occurrence Edit

Prevalence Edit

Psychological research done in the early 1980s estimated that two out of five successful people consider themselves frauds and other studies have found that 70 percent of all people feel like impostors at one time or another. It is not considered a psychological disorder, and is not among the conditions described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (commonly known as the DSM). The term was coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978.[1]

People who have reportedly experienced the syndrome include multiple-award-winning writer Maya Angelou,[8] Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks,[9] actress Michelle Pfeiffer,[10] screenwriter Chuck Lorre,[11] best-selling writer Neil Gaiman,[12][13] best-selling writer John Green, comedian Tommy Cooper,[14] business leader Sheryl Sandberg, US Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor,[15] actress Emma Watson,[16] and entrepreneur Mike Cannon-Brookes.[17]

  • 70% of people will experience at least one episode of this impostor phenomenon in their lives.[18]
  • Impostor syndrome is not a gendered experience.[2][19]

Demographics Edit

The impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achievers. Another demographic group that often suffers from this phenomenon is African Americans. Being the beneficiary of affirmative action may cause a person who belongs to a visible minority to doubt their own abilities and suspect that their skills were not what allowed them to be hired.[20] Impostor syndrome has been commonly reported by graduate students and scientists beginning tenure track positions.[21]

High achievers Edit

Imes and Clance's theory suggests several behaviours of high-achieving women with impostor syndrome:[1]

Gifted people often work hard in order to prevent people from discovering that they are "impostors". This hard work often leads to more praise and success, which perpetuates the impostor feelings and fears of being "found out". The "impostor" person may feel they need to work two or three times as hard, so over-prepare, tinker and obsess over details, says Young. This can lead to burn-out and sleep deprivation.
Feeling of being phony
Those with impostor feelings often attempt to give supervisors and professors the answers that they believe they want, which often leads to an increase in feeling like they are "being a fake". If shown evidence of their competence or that they may suffer from a case of impostor syndrome, they tend to doubt themselves even more.
Use of charm
Connected to this, gifted women often use their intuitive perceptiveness and charm[1] to gain approval and praise from supervisors and seek out relationships with supervisors in order to help them increase their abilities intellectually and creatively. However, when the supervisor gives them praise or recognition, they feel that this praise is based on charm and not on ability. This may also be interpreted as manipulating others for personal gain.
Avoiding display of confidence
Another way that a person can perpetuate their impostor feelings is to avoid showing any confidence in their abilities. A person dealing with impostor feelings may believe that if they actually believe in their intelligence and abilities they may be rejected by others. Therefore, they may convince themselves that they are not intelligent or do not deserve success to avoid this.

While studies primarily focused on women, recent studies have suggested that men may also be prone to impostor syndrome on similar levels.[3][5] Clance, who coined the term while studying women, suggested that the syndrome may be equally prevalent in males, although she proposed that men process and act on it in different ways to women.[2]


A study by Queena Hoang suggested as example people of color may experience impostor syndrome as a result of suspecting they were given their position by affirmative action.[22] The research regarding impostor experience has traditionally highlighted groups who are excelling in areas that were not always readily accessible to them.[1] Likewise, said students have not always had access to institutions of higher education, which is another source that can create feelings of being an impostor.[23]

In 2013, a study conducted at the University of Texas at Austin revealed that Asian-American students are more likely than African-American or Latino students to experience feelings of being an impostor in college. This is potentially dangerous because correlational analyses showed that impostor feelings amongst underrepresented college students was a strong predictor of mental health issues.[24] It may be hard to outwardly identify these students because students who express feeling symptoms of impostor syndrome are "often the most energetic, bright, and hardworking students amongst their peers".[22]


Some scholars have argued that feelings of impostor experience are potentially healthy and beneficial for career trajectory. This belief stems from understanding that everyone has a comfort zone, and personal/professional growth is likely to occur when one steps out of their comfort zone.[25]

Management Edit

Impostor syndrome is not a formal mental disorder and does not have a standard definition, therefore there has not been a clear consensus as to treatment options available.[26] The syndrome has affected approximately 70% of the population worldwide;[27] however, it often goes unrecognized.[28] If it is not addressed, victims can develop anxiety, stress, low self-confidence, depression, shame and self-doubt.[26][29][30][31][32] People who suffer from impostor syndrome tend to reflect and dwell upon extreme failure, mistakes and negative feedback from others. If not addressed, impostor syndrome can limit exploration and the courage to delve into new experiences, in fear of exposing failure.[28][33]

A number of management options are available to ease impostor syndrome. The most prominent is to discuss the topic with other individuals early on in the career path.[28][22] Mentors can discuss experiences where impostor syndrome was prevalent.[28][30] Most people who experience impostor syndrome are unaware that others feel inadequate as well. Once the situation is addressed, victims no longer feel alone in their negative experience. It is also noted that reflecting upon impostor feelings is key to overcoming this burden.[34] Making a list of accomplishments, positive feedback and success stories will also aid to manage impostor syndrome.[22] Finally, developing a strong support system that provides feedback on performance and has discussions about impostor syndrome on a regular basis is imperative for those experiencing impostorship.[30][33]

Therapy Edit

Impostor experience can be addressed with many kinds of psychotherapy.[35][36][37] Group psychotherapy is an especially common and effective way of alleviating the impostor experience.[38][39]

Writing therapy allows the person to organize their thoughts in writing.[40] The written record of the person's objective accomplishments can enable the person to associate those accomplishments with reality, rather than simply dismissing the accomplishments internally. The written record can also remind the person of those accomplishments later. By these methods, writing therapy may alleviate the person's sense of inadequacy.[41]

See AlsoEdit

References Edit

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  11. High achievers suffering from imposter syndrome Dec 10 2013
  12. Neil Gaiman's commencement speech to the University of the arts graduating class of 2012 Philadelphia,
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  14. Always leave them laughing (biography of Tommy Cooper) Fisher, John 2007
  15. Women who feel like frauds Forbes October 2011
  16. Emma Watson: I suffered from imposter syndrome after Harry Potter Now magazine 2011
  17. Atlassian billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes on 'imposter syndrome', Tesla and the SA power crisis
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