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What Is the Impostor Syndrome?

Group therapy is one treatment option for individuals who struggle with imposter syndrome.
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  • Written By: C. K. Lanz
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 07 December 2014
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The impostor syndrome is a term used to describe the self-doubt some accomplished and talented people feel despite receiving praise, promotions, or other well-deserved recognitions. Such individuals are said to lack the ability to internalize their own achievements. Also known as fraud syndrome, this phenomenon is not officially recognized as a psychological disorder, nor is it included in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association. Nonetheless it is a term coined in 1978 by two clinical psychologists and remains a useful way to refer to those who feel that they do not deserve their well-earned successes.

Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes are credited with coining the phrase "impostor syndrome" or "imposter phenomenon" in a 1978 research paper. They studied a group of highly successful women who had earned doctoral degrees or were otherwise recognized for their academic and professional achievements.

The researchers found that, despite their successes and recognitions from colleagues, many of the women did not feel any internal sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Instead, they thought they were not really as intelligent or talented as everyone else thought they were. In other words, they characterized themselves as impostors benefiting from dumb luck.

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This initial study led many to associate impostor syndrome with accomplished women. As many of these women were in the minority in their chosen fields, their belief of being impostors was attributed to their susceptibility to feeling as though they did not belong. As a result, they would attribute their achievements to luck, mistake, or an overestimation of their talents. Subsequent research has revealed that men are nearly as prone to developing imposter syndrome as women, however, and that the experience is especially common among graduate students.

Someone susceptible to impostor syndrome will not feel proud or satisfied when awarded for her achievements. When offered a well-deserved promotion, such an individual may feel as though there has been a mistake and may be convinced that failure is assured even before trying. Rather than accept congratulations from others, this person may respond by deemphasizing her own talents, attributing her success to luck or stating that she does not really deserve it.

What may seem like feigned humility is in fact a sincere feeling a self-doubt and an inability to acknowledge one’s own talents and abilities. A person with impostor syndrome believes that everyone around him is mistaken or fooled. Such an individual may even apologize for his achievements, offering excuses that detract from his hard work. These people often harbor the fear that they will be exposed as the impostors or frauds they see themselves to be.

An important aspect of impostor syndrome is that such self-deprecating thoughts and attributions to luck or mistake are completely without merit. The individual experiencing this phenomenon is usually highly intelligent, hard working, and well respected in his or her field. This inability to objectively evaluate or internalize achievement is a hallmark of impostor syndrome.

This condition usually becomes evident after a few sessions of individual or group therapy. It is often a well-guarded secret that requires a sense of trust to reveal. Group therapy can be especially useful when trying to bring the individual’s attention to the unreality of her self-doubt because the negation of positive feedback often becomes immediately clear. The therapeutic goal is to get the individual to recognize this pattern of behavior and substitute it for one of self-affirmation.

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