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Feel like an imposter? You're not alone

By Marc Reid - Posted on 25 January 2023

With increased awareness and reports on the so-called 'Imposter Syndrome' comes a timely managerial responsibility. For those who feel like an imposter, it is management's duty to lay out the important and illuminating reasons why it is not a syndrome, writes Dr Marc Reid.

Sometimes, a rose, by any other name, would smell much sweeter than it does already.

What makes an omnipresent term like ‘Imposter Syndrome’, for example, give off more stench than scent? And why should managers care?

The so-called Imposter Syndrome refers to the feeling that you are underqualified for your job. You label yourself a fraud among the genuine. Ever avoiding praise, you put your success down to luck and sense that, any day now, you’re going to be ‘found out’ and thrown out of work.

You might understandably think of the imposter experience as low self-esteem. That’s not the case. At the core of this fly trap, experienced regularly by 70% of professionals (across gender and demographics) at least once in their career, is the fact that it occurs in high achievers. If you suffer from what you might know as Imposter Syndrome, the hard evidence of your graft gets overshadowed with the unsupported sense of being the phony who doesn’t know enough.

The coined term fading from view 

It is relatively well-known that Drs Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the Imposter Phenomenon (rather than Imposter Syndrome) back in 1978 with their seminal study on the topic. What is less often cited is that the name they gave to this particular psychological rose reflected a concerted effort to signal that the imposter experience is not technically a syndrome of any sort. In a graduate speech decades later, Clance was more direct. Those of us suffering from imposter experiences may develop clinically diagnosable conditions like anxiety or depression…but the altogether common experience of feeling like an imposter is not, in and of itself, a pathological one. Clance reserved the term syndrome for symptoms leading to an “official clinical diagnosis”.

Feeling like an imposter is not a syndrome.

I experienced this misconception first hand in my own research on the phenomenon. In a reflective survey capturing imposter experiences, some 40% of respondents cited specific factors at the root cause of their experience, including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem,and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Origins of the term ‘Imposter Syndrome’

Let’s push our noses deeper into the petals of ‘Imposter Syndrome’ versus ‘Imposter Phenomenon’. 

It began in 1982. Dr Carol Tavris wrote a piece about the Impostor Phenomenon for Vogue magazine. In her article, Tavris made the first recorded reference to ‘Imposter Syndrome’alongside ‘Imposter Phenomenon’. These terms, innocently typed together, seeded the term ‘Impostor Syndrome’ to later crawl the walls of the zeitgeist, and leave ‘Impostor Phenomenon’ to remain comparatively hidden in the underbrush. 

In the academic literature, article titles containing both terms – “Phenomenon” and“Syndrome” – have trickled along at equal pace since the 1980s, increasing more rapidly after2015. In 2018, consistent with their apparently interchangeable use, the Oxford English Dictionary created draft additions for both terms.Yet, search both terms in Google Trends and see for yourself that it’s not even close. Impostor Syndrome beats Impostor Phenomenon.

Pathologizing the plain ordinary

So, why is it worth your time reclaiming imposter experiences as being a garden-variety phenomenon rather than a thorny syndrome? The alarm bell rings with the word “syndrome” having multiple definitions. Back to the dictionary, the first of three definitions of “syndrome” places it in the realms of a pathology:

“A concurrence of several symptoms in a disease.”

Government, scientific, and other official literature is full of inconsistent uses of words like’syndrome’ and ‘disease’. In 2003, a team of medical professionals called it out. To draw some necessary distinctions, a ’syndrome’ was defined as:

“…a recognisable complex of symptoms and physical findings which indicate a specific condition for which a direct cause is not necessarily understood.”

When the unknown cause becomes more clearly diagnostic and treatable, it becomes a ‘disease’. 

Ultimately, reference to the imposter experience as a ‘syndrome’ is misguided. While the experience does involve a collection of symptoms, they are not the same for everyone, and there are no “physical findings” as such. In my own research, over 800 participants recording their imposter experiences gave 800 unique stories. 

Marrying the imposter experience to a dictionary term linked to pathology reinforces the notion that feeling like an imposter is a diagnosable illness. As a leader, it’s your privilege to bring those in your care to the productive realisation that feeling like a fraud is a perfectly pervasive part of our collective human condition.

Find out more about Dr Marc Reid, the Imposter Phenomenon and his latest book on his webpage

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