Impostor Syndrome- What is it Really?

The term Impostor Syndrome gets tossed around a lot these days.  I thought I’d share with you the origins of this concept, what it really means and how to gauge if you exhibit any Impostor Syndrome characteristics.

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The Origins of IP

IP (Impostor Phenomenon) was coined by Pauline Rose Clance, Ph. D in the late 70’s after she strangely experienced feeling like a fraud amongst her peer group in grad school, but couldn’t explain why.  She thought that she would fail exams even though she was well prepared, she felt other students around her were smarter than her and that she was passing her classes based on luck and was really just a “fraud” in school.

Later in life when she was teaching at a University, she realized that a lot of her female students had similar thoughts and feelings that she had when she was in grad school. Here she began her research on this topic and the originals of Impostor Phenomenon began.

Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome or the imposter experience) is a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Some studies suggest that impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women.[2]

Psychologists hypothesis that Impostor Syndrome is most common among high achieving women.  Interestingly, many women experience it for the first time while in graduate school.  (A very intense and high stress experience.)

It’s not surprising that we see Impostor Syndrome among women at coding bootcamps since bootcamps are (in many ways) similar to graduate school.

  • The expectations are higher
  • The lessons move very quickly
  • There is a lot of work outside the classroom
  • You need deep focus & discipline to succeed
  • You get very little sleep
  • It’s a highly competitive environment.

Further research also shows that IP can be even more pervasive among women of color from marginalized populations. The research regarding Impostor Syndrome has traditionally highlighted groups who are “excelling in areas that were not always readily accessible to them”.[2]

This would certainly be applicable to women in tech.  (A culture dominated my males where female credibility can be tested on a constant basis.)  We hear stories of female software engines being the only female on their team, sometimes second guessed by their bosses, and even asked if a project was in fact “their own work”.   This is a high stakes environment where women are not always expected to necessarily succeed. Knowing more about IP and how it works can be helpful in understanding your own thoughts and views regarding your own success.

Here are a few sample questions from Dr. Clance’s  Impostor Phenomenon scale. 

  1. I have often succeeded on a test or task even though I was afraid that I would not do well before I undertook the task.

(not at all true)    (rarely)    (sometimes)   (often)   (very true)

  1. I can give the impression that I’m more competent than I really am.

(not at all true)    (rarely)    (sometimes)   (often)   (very true)

  1. I avoid evaluations if possible and have a dread of others evaluating me.

(not at all true)    (rarely)    (sometimes)   (often)   (very true)

*Sample questions may not be representative of the entire 20-item scale. To access FULL scale permission, please contact Dr. Clance (drpaulinerose@comcast.net).  

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Is it Self-doubt or Low Self-esteem?

Everyone has those moments.  Moments in which you’re not certain if you’re doing the right thing or making the right choice.  Moments in which you think back to that thing you said at the party and wish you could take it back, but you can’t.  There are times when you question whether or not you used good judgment or acted too impulsively due to anger or fear or something else.   All of this questioning is a sign of self-doubt.

Self-doubt is present in every person’s life and it can mean a moment’s hesitation before making a decision or it can be a paralyzing force that keeps you from taking action.  For teenage girls, who may feel particularly susceptible to what others are thinking about them, self-doubt can be a daily intruder into their thoughts or a shadow that whisks certainty away from almost every decision.  Sometimes girls express their self-doubt as a way of bonding with friends, either by not appearing to be too arrogant, i.e. masculine, and forthright with their decisions, or, by using self-doubt to consult with a BFF at all times.  But what might seem to be second-guessing can have deeper consequences in terms of a girl’s self-esteem.

Having low self-esteem can be a serious result of too much self-doubt.  If you don’t hold yourself in high regard, or keep a strong base of emotional resilience stored against how things might turn out, you’re likely to question your decision-making skills and if your instincts are right about things.  Fundamentally, self-doubt is a contributor to low self-esteem, rather than the same thing.  Doubting yourself constantly, whether by engaging in comparison with others, or holding yourself to an idealized and impossible goal, is a recipe for lowering your self-esteem, because you aren’t staying true to the conviction that you know what’s best for you.  Building up a stronger reservoir of self-esteem will help battle those self-doubt demons when they go on the attack.

But, how do you do this?  Or help a teenage daughter or friend to do this?  Encourage girls to be in touch with what they really want, not what they think they should want.  Do this by (as much as possible) shutting out the media’s messages to girls and going inward to think through what your inner voice most calls out for.  Meditate, create a vision board, or trace out the paths of other strong women and think through what decisions got them to the place you admire.  Imagine the stresses they endured, but overcame, and think about how it’s possible to do that as well.

Draw on supportive friends who will affirm your decisions, and back you up if you feel you’ve made a wrong one and need to make a change.  Practice telling yourself you know best for yourself and shutting out negative voices that tell you otherwise.  Learn to be confident that you’re acting with your own best intentions as your top priority and can be ready to face whatever consequences might come.  This will help bolster your self-esteem and work to erase the voices that can question every decision you make.