Impostor Syndrome: Not Just a Women’s Problem
The following is an excerpt from my book Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges (Little, Brown, & Co., 2015).
Psychologist Pauline Clance, the founder of the concept that’s come to be known as “impostor syndrome,” and many others studying it, initially believed that the condition was unique to high-achieving women, reasoning that “since success for women is contraindicated by societal expectations and their own internalized self-evaluations, it is not surprising that women in our sample need to find [an] explanation for their accomplishments other than their own intelligence.”[i] But it wasn’t long before Pauline began to wonder whether impostor syndrome might be more widespread. “After talks,” she said during our discussion, “men would come up to me and say, ‘You know, I’ve felt that, too.’ By 1985, I definitely saw this as an experience that men were having also. And I have certainly worked with men [in my clinical practice] who experience it excruciatingly.”
In recent years, there’s been a swell of popular interest in impostor syndrome. But most of this has been in the context of female self-improvement: What can women do to achieve their greatest ambitions? Aside from well-documented sexism[ii], what other factors might be holding them back? I, too, believed this was a women’s problem—and then, after my TED talk was posted online, I started receiving e-mails about impostor syndrome, and lots of those e-mails were from men. In fact, of the thousands of e-mails I’ve received, about half of those with stories about feeling like a fraud were from men.
Pauline and other researchers soon found the same thing: women and men were experiencing impostor syndrome to an equal degree.[iii]
Why, then, did it initially appear to be a women’s problem?
First, some people have trouble recognizing it in themselves, something Pauline and he collaborator Suzanne Imes noticed right from the start. Other studies have since yielded similar findings. Perhaps the men in the studies just weren’t identifying their feelings as clearly as the women did.[iv]
But there was a more troubling and likely possibility. “In private practice, it wasn’t as common for men to talk about it,” explained Pauline. “But when [the survey] was anonymous, men were expressing it to the same degree as women.” They weren’t discussing it with their friends or family members or seeking emotional support because they were too ashamed.
Men who deviate from the strong-assertive stereotype—in other words, men who are able to express self-doubt—risk experiencing what psychologists call “stereotype backlash”: punishment, which often takes the form of harassment or even ostracism, for failing to conform to societal expectations.[v] (Stereotype backlash is not limited to men—it can happen to anyone who deviates from culturally prescribed stereotypes about race, sex, and the various other social “categories” to which they belong. For example, women frequently experience stereotype backlash in the workplace for being “too masculine”[vi].) Although men experience impostor syndrome to the same extent women do, they may be even more burdened by it because they can’t admit it. They carry it around quietly, secretly, painfully.
So, impostor syndrome afflicts men and women equally. But is it limited to certain demographic groups—professional, racial, cultural? After Pauline and Suzanne’s groundbreaking work, the following few decades of inquiry provided a clear answer. Researchers have found impostor syndrome in dozens of demographic groups, including but not limited to teachers, accountants, physicians, physician assistants, nurses, engineering students, dental students, medical students, nursing students, pharmacy students, law students, doctoral students, undergraduate entrepreneurs, high school students, people new to the Internet, Black Americans, Koreans, Japanese, Canadians, disturbed adolescents, “normal” adolescents, preadolescents, old people, adult children of alcoholics, adult children of high achievers, people with eating disorders, people without eating disorders, people who have recently experienced failure, people who have recently experienced success…and so on.[vii]
In 1985, Pauline and a collaborator, Gail Matthews, published a survey of their clinical psychology clients, noting that among forty-one men and women, about 70 percent had experienced impostor syndrome.[viii] At least two-thirds of Harvard Business School students experience impostor syndrome[ix]—and more than 60 percent of HBS students are men.
As I prepared to leave our meeting, Pauline said, “One more thing: if I could do it all over again, I would call it the impostor experience, because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness. It’s something almost everyone experiences.”
Photo credit: Kate Lawrence (Yes, my blog will include a lot of animal photos, M.J. Brandt.)
[i] Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15, 241–247.
[ii] I can’t cite the thousands of scientific studies that support this statement, so I will refer you to one particularly well-conducted (and troubling) study: Moss-Racusin, C. A., Dovidio, J. F., Brescoll, V. L., Graham, M. J., & Handelsman, J. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109, 16474-16479.
[iii] Langford, J., & Clance, P. R. (1993). The imposter phenomenon: Recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 30, 495–501; Castro, D. M., Jones, R. A., & Mirsalimi, H. (2004). Parentification and the impostor phenomenon: An empirical investigation. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 32, 205–216; Vergauwe, J., Wille, B., Feys, M., De Fruyt, F., & Anseel, F. (2015). Fear of being exposed: The trait-relatedness of the impostor phenomenon and its relevance in the work context. Journal of Business and Psychology, in press.
[iv] McGregor, L. N., Gee, D. E., & Posey, K. E. (2008). I feel like a fraud and it depresses me: The relation between the imposter phenomenon and depression. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 36, 43–48; Jöstl, G., Bergsmann, E., Lüftenegger, M., Schober, B., & Spiel, C. (2012). When will they blow my cover? The impostor phenomenon among Austrian doctoral students. Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 220, 109–120.
[v] Rudman, L. A., & Fairchild, K. (2004). Reactions to counterstereotypic behavior: The role of backlash in cultural stereotype maintenance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 157–176.
[vi] For an excellent discussion of the research on stereotype backlash against women, see Rudman, L. A., & Phelan, J. E. (2008). Backlash effects for disconfirming gender stereotypes in organizations. Research in organizational behavior, 28, 61–79.
[vii] Many of the citations for impostor syndrome studies involving these demographics can be found in the reference list compiled by Pauline Clance at this link: http://paulineroseclance.com/pdf/IP%20Ref%20List-MOST%20RECENT-8-2-13.doc.
[viii] Matthews, G., & Clance, P. R. (1985). Treatment of the impostor phenomenon in psychotherapy clients. Psychotherapy in Private Practice, 3, 71–81.
[ix] Friedman, A. (2013, October 22). Not qualified for your job? Wait, you probably are. Pacific Standard. Retrieved from http://www.psmag.com/business-economics/qualified-job-wait-probably-imposter-syndrome-psychology-68700.