Impostor syndrome is a psychological condition where an individual feels unsure of his achievements and has a constant fear of being exposed as a fraud. This phenomenon can occur in various settings- academics, workplace, social life, relationships etc. It is alternatively known as impostorism, impostor phenomenon, impostor experience or fraud syndrome. The term was coined by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. They defined impostor syndrome as an individual experience of self-perceived intellectual phoniness. Investigation carried out by the two researchers by interviewing a sample of 150 high-achieving women exhibited that although the participants were recognized for their excellence in their workplace or their academics, they considered their success to be a result of luck and an over-estimation of their intelligence and abilities by others.
Even when evidence indicates that the individual is quite competent, the person experiencing impostor phenomenon remains convinced of being a fraud and that he does not deserve his accomplishments. Impostor experience is associated with thoughts such as- “People will soon find out that I am not good enough", “ I got lucky”, “I had connections", “I do not deserve the success I achieved”, “I am a fraud" , “I was in the right place at the right time", “If I can do it, anyone can”, “They felt sorry for me" etc.
Studies on impostor syndrome have received mixed analyses regarding its prevalence across genders. While some studies indicate that women suffer from this phenomenon more commonly than men, other studies state that it is equally spread amongst men and women.
Although the exact cause of this syndrome cannot be pinpointed, research has indicated a correlational relationship between impostor syndrome and the following facets- family expectations, overprotective parents, racial identity, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, perfectionism, excessive self-monitoring etc. However, it would be altogether incorrect to conclude that these aspects can lead to impostorism.
People like Maya Angelou, Tom Hanks, Neil Gaiman, Emma Watson, Chuck Lorre, Michelle Obama etc. who have achieved outstanding fame and excellence in their respective fields have reportedly experienced the impostor phenomenon too.
I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody, and they're going to find me out’ ~Maya Angelou
If you can identify with the stated feelings and are perpetually haunted by thoughts of not being good enough in spite of people telling you the contrary and deeming your work and performance admirable and striking, don't fret and label yourself as a doomed figure already! You can tackle and overcome your feelings of inefficacy by reprogramming your thoughts- change your “I know nothing about this topic!” thoughts to “I may not be well-versed on this topic but I can better my knowledge through my curiosity and sustained learning”. Talk to people around you and tell them about your difficulties. You can also consider approaching a therapist. Realise that you are not alone and people around you go through thoughts of inadequacy from time to time. After all, no one is perfect. In fact, perfectionism and impostor syndrome tend to go hand-in-hand. Perfection is totally a utopian concept and that state can never be reached. What you can do is work diligently and to the best of your abilities so that even if the result turns out to be unsatisfactory to you or others, you will know deep down that you gave your best. Take notes of your strengths and weaknesses, determine the areas you would like to improve upon and focus on a persistent, healthy personal development.