There’s a fairly new concept called “Imposter Syndrome.”  Psychologists have been studying this phenomenon in many of their clients.

A true imposter, or fraud, is someone who claims knowledge, credentials, education, skills, or even material wealth that is meant to fool others and to “puff up” their image with lies. The aim is persona gain, either in business, finance, or politics.

The imposter syndrome is far different. The term originated in a 1978 the article “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes.  Clance and Imes posited that it is a pattern in which a person doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud.”  To summarize the Clance/Imes theory:

  • Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds.
  • They feel they don’t deserve all they have achieved.
  • They incorrectly attribute their success to luck or interpret it as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent than they perceive themselves to be.
  • They live in constant fear that someone is going to find that out.
  • This psychological pattern affects men and women of across racial and social groups.
  • Interestingly if a person is a minority, he/she is more likely to feel like an imposter.

There’s no cure to getting rid of the feeling, but generally, they say, it will wane with age. Here are some tools they suggest to deal with it.:

Name it. Be curious about how you’re feeling about your legitimate accomplishments. Instead of judging yourself when you feel like a fraud, ask yourself: “What am I really feeling right now?”

Take stock of your true talents.   A technique that Imes uses with her clients (and even for herself) involves making a list with three columns: the first, of things they’re not so good at, the second, of things they’re okay at, and the third with things they’re very good at. “And you write all the things you can think of,” she says.

Acknowledge the roles of racism and oppression. Andrea Salazar-Nuñez, Ph.D. says that it’s important to “understand the full context of…racial trauma and systems of oppression.” In predominantly white spaces, people of color can battle to feel a sense of “belonging,” (Jeremy Bauer-Wolf) and this challenge is only exacerbated by racism.  

Ask for help. “It’s incredibly important to connect with community,” says Salazar-Nuñez. With a support system comes validation. Look to people you are hoping to learn from and accept that you don’t have to be an expert — it won’t make you look weak.

Take a break when the pressure is high. There are going to be good days and bad days, and your worth is not tied to the lies in your head. Take some deep breaths, get a good night’s sleep, or take a nap, if that helps. If exercise is your thing, do that too. Yoga, going for a run, or even taking a walk around your neighborhood can help transform your mindset.

I hope this opens up a discussion regarding Imposter Syndrome.  What are your experiences, either in yourself or others, where this seems to be evident and is holding people back from exploring promotions and challenging career opportunities? I’d love to hear your feedback.

© 2021 Michael Parise
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