Dr. Levy's CBT Blog
Insights on Well-Being, Contentment, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
"Impostor syndrome" (also known as impostor phenomenon, fraud syndrome, or impostor experience) is a term initially coined in 1978 by psychologists Clance and Imes to describe describe high achieving individuals who, despite their objective accomplishments, persist in holding a belief that they are unworthy of their success and that others will eventually recognize them as a fraud . The early psychological literature on this topic (see original article) proposed that the phenomenon was prevalent among women. Since then, dozens of studies have shown that it is equally common among men and particularly troublesome among minority groups.
Professionals with impostor syndrome tend to attribute their strong performance to external factors such as luck, support from others, or extreme effort, rather than internal factors such as talent, competence, and acumen. Setbacks, on the other hand, are viewed as proof of unshakable weaknesses. Indeed, Clance described impostor syndrome as an “internal experience of intellectual phoniness in individuals who are highly successful and unable to internalize their success.” This unwarranted sense of insecurity can often result in distress, depressive feelings, anxiety, loneliness, and frustration.
A recent review of over 62 studies on the topic of Impostorism showed that the prevalence rates of impostor syndrome is hard to gauge. Depending on the screening questionnaire and cutoff points used, the research showed that 9 to 82% of the participants would qualify for the label. It appears that age is negatively correlated with impostor Syndrome (i.e., it lowers as one ages).
So...do you have Impostor Syndrome? Honestly, only you can answer that. If you're struggling with feelings of perfectionism, insecurity, and fear in spite of sustained academic and professional success, it is possible that you do hold beliefs that could be described as Impostorism. Many times, as hard as they might be, these feelings motivate you to keep striving and achieving, But at other times, they can stand in the way of you actually enjoying your life and the many contributions that you make to your organization.
There are many ways to "treat" Impostor Syndrome. if you look in the lay media, you will find many recommendations, ranging from “own your accomplishments” to “comparing notes with peers and mentors about shared impostor feelings” and "remind yourself that you are good at what you do." I am sure those are helpful and can alleviate the suffering momentarily. However, from a CBT perspective, Impostor Syndrome is more likely a reflection of core values, intermediate beliefs and automatic thoughts that pop up in many areas of your life. Getting to those is the key to long-lasting change.
You can fight Impostor Syndrome with the help of a therapist by learning to be aware of your automatic thought patterns, recognize unhelpful thinking styles, and generate alternative appraisals that help you move forward in the direction of your values and your goals.
Dr. Daniele Levy is a licensed psychologist offering CBT via Teletherapy from Menlo Park, CA. Her background uniquely combines leading edge training in behavioral sciences with deep expertise coaching and mentoring working professionals in dynamic organizations.