“I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people,” John Steinbeck wrote in his diary in 1938. Maya Angelou once shared, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out,’” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg echoed these writers’ thoughts during a public speech by saying “There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud.”
How could two of the greatest American authors not consider themselves writers? And one of the most successful businesswoman in the world not successful? Imposter Syndrome, first coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, refers to the inability of high-achieving people to internalize their accomplishments: the persistent feeling that one doesn’t deserve to be where they are in life. Sound familiar? Seventy percent of people suffer from impostorism.
Throughout our entire lives we look up to inspiring people, work hard to follow in their footsteps, and aspire to reach what seems an impossible place. We interview for that job and feel like we are lying through our teeth when, in reality, we are listing real-life and very honest accomplishments. We then get the job and feel like we tricked our way in. Or we get invited to that party and feel like we are pretending to be cooler than we are, when in reality, we were invited for a reason. Or we get accepted to a college and are convinced that the admissions committee was high when they read the application. No, they accepted you because they want you. These climactic moments should be moments that prove our worth, but instead they make us question our worthiness all over again.
Imposter Syndrome is much more prevalent among certain demographics. Sensibly, racial minorities and women often feel a heightened sense of fraudulence. In fact, its usage was originally only used in reference to women feeling out of place while working in male-dominated industries. While it is now agreed to not be a gender-exclusive phenomenon, clinical experience has shown it to occur in much higher frequency and intensity among women. However, a wide array of other factors can also cause someone to feel unworthy of their position in life. Perfectionism is often a common characteristic. The mentality that one needs to be the absolute best and the fear of any degree of failure sets one up for failed expectations. It’s like when we are on the first day of that job we “tricked” ourselves into, and we feel like our boss is going to “find us out” at any second because we don’t know how to do everything yet. High-achieving people are so accustomed to being experts in everything that any sign of unfamiliarity gives them the feeling that they are unworthy of their place.
However, don’t be nervous if you feel like you fit the bill for impostorism. At least you don’t suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect in which self-confident people are unable to recognize their own ignorance.
Jessica Collet, a professor of sociology at University of Notre Dame says “They don’t feel at all like frauds—they feel they know exactly what they’re doing and how could other people not know what they’re doing. But it turns out, they don’t know enough to know how little they know.” In essence, “people that are too dumb to know that they’re dumb.” We all know that person and we all hate them.
So if you think you are doing everything right, maybe you should reevaluate. But the next time you feel like an imposter, just know that you’ve officially made it when you start questioning your greatness.