impostor syndrome

or im·post·er syn·drome

[ im-pos-ter sin-drohm ]
/ ɪmˈpɒs tər ˌsɪn droʊm /

noun

anxiety or self-doubt that results from persistently undervaluing one’s competence and active role in achieving success, while falsely attributing one's accomplishments to luck or other external forces.

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Also called im·pos·tor phe·nom·e·non, im·post·er phe·nom·e·non [im-pos-ter fuh-nom-uh-non, ‐nuhn] /ɪmˈpɒs tər fəˌnɒm əˌnɒn, ‐nən/.

Origin of impostor syndrome

Coined by Pauline Rose Clance (U.S. psychologist) and Suzanne Imes (U.S. psychologist) in a psychology journal article “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” in 1978

Words nearby impostor syndrome

Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

VOCAB BUILDER

What is impostor syndrome?

Impostor syndrome is a psychological pattern of self-doubt in the face of evidence to the contrary—like that voice in your head that tells you you’re not good enough. The phrase and concept is especially used in reference to women and members of minority groups who feel they’ve achieved undue or undeserving success in the workplace.

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 recorded 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).

How is impostor syndrome used in real life?

While it’s not a clinical condition, 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.

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.

As a concept and phrase, impostor syndrome strongly connotes gender and racial dynamics, both in its popular associations and research concerns.

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 members of minority groups for the same work.

More examples of impostor syndrome:

“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

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.