I’ll never forget the day I first learned about the Impostor Syndrome. It was 1983. A chronic procrastinator, I was in my fourth year of a doctoral program. Like a lot of graduate students, my status was what was commonly referred to as “A-B-D,” meaning I’d completed “all but the dissertation.”
I was sitting in class one day when another student rose to present the findings of a study conducted by psychology professor Pauline Clance and psychologist Suzanne Imes called The Impostor Phenomenon Among High Achieving Women (1978).
In a nutshell, Clance and Imes found that many of their female clients seemed unable to internalize their accomplishments. External proof of intelligence and ability in the form of academic excellence, degrees, recognition, promotions and the like was routinely dismissed. Instead, success was attributed to contacts, luck, timing, perseverance, personality or otherwise having “fooled” others into thinking they were smarter and more capable than these women “knew” themselves to be.
Rather than offering assurance, each new achievement and subsequent challenge only served to intensify the ever-present fear of being…
“Oh my God,” I thought, “I’ve been unmasked!”
Clearly flustered, I quickly scanned the room checking to see if anyone had caught me nodding in dismayed recognition. No one had. They were too busy bobbing their own heads in like-minded unison.
It’s hard to describe what it was like to discover that these vague feelings of self-doubt, angst and intellectual fraudulence had a name. This, along with the realization that I was not alone, was utterly liberating. This experience proved to be a profound turning point in my life, both academically and personally. I made the life altering decision to change dissertation topics in order to study how and why so many intelligent women set themselves up to fall short.
I completed my dissertation in 1985. From here I set out to share what I’d learned with fellow “impostors” – both men and women alike – all over the country. Some twenty fives years later I wrote The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women.
The people I’ve worked with come from all walks of life. They are doctors and nurses, educators and college students, lawyers and accountants, executives and administrative assistants, engineers and administrators, human service providers and human resource managers, computer programmers and program directors, architects and artists, police officers and principals.
What they share in common is a deep desire to understand why, in the face of often overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they continue to doubt themselves, their competence, and their abilities.
But like me, it all began with the realization that there really is a name for these feelings.
When was the first time you discovered there was something called the impostor phenomenon and how has that changed how you see things?