There are few people who have reached any degree of success or seniority in their careers who haven’t also felt the occasional gnawing sense that they don’t deserve their position, that others overestimate their abilities, and that they are going to be “found out” at any moment. I know I have.
Most of us — roughly 70 per cent, research suggests — have at one time or another suffered from what is known as “imposter syndrome”.
But should we really consider it a syndrome, defined as “a combination of medical problems that shows the existence of a particular disease or mental condition”? If so, then it is a rather peculiar one, given how widespread it is, its lack of distinct symptoms and the fact that it does not appear to affect how well those who say they have fallen prey to it — who include Sheryl Sandberg and Albert Einstein — can function.
Indeed, even the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a tome that lists mental illnesses including “hoarding disorder” and “caffeine withdrawal”, does not include imposter syndrome in its 947 pages.
“Imposter phenomenon” was first described in a 1978 research paper by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness” prevalent in the group of particularly high-achieving women they were studying. But the word “syndrome” was conspicuously absent from their paper, as was any mention of the possibility that men might experience the same feeling.
Nonetheless, in the years that followed, “imposter syndrome” became the default way to describe paranoid feelings of inadequacy — probably because this was easier to conceive of and categorise than some kind of internal “phenomenon”, as Clance has suggested.
This misnomer is part of a wider trend that too often pathologises what are very normal human feelings. As Clance told social psychologist Amy Cuddy during the latter’s book research: “If I could do it all over again, I would call it the imposter experience, because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness, it’s something almost everyone experiences.”
Furthermore, new research suggests that, while feeling like an imposter might be stressful and downright unpleasant, it also carries benefits. An upcoming paper by MIT Sloan School of Management professor Basima Tewfik suggests that those who have “imposter workplace thoughts”, as she puts it, have an advantage over their colleagues when it comes to social skills, teamwork and the support of others. This is because they feel they have to make up for the gap they perceive between their ability and how other people view them.
“Those who have imposter thoughts essentially compensate for their perceived lack of competence . . . by turning their attention to the interpersonal domain,” Tewfik tells me. This has no downside — it is not the case, according to her studies, that a greater focus on these “softer” skills negatively affects performance in other areas. Her work also suggests that feeling like you are not as competent as you are perceived to be can be a powerful motivating factor, which can result in greater success.
While imposterism used to be associated with only women, recent research has shown that men experience it too, with many studies showing no substantive difference between genders. In one 2018 study, researchers found that men who reported such feelings were more likely to suffer as a result of them, becoming anxious when they received negative feedback and consequently putting in less effort and performing worse.
Of course, we don’t want to actively encourage feeling like an imposter — anxiety is not just unpleasant, it can also become crippling if left unchecked. But there is surely a sweet spot somewhere between the fear of not being good enough and the belief that you are the best in your field. An editor once told me there’s only one answer to the classic entry-level interview question “what do you think you need to be a good journalist?”, and that’s “paranoia”. He had a point, though I’m not convinced this is the surest route to happiness.
Perhaps if we could destigmatise and reframe imposter syndrome as something of a strength, we might alleviate some of the stress that comes from worrying about the worry itself.
This, too, might have the added benefit of luring in those who could do with a little more of it. “In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt,” Bertrand Russell wrote in 1933. Plus ça change.