Impostor Syndrome, AKA Impostor “Experience”

Did you know that the well-circulated term impostor syndrome has been acknowledged by psychologist Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, the woman most responsible for it becoming pop psychology fodder, to be a misnomer? The term, that is, not the concept.

L.V. Anderson, Slate, quotes Clance, author of The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the Fear That Haunts Your Success, below:

In truth, impostor syndrome doesn’t fit the clinical criteria for a psychological syndrome, which is defined as a cluster of symptoms that causes intense distress or interferes with a person’s ability to function. ‘I’m not sure when it began to be called a syndrome, but I do think that somehow that’s just easier for people to think about than phenomenon,’ Clance told me. ‘They’re not quite sure what phenomenon means.’ For the recent book Presence, Clance told Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy, ‘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.’

Clance describes those identifying with “impostor experience”:

Even though they are often very successful by external standards, they feel their success has been due to some mysterious fluke or luck or great effort; they are afraid their achievements are due to “breaks” and not the result of their own ability and competence. They are also pretty certain that, unless they go to gargantuan efforts to do so, success can not be repeated. They are afraid that next time, I will blow it.

Her website directs those interested in self-assessment to the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale (CIPS). (Scroll down the page and click on the “test” link.)

As Clance states above, most people at one time or another will identify with impostor-ism. In addition, it affects both men and women, though the latter were the group most targeted in the early studies and are still the group most likely to seek help.

Indeed, Clance has seen it in herself, as has another impostor phenomenon expert, Dr. Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful WomenWhy Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It (2011).

The following (originally from Young’s website but now unfindable by this writer) explains her particular focus on women:

While the impostor syndrome is not unique to women, they are more likely to agonize over tiny mistakes and blame themselves for failure, see even constructive criticism as evidence of their shortcomings; and chalk up their accomplishments to luck rather than skill. When they do succeed, they think ‘Phew, I fooled ’em again.’ Perpetually waiting to be ‘unmasked’ doesn’t just drain a woman’s energy and confidence. It can make her more risk-averse and less self-promoting than her male peers, which can hurt her future success.

Christian Jarrett (The Psychologist) cites Dr. Young’s top suggestions for helping clients:

  • Normalize the feeling.
  • Help clients understand their attitudes toward/ definitions of competence and failure, and help them to shift these.
  • Explore other reasons they might be ambivalent about success – what often feels like fear and self-doubt is in fact, an awareness of the other side of success.

Below, a worthy video explanation of the “syndrome” provided by The School of Life:

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