Impostor Syndrome

I’d heard about Impostor Syndrome off and on throughout grad school, a term to describe the almost omnipresent yet seldom admitted phenomenon by which otherwise talented folks are convinced, deep inside, that they’re just not as good as their peers. (There’s obvious irony when a large fraction of people consider themselves below par, especially in a highly selective environment.) Virtually everyone I ever had this conversation with, in a moment of soul-baring honesty, admitted to such doubts and comparisons. It can manifest in many ways: “I got lucky on that test.” “The admissions committee made a mistake and let me in.” “Yeah, I got an A+, but I didn’t really deserve it.” Another big sign is deflecting or diluting compliments that are received.

Recently, though, I hunted down the original 1978 paper that gave this phenomenon a name: “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” and boy, is it a fascinating read. I hadn’t realized that the phenomenon was associated with women initially, or primarily (the authors include a footnote about male impostor syndrome on the first page); I’ve certainly encountered men who also experience it.

There are lots of interesting elements in this paper, but one in particular stood out to me. They made an effort to trace adult impostor syndrome back to patterns in family life, and this resulted in two rough groups. One is based on having a sibling who is the designated Smart One, so you never quite get recognized for your own accomplishments, and eventually you start to doubt their validity. The other comes from being the Smart One, and in fact, having everything you do praised and supported and validated. Ultimately you start to devalue praise, since it doesn’t seem to correlate with actual performance, and even worse, if you do struggle or fail at something, you’re entirely unprepared for how to deal with it, and it can become a core of nagging doubt and insecurity because you’re still trying to inhabit the image of perfection placed on you. In both cases, well intentioned parenting can, apparently, have these long-term effects.

Want to find out if you suffer from Impostor Syndrome? You can take the test and get a quantitative result — but if you’re honest with yourself, you probably already know.