Where does impostor syndrome come from?
We can thank psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes for researching what they called impostor phenomenon in the 1970s. Their research focused on high-achieving women in the workplace—women in powerful positions decorated with degrees, awards, and praise but who still somehow felt like they were frauds, that their accomplishments were a matter of luck or professional generosity, not talent. They felt like impostors, or people who pretend to be something they are not, and their doubts about their competence was the syndrome.
Impostor syndrome, the specific phrase created by at least 1982, isn't a formal psychiatric disorder, but its anxieties are very real and consequential. A person, for instance, might get a promotion or land a dream job they felt was a long shot, and may then constantly worry they are going to fail or be "exposed" as not good enough for the position. Some people actually start seeing their performance slip in some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy thanks all that psychological noise.
In 1985, Clance wrote The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the Fear that Haunts Your Success, a self-help digest of her research intended to guide people, especially women, through their self-doubt by explaining the psychological mechanics behind it. The text helped popularize impostor syndrome in mainstream culture—and its emphasis on women keenly identified that minority and marginalized groups can be more at risk to feeling impostor syndrome, likely due to internalized cultural narratives where (white) men get to succeed based on merit.
Since the 1980s, impostor syndrome, often spelled imposter syndrome, has overtaken the older phrase impostor phenomenon. Data for the phrase take off in the 1990s, perhaps corresponding to growing diversity in leadership positions in the workplace—and the concomitant challenges of people to make sense of that success. While impostor syndrome is most commonly discussed with respect to the workplace, it also affects other domains such as academics (e.g., women in science fields) and interpersonal relationships (e.g., mixed-weight romances).
Who uses impostor syndrome?
While it's not found in the DSM-5 , impostor syndrome is nevertheless widely regarded as a real phenomenon.
It's regularly researched and written about for scientific publications as well as serious social commentary.
I predict a low response level to this due to people not being certain whether their imposter syndrome is serious enough to qualify them for taking part. https://t.co/MkdqEdkd0c
— Mike Brooks (@MikeBrooks668) November 17, 2017
In popular media, impostor syndrome is usually referenced in self-help articles. These articles are generally geared toward younger people, especially women and other minorities in the workplace. With titles like "New on the job? How to get over imposter syndrome" and "Confessions of a female tech CEO: How I beat impostor syndrome," the target audience is clear.
“As a woman, a Millennial and a minority working in the tech industry, it should come as no surprise that I am part of a demographic highly susceptible to imposter syndrome.”https://t.co/xRssLAPloj
— PeopleOfColorInTech (@pocintech) April 29, 2018
Impostor syndrome can serve as an ironic or self-deprecating joke on social media. It's not uncommon to see comedic tweets based on the user's own experience with imposter syndrome.
me: *does something i'm mildly proud of*
imposter syndrome: pic.twitter.com/Md7RhsmIf9
— KYOU @ DMC 5 HYPE (@ningiou) July 4, 2018
Deep down, there's always an unsettling feeling that I don't really have imposter syndrome.
— Howard Mittelmark (@HMittelmark) July 4, 2018
I wanted to make a joke about imposter syndrome, but it turns out there are TWO ways to spell “impostor.”
I’ve got to tell you, that is not helping things.
— Mara “Get Rid of the Nazis” Wilson (@MaraWilson) November 26, 2017
As a concept and phrase, impostor syndrome strongly connotes gender and racial dynamics, both in its popular associations and research concerns.
Every person [self included] I've ever heard admit they suffer from Imposter Syndrome has always either been a woman or a member of an oppressed group.
It's almost like straight white men are constantly having their accomplishments & skills reaffirmed by society.
— Fangirl Musings (@Fangirl_Musing) July 5, 2018
me in any professional/intellectual environment trying to ignore imposter syndrome and fit in pic.twitter.com/4f313KDrYb
— iris (@lil_eye_spy) November 7, 2017
Some maintain that talking about imposter syndrome only in gender and racial terms just adds to the woes. They argue that feelings of inadequacy isn't always a woman's or minority person's imposter syndrome telling them they're not good enough. Rather, it's that many environments are simply set up to unfairly and disproportionately reward men more than women or minorities for the same work.
Scientists: We could talk about patriarchy and rampant sexual misconduct rooted in abuses of power. But what about women’s responsibility to overcome imposter syndrome associated with rampant, violence patriarchy?
— Dr. T’Chanda Prescod-Weinstein🙅🏽♀️ 🇧🇧 (@IBJIYONGI) November 20, 2017
the chainsmokers have a grammy, suicide squad has an oscar, and I have imposter syndrome
@PAYOLETTER, March, 2017
The closest thing I know to a cure for imposter syndrome is to realize that every creator you respect also suffers from it. / When you realize how ridiculous it is for them to feel that way about their work, keep that in mind when you feel that way about yours.
@grantthethief, April, 2018
Whenever I tried to get involved with engineering through my computer science or robotics classes, I struggled to believe in my abilities and to find support from my peers. This was possibly the beginning of imposter syndrome, something even accomplished full-time women engineers struggle with.
Asena Yildiz quoted by Anna Souhrada, All Together, July, 2018