Raise of hands, how many of you feel like you’re faking your way through life? Like you don’t actually know how to do your job, or people think you’re a lot smarter than you actually are?
Impostor syndrome (also “imposter”), impostor phenomenon, impostor experience, impostorism, and fraud syndrome are all terms that encompass the idea of feeling like a fraud. It’s been a bit of a buzz topic lately, especially with a few celebrities speaking out about it, like Neil Gaiman:
In addition to Gaiman, the following well-known figures also report having felt the phenomonen: Maya Angelou, Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chuck Lorre, John Green, Tommy Cooper, Sheryl Sandberg, Sonia Sotomayor, Mike Cannon-Brookes, Diana Crow1, Seth Godin2, and Amanda Palmer3. I especially love that Palmer dubs it “The Fraud Police.” It’s less impending if you name it, right?
Actually, both Palmer and Gaiman have very vivid fantasies of imaginary people coming to them in the middle of the night and telling them, “We know you’re a fraud, and now we’re here to take everything away from you and to tell everyone you’re a fool.”3,4
What Impostorism Is
The first study on impostorism, by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, published in 1978, explains that those “who experience the impostor phenomenon maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”5 In a later interview, however (in 2015), Clance amended the definition: “if I could do it all over again, I would call it the impostor experience, because it’s not a syndrome of a complex or a mental illness. It’s something almost everyone experiences.”6
It’s a growing body of research, but the more psychologists study the phenomenon, the more they learn how universal the experience is. In fact, that first study by Clance and Imes asserted that it was only the women in academia who felt this way, but men were later included after ‘fessing up to being quiet on the matter.6
Impostorism can be defined with three major characteristics. Those with impostorism:
- Believe that others view them more favorably than they deserve.
- Have fear of being found out and then viewed as a failure.
- Have trouble internalizing their actual, tangible successes.7
How Impostorism Presents Itself
If you’re really down the rabbit hole of not believing your own worth, you may not know you meet any of the above criteria. One of the easiest ways to tell is if you find yourself exhibiting a behavior consistent with this mindset.
There are many behaviors that those with impostorism may exhibit, but there are four pretty standard ones that Clance and Imes outlined, and later works still agree. Someone with impostorism may exhibit one or two of these, but it’s rare for them to show all four.
1. From the belief that hard work will cover up a lack of intelligence or talent.
They work hard and make sure to do so behind closed doors. This can look like someone who pretends to be playing games on the computer when a family member walks by, but they’re actually studying. Sense of approval from others reinforces this behavior.
2. From a sense of phoniness.
They believe they participate in intellectual flattery by doing types of work that will please others (i.e., choosing a paper topic that they know their professor will like). If they had not flattered their superiors, they would have failed because they’re just not smart or good enough. Actual success feeds this behavior.
3. From a desire to be liked as well as thought of as competent.
They use charm and perceptiveness together to win approval, like flirting with intent. And when they do win approval, they don’t believe they earned it. That if they were actually intelligent, they wouldn’t even need outside approval to convince themselves of their value. Again, success itself reinforces behavior like this.
4. Avoidance of success completely, out of fear of failing.
As in, they don’t even try to win something they possibly could win because they’re afraid they’ll fail, and everyone will see, so they just avoid the situation altogether. This one can go hand in hand with depression and is fed by opportunities for success.5
As you can see, all of these behaviors feed into themselves. They encourage more of the same behavior, and it may seem like an impossible war to someone who’s been stuck in the cycle for a long time. Unfortunately, it’s not just the internal mindset and behaviors that contribute to the problem. There are also external factors.
What Irritates the Problem
Although impostorism is a fairly universal experience, it tends to be worse in fields like academia or the arts where there is a lot of competition. Instead of waning all on its own, as it does for many people, impostorism is developed by physical events.
In a study about academic faculty and the ways they cope with impostorism, Holly M. Hutchins and Hilary Rainbolt discovered four types of “imposter incidents,” which they describe as “disruptive events that created doubt, shame, and questioning of who they [the participants] were.”8
These four types of events perpetuate rather than diminish feelings of fraud:
1. Moments when expertise is questioned.
This can be when someone straight up asks you if you’re qualified or when you have to teach in your field, like giving a lecture or presentation. I just dealt with this myself with some suburban moms asking if I was qualified to teach their children beginner piano, and I almost said, “Even with my degree, I’m not qualified at all!”
