What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome originated in 1978 with Drs. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, psychologists with Georgia State University. Initially focusing only on women, they suggested imposter syndrome was the manifestation of internalized social expectations. Women were regarded as less capable, so the cognitive dissonance that occurred whenever they achieved something would be resolved by deciding the achievement didn’t count.

“The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”

Albert Einstein

More recent research has shown that the syndrome can and does affect everyone. It’s a persistent psychological pattern of doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud, despite external evidence of competence. A person can become trapped in a cycle of imposter syndrome by putting more weight on external factors like hard work or luck rather than ability. This loop is entrenched when success is linked to overpreparing – becoming convinced that you need to compensate for your lack of ability by working extra hard. And this leads to more anxiety and burnout.

The Imposter Monster

I’ve been seeing a trend with my resume clients where senior-level women with objectively impressive careers are plagued by doubt, insecurity in their abilities, and worries that look a lot like imposter syndrome. I can tell from the “before” picture – the resumes they send me to zhuzh up that I know don’t fully showcase their expertise – that they are accomplished, talented and experienced in their fields. They’ll even ask me whether they should include accolades and other external markers of their success on their resumes. The answer is always yes. You earned it. Even if you feel like a fraud, put it on your resume. Fight the imposter monster.

comic of an angry looking grey weasel saying "Think you're good enough for imposter syndrome? Calm down, Captain Ego".
artwork by Jamie Phillips

I personally relate. I often feel like imposter syndrome is reserved for high achievers so I can’t claim to have it. It’s imposter-inception. I used to say all the time that a monkey could do my old job. I felt like because it was easy, being good at it didn’t count. Until someone called me out, it didn’t occur to me that maybe it was easy because I was good at it, and other people might not find it as easy.

It’s so much easier to see from the outside and to build up other people. Boosting my client’s confidence is the part of my job I love best. I suspect it’s the most important part of what I do.

Types of Imposter Syndrome

In my experience, there is a lot of overlap between the types. The through-line appears to be never feeling like you are enough. While it can be motivating to always want to improve, this level of self-doubt and anxiety is overwhelmingly detrimental.

Imposter syndrome messes with your head to the point that doing well does nothing to change the belief that it’s not enough or it only happened by accident. Paradoxically, your self-worth is contingent on achieving and you have difficulty internalizing your successes. Accomplishments just increase your feelings of being a fraud. You dismiss your successes by chalking them up to good luck and external recognition as just sympathy. You keep pressuring yourself to work harder so no one finds out you’re really a phoney. You ruminate on mistakes and take any failures really hard.

It’s exhausting just reading about it. All this time and energy could be better spent almost anywhere else. Maybe I’d read more books!

Next post I’ll be diving into where this pesky syndrome comes from.








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