For many of us, self-doubt pops it's unhelpful chatter into our thoughts more often than we would like. It can come in many different forms and one that seems to be common at the moment is “the imposter syndrome”, several well-known people like Neil Gaiman and Sheryl Sandburg have talked about its effect on their work. I spent 6 years studying women in the workplace (although that was a long time ago) and I wondered why I hadn’t come across this ‘syndrome’ before, so I set out to investigate.
Originally imposter syndrome was called the imposter phenomenon. The original researchers Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes (in 1978) described a certain cluster of feelings, thoughts and ideas that they had observed in themselves and then studied in other high achieving women. The women who experienced the imposter phenomenon struggled to develop an internal sense of their intelligence and competence, despite many outward signs of success such as degrees, scholarships and promotions. They were also convinced that someone would eventually reveal that they were not actually as bright or competent as others thought. The researchers found that Imposter phenomenon was maintained by four key characteristics. Firstly who experienced it explained their success by outward circumstances that were not in their control such as luck, or a mistake. They also worked very hard and tended to be perfectionists their hard work when acknowledged often resulted in temporary positive feelings, but did nothing to minimise their doubts. Often these women lacked the confidence to share their real views or opinions (especially when they were disagreeing) so they felt inauthentic. They also expressed a strong need to be liked by those in authority which easily became an unhelpful loop when those in authority gave them positive feedback about their work as they discounted the feedback because the person giving it liked them.
This particular cluster of behaviours and thoughts resonated with those reading about it and it became popularised and turned into the “Imposter Syndrome”. Somehow a phenomenon (defined by Merriam-Webster online as “a fact or event of scientific interest susceptible to scientific description and explanation”) became popularised and hyped up and turned into a syndrome. Merriam-Webster defines a syndrome as“a group of signs and symptoms that occur together and characterise a particular abnormality or condition”.
On one hand, it is positive that it came to our attention because it makes it easier for people to share their struggles. On the other hand, I feel like taking it from a collection of symptoms that was of interest to researchers and those working with people and turning it into a syndrome grew its weight and importance.
Something minor became a big deal.
People were able to say I suffer from ‘imposter syndrome.” My concern is that a syndrome with all its permanence and solidness has more power over our identities. The more we get tied up in thinking of ourselves as a sufferer of “imposter syndrome” the harder it becomes to unhook ourselves from the package of emotions and thoughts that we are having.
The more we identify with it the harder it actually becomes for us to do something about it.
More recent research suggests that it might be more helpful to talk about imposter episodes, which they found were widely experienced. It is not unusual to have brief times when we feel like an imposter and we can all experience them from time to time. This doesn’t mean that we suffer from an ongoing syndrome. Although some may experience more episodes than others and find it more difficult to cope with than others. Both men and women experience imposter episodes, and evidence to date is inconclusive that this is more common in women than men.
Talk to your coach, psychologist or professional supervisor to get some support and techniques for coping well with imposter epsiodes when they occur.