2. In moments of self-evaluation of one’s work.
The faculty members in this study spoke specifically about submitting their work for publication and applying for grants and tenure. Universally, this might look like when you’re trying to prove your worth (like in a job interview) or dealing with negative criticism or comments.
3. Through competition or comparison.
This one’s pretty obvious. For piano, a great example is when you’re looking up recordings of your repertoire to listen to, and you find a wonderful rendition by a four-year-old prodigy. It makes you re-evaluate why you play at all. But in general, any kind of comparison can do a lot of damage to one’s perspective of self.
4. Moments when one is asked to accept success.
Winning awards, getting asked to be a judge in one’s field, and being invited to speak as an expert all aggravate the cycle because impostors really can’t internalize their own success.8
Strategies to Break the Cycle
So it is a war, not just a one-night battle. There are so many forces encouraging feelings of fraud, and this can make you feel trapped. But, all you have to do is interrupt the cycle to find a way out. Just one little bump, and there’s some hope. Each of the studies and articles I looked at have different strategies to cope, but these five are fairly universal ideas that are easy to do.
1. Be open and honest with yourself.
Remember how Amanda Palmer gave her feelings a name?3 Part of the psychology of naming is that you choose to accept that the idea is a real, tangible thing. This isn’t AA, but it’s the same concept. The first step is to accept you have a problem and choose to do something about it.
I think I’m going to call mine Fred the Fraudmonger. That seems like a great villain name. Let me know if you’ve picked out the perfect name for yours. But the idea is to face it like it’s a tangible enemy. Be proactive, and let yourself feel it.
I’m coming for you, Fraudmonger!
2. Know that everyone else feels the same way.
In the same speech in which Amanda Palmer dubbed impostorism “The Fraud Police,” she had everyone in the room raise their hands if they had ever felt like a fraud. All the faculty sitting on the stage behind her raised their hands as well, and she said “If they didn’t, they’re lying.” She’s right. That’s exactly why Pauline Clance said that if she could redo the original study, she’d call it the “impostor experience.” It’s that universal. Some people just have more trouble with it than others. Palmer even says at the end of the video that the feeling never completely goes away; you just learn how to deal with it.
For some, just knowing that it’s part of being human helps them accept it and move forward.
3. Be honest with others and vice versa.
In her book, Presence, social psychologist Amy Cuddy includes a chapter solely about the impostor experience. She sums up her research and interviews with,
As I review the research and talk to people like Pauline [Clance] and Neil [Gaiman] who’ve experienced the same fears, I see the one quality of impostorism that stands out from all the others: it makes us feel alone in the experience, and even when we learn that other people have similar fears, we don’t take heart.6
Sometimes it’s really not enough to hear that all these famous people suffer from the same feelings. Because they’re actually talented, and I’m obviously not.6
The APA lists talking with people as two separate ways to deal with impostorism.9 Find someone you trust and aren’t afraid to just be open with.
In some cases, mentors are excellent to talk with, but don’t be surprised if your mentor actually makes you feel worse. I’m not trying to be mean to all the mentors out there (I mean I guess as a piano teacher, I am also one), but in different study by Hutchins, results showed that in all but 3% of the participants’ experiences, mentors actually made feelings of impostorism worse. The mentors didn’t do anything wrong, but the fact that they were so successful, and the participants in the study felt they weren’t added to the issue.10
The original study by Clance and Imes discusses the high effect of group therapy sessions. “A group setting is also valuable because one woman can see the dynamics in another woman and recognize the lack of reality involved.”5
There’s always someone to talk to. The worst thing you can do is keep it to yourself and suffer alone. You may actually be helping another person by bringing it up.
4. Look at the hard facts.
If you have a degree, you earned it. If you won awards, you earned them. Take another look at the tangible evidence of your skill. You can’t fake all of that. It’s impossible. Try looking at everything objectively, or as if you were in the heads of the people who gave all these certifications to you.
