Leiden Psychology Blog

Are you afraid of being found out?

Are you afraid of being found out?

Imagine a random person coming up to you, saying he “knows”. Knows you’re not actually that intelligent; that you’re not good at your job; that you’ve been faking it all along. And it’s only a matter of time until you’ll be exposed for everyone to see.

Scary thought right? But what if this happened inside your own head?

I have no idea what I’m doing…

Constantly thinking you’ve been fooling everyone, that you’re a fraud, and the whole world is going to find you out... Although these thoughts might be perfectly healthy if you worked as an undercover agent or con artist, most of us do not live such adventurous lives. We do, however, often relate to these kinds of thoughts, and it doesn’t make our lives any better or happier.

In the seventies, psychologists Clance and Imes were the first to come up with a name for these thoughts and feelings, when they were investigating high-achieving women who had trouble internalizing their successes. They referred to this phenomenon as “the Imposter Syndrome” and defined it as “the experience of phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement”.

Good company

Since then, many studies have shown that the irrational feelings of fraudulence associated with the imposter syndrome are most certainly not uncommon. The academic context especially has proven an ideal environment for “imposter” feelings to flourish, as there is a constant need to prove oneself and enormous pressure to succeed. Studies among undergraduates, doctoral students, and even academic staff have shown that all these groups are vulnerable to feelings of inadequacy.

And they are most definitely not the only ones. Many famous actors, writers, singers, and CEOs are equally familiar with this extreme form of self-doubt. Meryl Streep (21 Oscar nominations), Jennifer Lopez (75 million records sold), Howard Schultz (CEO of Starbucks) – all these have admitted to still feeling they are “faking it until they make it” and that they don’t deserve all the praise they’ve received. And rumor has it that even Albert Einstein had a case of imposter syndrome in his later years, feeling like “an involuntary swindler”.  

Lack of self-esteem or childhood issues?

So why is it that so many men and women, often very successful people, suffer from this intense self-doubt? Researchers have asked the same question and found that there are numerous reasons why someone may feel like an imposter. As might be expected of psychologists, the roots of the problem have been sought in child-rearing practices. And indeed, imposter syndrome has been found to be associated with over-controlling or over-protective parents and greater family achievement orientation, for example, although effects are small.  

The syndrome has also been linked to multiple personality constructs such as increased levels of neuroticism, introversion, anxiety, and perfectionism. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the best predictors of imposterism are found in insecurities in self-belief, such as self-efficacy (feeling confident about your abilities) and self-esteem.

Aren’t we all imposters?

Interestingly, and even though the name ‘Imposter Syndrome’ does suggest otherwise, the imposter phenomenon has actually never been perceived as a mental disorder and does not appear in the DSM. Pauline Rose Clance, one of the originators of the name ‘Imposter Syndrome’, also stated that ‘syndrome’ is probably not the right name for the phenomenon, as almost everyone experiences phases or moments of imposterism at some point in their lives. It can be seen as a normal reaction to a new environment. For example, when you have landed a new job or a promotion that comes with extra responsibilities, it can trigger those feelings of insecurity. Related to this, some people even suggest that feeling a certain amount of fear or self-doubt is actually a good thing. It is a sign you’re stepping out of that comfort zone and could be an indication of personal and career growth.

So the next time you question why you have been hired, remember these two things: 1. You’re not alone! Your colleagues and probably even your boss may well have felt the same way. And 2: A true imposter doesn’t suffer from imposter syndrome, so chances are you’re actually not doing so badly ; ).

Are imposter thoughts still bugging you, and do you want to get rid of them? There are many helpful tips online.  

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