“Some years ago, I was lucky enough invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.
On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”
And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”
And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.”
— Neil Gaiman
The term “imposter phenomenon” was coined by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 to describe the internal experience of a group of high-achieving women who described feelings of intellectual phoniness despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments. Later referred to as “imposter syndrome”, the defining characteristic is feeling like a fraud– believing that others perceive you more favorably than is really true and warranted.
Of course, most of us experience imposter syndrome to some degree, and it is perfectly normal to sometimes believe that you are not as competent and deserving of your successes as others think you are, and to worry about how others might react if your “true” level of ability is exposed. Nevertheless, like other traits, imposter syndrome is on a bell curve, with some people experiencing imposter syndrome much more frequently in their daily lives.
Research suggests that this matters. Those who report a high frequency of impostor tendencies are prone to constant feelings of shame (not guilt), depression, and even suicidal ideation. These individuals tend to dismiss praise, downplay the truth of positive evaluations, and behave in ways that maintain their impostorous feelings. For instance, they will brush off successes to factors other than ability, such as luck, being in the right place at the right time, or just plain hard work. What’s more, those with imposter tendencies tend to engage in self-handicapping strategies, actively engaging in behaviors that undermine their performance.