Another part of this is to say “thank you” and mean it when people congratulate you for success. Instead of shying away and mumbling something to the effect of, “Oh, no it was nothing,” or “It wasn’t my best work,” try standing up tall with a big smile on your face, look them in the eyes, and say, “thank you.” This is one of the best things you can do if you’re a performer too. This is actually one of the major points of Alpin Hong’s TedTalk, who says that the “joyful expression of appreciation…cannot be overestimated.”
All in all, just own your successes. And if you have trouble, go back to number three and find someone who can help you find a way to be excited about your triumphs.
5. Pretend you’re someone who can.
In a commencement speech to the University of the Arts Class of 2012, Neil Gaiman spoke a little bit about impostorism. The advice he gave was that if you still don’t think you can do it, pretend that you’re someone who can do it. The full quote is wonderful.
Be wise because the world needs more wisdom. And if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would.4
So pretend you’re someone who did earn those degrees, someone who truly deserved those accolades and awards, and just act like that person would. It helps.
There’s a lot of debate in the psychology world about how much acting actually contributes to changing your thought process, but it’s worth a shot, and there are plenty of people out there who defend this idea.
The key to any of these strategies working is to expect it to be a slow process. We’re fighting a war, not a battle.
Realize it won’t happen in a day, but little nudges (apparently it’s a real psychology term) will weaken the cycle. Over time, it just might break!
Nudge theory explains why most New Year’s Resolutions don’t stick (these goals are way too big). It is the idea that to change your behavior (and your thoughts), you have to do so in small steps that slowly build up over time.
Governments all over the world actually have their own “nudge units” to encourage people to make better eating choices and to recycle. And all they do is start placing healthy food at eye level, and putting junk food where it’s harder to get to.11
Just thinking deeply about your specific type of impostorism and how it affects your behavior is a great start. Here’s a recap of five strategies to break the fraud cycle:
- Be open and honest with yourself.
- Know that everyone else feels the same way.
- Be honest with others and vice versa.
- Look at the hard facts.
- Pretend you’re someone who can.
If you found any of these sources interesting or helpful, there is a list of recommended resources as well as the works cited in this article below. Check either or neither of them out. Just remember to pass the ideas on. I don’t lay claim to any of this. I’m not a psychologist; I just enjoy research. Cite studies where applicable, but carry the ideas on forever if they help you.
I hope this guide is helpful! If you have any questions, please comment below or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Amy Cuddy, TED Talk and Presence (Thriftbooks). Both are excellent resources. I recommend watching the TED Talk first, and if you want to dig more into the scientific studies and read more interviews regarding how the body shapes the mind and the idea of “fake it ’til you become it,” then the book is for you.
Neil Gaiman’s Commencement Speech to the University of the Arts Class of 2012 (also embedded above).
Amanda Palmer’s Commencement Speech to the New England Institute of Arts Class of 2011 (also embedded above).
1. Wikipedia. “Impostor Syndrome.” (2018, July 30).
2. Richards, Carl. “Learning to Deal With the Impostor Syndrome.” The New York Times. (2015, October 26).
3. Palmer, Amanda. “The Fraud Police.” Commencement Speech to the New England Institute of Arts Class of 2011.
4. Gaiman, Neil. “Make Good Art.” Commencement Speech to the University of the Arts Class of 2012.
5. Clance, Pauline Rose, and Suzanne Ament Imes. “The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention.” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice 15.3 (1978): 241.
6. Cuddy, Amy Joy Casselberry. Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. New York: Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Company, 2015.
7. Leary, Mark R., et al. “The impostor phenomenon: Self‐perceptions, reflected appraisals, and interpersonal strategies.” Journal of personality 68.4 (2000): 725-756.
8. Hutchins, Holly M., and Hilary Rainbolt. “What triggers imposter phenomenon among academic faculty? A critical incident study exploring antecedents, coping, and development opportunities.” Human Resource Development International 20.3 (2017): 194-214.
9. Weir, Kirsten. “Feel like a fraud?” American Psychological Association. (2018).
10. Hutchins, Holly M. “Outing the imposter: A study exploring imposter phenomenon among higher education faculty.” New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development 27.2 (2015): 3-12.
11. Wikipedia. “Nudge theory.” (2018, June 11).