Several clients have recently claimed to be suffering from this modern malady, and a local human resources professional requested that I do an article on this subject.  So here is my contribution to readers of “The Mentor.”  By the way, in the literature I read in preparing this article, sometimes the key word is spelled “imposter” and sometimes it’s spelled “impostor.”  The abbreviation for imposter syndrome is “IS.”  A related condition is called “the imposter phenomenon,” and its abbreviation is “IP.” A quick and broad definition of the imposter syndrome, according to an article on the National Library of Medicine website, is “a behavioral health phenomenon described as self-doubt of intellect, skills, or accomplishments among high-achieving individuals.”

The article describes that certain individuals “cannot internalize their success and subsequently experience pervasive feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, depression, and/or apprehension of being exposed as a fraud in their work…”  This is an issue that appears to have been growing over the past fifty years, more so than what I was aware of until researching this topic.  According to this article, which is quite in depth and highly detailed, there is currently a particular interest in studying this phenomenon in the field of medicine.  The authors of another study say that there is an established relationship between IS and other behavioral health disorders, including burnout, depression, anxiety, and exacerbation of other behavioral health issues.

This syndrome was first described in 1978 by Suzanne Imes, Ph.D., and Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D.  Their article in the journal “Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice” Volume 15, #3, Fall 1978, describes how they worked with 150 women who have earned graduate degrees in various specialties and who are respected professionals in their fields, and some of the women studied were then students recognized for their academic excellence.  These women who experience the impostor phenomenon believe that they are not intelligent and are convinced that they have fooled everyone in being able to get into the positions they hold in medicine, academics and other fields.  As a whole, these women do not experience an internal sense of success.

Despite their having earned degrees, scholastic honors, and high achievement on standardized tests, and as well have gotten praise and professional recognition from colleagues and respected authorities, they consider themselves to be “impostors.”  They often feel that mistakes had to have been made which led them to their high achievement, that they were mistakenly admitted into graduate school, that their professors over-estimated them, that errors were made in grading their tests, or that they were given honors or a prestigious job through luck or through biases held by their professors or interviewers.  At present there is no formal medical definition, and the syndrome is not listed in the DSM-V.  Despite a lack of a formal definition, six criteria have been identified for individuals with IS.  These are: the imposter cycle, perfectionism, super-heroism, atychiphobia (fear of failure), denial of competence, and achievemephobia.

Epidemiology is the study of the distribution (the who, when, and where), the patterns and the determinants of health and disease conditions in a given population.  Some information on the epidemiology of imposter syndrome exists, but there have not been enough studies and research to give solid answers.  However, the existing studies demonstrate that imposter syndrome tends to be more common in females than in males and is more common in marginalized groups (e.g. in racial and ethnic minority groups and in people of a lower socioeconomic status).  There also tends to be a high prevalence of IS among workforce members in high-pressure, high-stakes jobs.

If you feel that you are suffering from this syndrome/phenomenon, or from any of the other conditions mentioned in this article, it is best to consult with your primary care medical provider about it and explore possible solutions.

Resources mentioned above:

By, Terry McMaster, LMSW, EAP Counselor