Imposter syndrome is the name given to a cluster of commonly held thoughts and attitudes which plague successful women by tempting them to attribute their success to error, luck, charm or sensitivity rather than to ability.
The syndrome presents itself in several domains of subjective experience:
Cognitively: A woman may feel unable to internalize a sense of being talented or competent in the face of all objective evidence to the contrary. She may:
- Attribute her success to external factors unrelated to ability.
- Compare herself to others
- Emphasize other’s strengths and own weaknesses
- Minimize other’s weakness and her power.
Behaviorally she may:
- Become immobilized by deadlines
- May avoid challenges
Emotionally she may:
- Fix her sights on and demand demand perfection… she is certain to be disappointed
- Feel anxiety, fear and depression from:
- Pressure to live up to successful image
- Fear of being exposed as unworthy or incompetent
When offered a new challenge a woman who suffers from Imposter Syndrome will respond in certain typical ways.. She may:
- Get to work and over-prepare ….If successful, tell herself that she must work harder than others to be as good
- Procrastinate and then engage in frenzied activity…If flurried, tell herself that she has “fooled them” with last minute work
Alternatively she may:
- Use manipulation to get approval from mentor: by flattery, hiding opposing opinions, tolerating sexual harassment etc…but ends up “contaminating” her achievement.
By adopting these attitudes and approaches she forfeits a sense of a job well done. She comes to feel comes to feel that feels that worry and anxiety are essential ingredients of success and since she misinterprets the methods by which her accomplishment was achieved she creates a situation where she is not fully empowered to internalize and manifest her strengths.
By attributing her success to “luck” she refuses to recognize the importance of her ability to use luck.
Origins in the Family
Imposter Syndrome often arises in the daughters of families who impose “conditions of worth”…that is where the child is selectively validated for qualities that the parents prefer and generally unsupported in areas of experience where she differs… As a result a girl:
- Feels parents value some parts more highly than others
- Learns to discriminate what is valued by others from what is not
- Lines up self-regard with parental regard
- Works excessively hard to gain support and self esteem by pleasing others.
Other factors which increase the likelihood of Imposter Syndrome are an unstable environment and parental perfectionism, both of which encourage a child to bend themselves to the demands of others.
Origin in Society
Western society, while offering women much freedom, has not yet entirely rid itself of double standards and stereotypical expectations around what constitutes “womanly ” behavior
Women internalize and share societal values
- Femininity is over-learned and internalized at a very young age
- Social values for girls encourage warmth and expressiveness
Qualities which are recognized as essential to success and achievement-independence such as assertiveness, power, self-confidence and directness are still associated with masculinity.
Therefore for girls, claiming or asserting power is still too often associated with
selfishness, destructiveness, and abandonment of others….
The mental equation….Powerful=destructive, aggressive person… is not an image that women can bear easily.
Modern women do live in a dual role … but with discomfort.
Women often struggle both at home and at work.
While they may feel that they perform adequately in each, they feel perfect in neither.
All these values are not overtly communicated and women have often had to find creative ways to adapt to unfair demands!
“One measure of women’s ingenuity may be the wide variety of ways we have found male authority , economic necessity and other good reasons for doing what we wanted to do anyway” Gloria Steinem (1983)
Treatment and Resolution:
When a woman chooses to address her feelings of impostership in individual or group therapies certain feelings typically emerge:
- When an imposter phenomenon woman begins to accept herself as powerful she may feel profound sadness as she experiences her long buried feelings of missing that positive regard in earlier phases of her life..
- She may move through a grieving process for the joyful and intimate experiences that she missed in the professional milestones of her development.
- She may experience rage at the layers of oppression that have confused and stifled her
New positive attitudes may also emerge which foster growth and healing… for example a woman may:
- Learn not to equate self-acknowledgement with conceit arrogance or grandiosity
- Learn to know herself as pleased, honored, delighted and successful.
Unlike women who have been abused and visibly broken, successful women who suffer from Imposter Syndrome feel that they must hide, at all costs, their feelings of being a fake and so they wrestle alone with the vulnerability and fear of exposure which constantly haunts them, contaminating and spoiling all that they work so hard to achieve.
Perhaps the saddest notion in all of this is the solitude in which these women usually suffer.
The woman suffering from Imposter syndrome feels that she is the only person so flawed… when in fact, she is legion.
Cowman, S.E. & Ferrari, J.R. (2002) “Am I for Real?”: Predicting imposter tendencies from self-handicapping and affective components. Social Behavior and Personality,30(2), pp119-126.
Clance, P.R. et al. (1995). Imposter Phenomenon in an Interpersonal/Social Context: Origins and Treatment, Women and Therapy, 16(4), pp.79-96.
Susan Meindl, MA, is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Montreal Canada. She has a special interest in Jungian ideas and practices a Jungian approach to psychodynamic psychotherapy