Despite their obvious talent and intelligence, those who experience the imposter syndrome believe that their success is due to luck, and fear being discovered as frauds. Many argue that the term ‘syndrome’ is inappropriate or harmful. However, there are good reasons to retain the term—at least for some cases.
“Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud, and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved”
– Emma Watson
Like Emma Watson, many talented people believe that their success is undeserved and fear having their fraudulence discovered. This condition was originally identified by the clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, who coined it the imposter phenomenon. In the public sphere, however, it is better known as the imposter syndrome.
Some argue that the term ‘imposter syndrome’ is inappropriate or even harmful. Clance has been particularly vocal in denouncing the label, claiming that her intent was to normalise the condition: “… it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness, it’s something almost everyone experiences” (1). However, use of the term ‘syndrome’ has done little to stop the imposter syndrome from being normalised. Self-diagnosis is widespread. In many contexts, it is stranger to claim that one hasn’t experienced the imposter syndrome than that one has.
While people may not hesitate in self-diagnosing imposter syndrome, there are other reasons to avoid the term. Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey, for example, point out that many women—especially women of colour—feel like imposters due to systemic bias and exclusion. Applying the term syndrome to these women suggests that the problem (and solution) lies in their own behaviour, rather than in their environments. In support of this view, researchers have illuminated various routes through which systemic bias can cause those from marginalised groups to feel like imposters (2-4).
While systemic bias undoubtedly causes individuals from marginalised groups to feel as if they don’t belong, there are problems with the claim that imposter syndrome is exclusively perpetrated by such factors. Decades of research has found that non-marginalised groups, such as white men, score highly on measures of the imposter syndrome. Indeed, many studies show no differences between men and women in levels of imposter syndrome (5). If imposter syndrome is predominately driven by systemic bias, it is difficult to explain why non-marginalised groups experience it.
In understanding whether the term imposter syndrome is appropriate, it is useful to distinguish two categories of phenomena associated with the condition. Most contemporary discussions of the imposter syndrome focus on imposter attitudes: people with imposter syndrome think they aren’t smart, believe they don’t belong, and fear being exposed. Focus on these attitudes has, however, overshadowed certain behaviours associated with the condition. Those with imposter syndrome often dismiss or ignore evidence of their success and seek out and attend to evidence of failure. In doing so, they “insulate them[selves] against information that would validate their competence and worth” and help in maintaining their own imposter attitudes (6). While some hold imposter attitudes because they don’t receive enough positive feedback, others insulate themselves from such feedback.
The distinction between imposter attitudes and insulating behaviour helps to clarify the relationship between imposter syndrome and systemic bias. Systemic bias can cause imposter attitudes, but insulating behaviour can as well, either in conjunction with systemic bias or in its absence. Not all who hold imposter attitudes exhibit insulating behaviour, but many do, and perhaps it is those that merit the term ‘syndrome’. In such cases, the focus should rest on the individual, and progress can be made in a clinical setting.
One might still question whether the term syndrome is appropriate. This is a complex issue, but there are a few reasons to think that it is. Consider two defining features of a syndrome. First, diagnosis with a syndrome suggests a treatment approach. Imposter syndrome satisfies this condition. The role of insulating behaviours in maintaining imposter attitudes identifies a target for treatment, and Clance and other clinicians offer techniques for doing so. Second, syndromes cause distress and loss of effective function. Extreme cases of imposter syndrome also satisfy this condition, as sufferers experience anxiety, depression and are more prone to burn-out. Some cases of imposter syndrome, then, exhibit the hallmark traits of a syndrome.
While imposter attitudes are widespread and often stem from systemic bias, the term imposter syndrome should be reserved for cases that involve insulating behaviours, impairment, and distress. Maintaining the category of imposter syndrome but restricting its application does justice both to victims of systemic bias and to those who could benefit from clinical help.
- Cuddy, A. “Presence: Bringing your boldest self to your biggest challenges”, 2015.
- Slank, S. “Rethinking the imposter phenomenon”, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 2019.
- Levy, N. “Impostor syndrome and pretense”, Inquiry, 2022.
- Muradoglu, M. et al. “Women—particularly underrepresented minority women—and early-career academics feel like impostors in fields that value brilliance”, Journal of Educational Psychology, 2022.
- Bravata, D. M. et al. “Prevalence, predictors, and treatment of impostor syndrome: a systematic review”, Journal of General Internal Medicine, 2020.
- Leary, M. R. et al. “The impostor phenomenon: Self‐perceptions, reflected appraisals, and interpersonal strategies”, Journal of personality, 2000.