Imposters: Who Are They?

Imposters are everywhere.

Imposter syndrome, persistent feelings of self-doubt and fear of being discovered a fraud, is a complex beast. It’s cultivated in stressful family settings, tags along with other mental health issues, thrives in competitive and biased cultures, and grows into a vicious cycle when the imposter attributes their successes to anxiety and overwork.

colourful graphic of cartoon heads illustrating that anyone can be have imposter feelings.
Imposters: we are legion

What the Research Says

Research shows that imposter syndrome cuts across all strata: it’s common among men and women, from adolescents to established professionals. Anyone can feel like an imposter, regardless of status, background, or expertise level.

One study puts the prevalence rate at 70%; others report anywhere between 9 and 82% of people have imposter feelings at least once.

When the concept of the imposter phenomenon was originated by Drs Clance and Imes, it was thought to occur in women far more than men. But men feel like imposters too. Gender norms, and perhaps the public perception that imposter syndrome happens to women, may cause it to present differently in men.

The data suggests that while anyone can feel like an imposter, people from underrepresented groups are especially susceptible. Minority stress (the chronic stress experienced by stigmatized groups) has been shown to contribute to imposter syndrome. Differing from most of your peers stokes the imposter fires.

However, so-called minority or underrepresented groups aren’t so minor – we’re talking about a lot of populations that imposter syndrome likes to interfere with.

cartoon graphics of a brain, a lightbulb and a pile of books with a magnifying glass conveying ideas and research.
What if the bigger question is why not who

The Context

Imposters don’t exist in a vacuum. While it’s experienced individually, imposter syndrome is so common that it’s clearly a problem in the broader cultural context.

I think our general work culture often mirrors the family characteristics that set the stage for imposter syndrome:

  • Pressure to ‘succeed’
  • Often compared to siblings/peers
  • Values achievement above all else
  • Flips between praise and criticism
  • Mistakes are not well tolerated
  • Low in support and high in conflict

People with this kind of family upbringing or other compounding factors may be more prone to imposter feelings, however, even without the pre-existing conditions, this kind of pressurized, competitive, one size fits all culture can get to any of us.

Maybe so many of us experience imposter feelings as a reaction to the messages we get from and about work. Like the “inspirational” people who sleep four hours a night and have side hustles instead of hobbies. Or the workplaces that reward high achievement with more work. The worry over job security and progression when thinking about taking parental leave. Overtime as a badge of honour. Tying up our identities with our job titles.

graphics of overwhelmed and overworked people illustrating that imposter syndrome leads to burn out

What Happens to the Imposters?

Unsurprisingly, it’s not sustainable to reward over-achievement to the detriment of sleep, social and family life, and leisure. Imposter syndrome negatively impacts job performance and satisfaction and can lead to burnout.

graphic that says "dear boss, I quit!" and a cartoon of a person with a box happily running away

In this context, it’s no wonder the added stress of the pandemic turned into the “Great Resignation”.

There’s only so much a person can take!

In the next and final post on imposter syndrome, I’ll explore what we can do about it.

Catch up on the previous imposter syndrome posts:

Sources & Further Reading