Impostor syndrome: does it really exist?


Impostor syndrome: does it really exist?

From TikTok to Oprah and numerous self-help books, it suddenly seems to be everywhere. While social media made it famous, it's also one of the key underlying causes of the spike of impostorism, writes ANNELIESE BURGESS.


LAURA is a successful journalist and author. She is revered for her writing style, she's won awards and her book was a bestseller. Yet she is beset with self-doubt and self-criticism. Each accolade triggers a feeling of “if only they knew". Each new assignment is a battle against the belief that she is somehow faking it, that “this will be the moment" her “run of luck" (30 years on) will end and she will be “exposed" as a fraud.

She explains her feelings as “intense, debilitating". As “a nagging feeling of not quite belonging in my life".

“Objectively, I know that I am seen to be good at what I do, but this powerful emotion constantly negates that. It's as if two personas inside me are in a running battle with each other. It's tiring."

Laura, it would seem, suffers from a classic case of impostor syndrome,  a psychological term coined in the '70s by two psychologists who interviewed successful women about their closet feelings of inadequacy.

Since then, the term has become ubiquitous. Famous actors such as Charlize Theron and Viola Davis have confessed to experiencing it. So have other high-profile women such as Sheryl Sandberg, Michelle Obama and the US Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor. The author Maya Angelou once said: “Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad, the challenge is so great… Each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out."

The root of the concept

In 1978, clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, published The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. They interviewed 150 women over five years — undergraduates, medical students and PhD students. They found a pervasive sense among them that they were undeserving of their success. They worried they had been admitted to a graduate programme by mistake or had fooled their colleagues into believing they were competent when they were not — a sense of being a fraud, a cheat.

Clance and Imes did not characterise this as a syndrome but as a phenomenon, a psychological pattern. They wrote: “Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the impostor phenomenon persist in believing that they are not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”

They refer to “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness” and living in fear that “some significant person will discover that they are indeed intellectual impostors”.

In 2011, a book titled The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive despite It pushed the impostor concept into mainstream conversation.

The author, Dr Valerie Young, who has since become one of the leading US experts on impostorism, identified five types of people prone to this phenomenon.

The Perfectionist: This person demands absolute perfection from themselves and will rarely ask for help. They will also often avoid trying new things for fear of failure.

The Superhuman: These personality types will push themselves to take on more and more roles and will feel shame when this leads to failure in one of the roles.

The Natural Genius: Someone who has been led to believe that everything comes easily, and when they have a hard time they perceive this as a failure. 

The Expert: Someone who feels they need to know everything and have answers to everything. When they inevitably don't, they experience this as a failure, even for a minor lack of knowledge.

The Soloist: Someone who wants to handle everything on their own when they inevitably need help; they see this as a sign of failure.

Gerda Kriel is a clinical psychologist from Somerset West who deals with impostor syndrome in her practice. According to her, psychologists are seeing unprecedented levels of burnout. In many cases, there is a correlation with impostor syndrome,  something she sees especially among type A professional people.

“Type A personalities are predisposed to impostor feelings. These are people who want to achieve and push themselves to do so. This will make them less happy with what they have in life. Type A personalities also tend to be perfectionists and more prone to anxiety. And this will make them more susceptible to feeling they do not belong in the circles they move in."

Kriel says most of us will have experienced mild self-doubt or not fitting in, but impostor syndrome is more than just feeling you are not good enough.

“In layman's language, it refers to fears of being caught out. Of being a fraud. That you are committing some scam and that you will be found out and exposed."

How serious is it?

Impostor syndrome has gone viral in the age of social media. From TikTok to Oprah and numerous self-help books, it suddenly seems to be everywhere.

One place it doesn't appear is in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but there is a widespread acknowledgment that impostor phenomenon is a form of intellectual self-doubt that disproportionately affects high-achieving people who find it difficult to accept their accomplishments.

Impostor phenomenon can engender often debilitating feelings of anxiety, depression, lack of self-worth, lack of self-confidence and frustration related to the inability to meet self-imposed standards of achievement. Behaviours associated with impostor phenomenon include perfectionism, feeling unworthy of affection or attention, downplaying accomplishments, fear of success but also of failure, and denial of competence and capability.

Women and minorities

In the more than three decades since Clance and Imes's groundbreaking first study (and amid an explosion of further research), impostor phenomenon has also been found to affect men, although it still is disproportionately linked to women and minorities in the workplace (in the American context, that would be people of colour).

Much of the research around impostor phenomenon has been done in the US, where it is is increasingly reported and recognised in high-pressure academic and workplace settings.

In the most extensive study on its prevalence among undergraduate medical and dental students at Harvard, a “high prevalence" was found in female students (although 11% of the male respondents in the study also met the criteria for intense impostor phenomenon").

“[This]psychological construct is characterised by feelings of inadequacy and an irrational fear of being discovered as a ‘fraud' by colleagues and superiors. Impostor phenomenon limits performance and is associated with anxiety, burnout and low self-esteem across multiple professions and academic spheres."


This review article published in the Journal of Behavioral Science says 70% of people experience impostor feelings at some point. In fact, Clance has developed a test to help individuals determine whether they have impostor phenomenon characteristics and, if so, to what extent they are suffering. 

Kriel says impostor phenomenon is “the psychological experience of being an impostor" and that there is no single reason why it exists or how it develops. Some of it may have to do with cultural or family experiences. “Did you grow up being validated for the things you do well? Was there someone in your corner who said, ‘I see you'?"

But judging from what she sees in her practice, there has been an increase in people identifying with impostor syndrome in the past few years.

“It seems as if there is now more language around impostor syndrome. As a professional person working with people who experience impostor syndrome, I see that the yardsticks against which people measure themselves have become a lot more direct."

She ascribes a large part of this to social media. “There is this huge discrepancy between what people see on social media and how they feel about their own lives. This golden standard of what your life should look like is exhibited on social media. And we know it is false and not the whole picture, but your brain translates this as, ‘I am not doing something right'. I am not a good enough mother, or I don't fit in with other people in my professional capacity. 

“Because impostor phenomenon is about self-doubt and feeling your contributions are not good enough, you enter this hamster wheel where you feel you must do more so you will have less self-doubt, or to achieve more success. You work longer hours. You don't switch off. You can't delegate. You have high levels of perfectionism. You feel you must control everything, because the moment you relinquish control you will be exposed. And this becomes a narrative in which you can't flourish. You undermine not only your ability to flourish professionally, you undermine your health, because living in this hyper condition over a long period of time will also have an impact on your physical health. 

“And ultimately this narrative becomes a very self-limiting ideology because people are unable to take ownership of their success. They don't believe they deserve it, so they will subconsciously undermine their path to success."


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