Impostor Syndrome – The ‘over-achiever’s’ curse


The world may observe academic success of a high degree and may find it hard to believe in the very real distress of the individual concerned, who feels ‘phony’ the more he or she is successful (Winnicot, 1965).

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Isn’t it strange how the more successful over-achievers become, the more they believe deep-down that their success is a mere factor of luck rather than genuine talent and hard-work? One can’t help but miss the paradox of the fact that the more the world acknowledges success, the more the over-achiever doubts its authenticity: the highs and lows of the ‘Impostor Syndrome’.

Almost forty years ago, two clinical psychologists, Clance & Imes, conducted research into ‘neurotic imposture’, attempting to understand why high achieving women, who achieved against all odds, couldn’t internalise and ‘own’ their success, and the talent and hard-work that went beneath achieving it. While early research on perceived fraudulence was focused on women, recent research indicates that not only do men suffer from the same syndrome, but male ‘imposters’ experience greater anxiety and perform worse under conditions of high accountability and negative feedback than their female counterpart.

A problem with perception

The perceived fraudulence experienced by ‘impostors’ has both cognitive and affective components which negatively affect self-perception and identity - in the ‘impostor’s’ ‘inner worlds’ they experience the subjective ‘belief’ of being fraudulent and suffer from fear of being exposed for not having the talents and skills that their achievements suggest. While real impostors deliberately base their identities on pretence and masquerade, ‘neurotic impostors’ or ‘over-achiever impostors’, who are genuinely more successful in their fields than their peers, simply feel as if they’re sailing under false colours and could be ‘caught out’ at any moment. This results in a disjuncture of identity, a lack of identity integrity, which in a vicious circle, fuels and bolsters the lack of confidence that underlies the ‘impostor syndrome’.

The process of distortion

Clance & Imes were not specific about the underlying reasons for a ‘neurotic impostor’s’ failure to internalise success but suggest that a process of distortion is at play whereby all forms of success are attributed to external sources as opposed to internal sources such as intellect, talent or skill. Factors outside themselves, such as luck, timing or popularity and appearance, specifically in the case of women, account for their success rather than talent and skill. Individuals who have a sense of ’imposturism’ report higher anxiety levels, lower self-confidence, higher incidence of depression, and a frustration to meet the high standards of perfection they set for themselves. In an investigation of a sample of Yale students in the early 1990’s it was found that ‘perceived fraudulence’ or what is now referred to as an ‘impostor syndrome’, involves a complex interplay of depressive tendencies, self-criticism, high social anxiety and self-monitoring skills, and excessive pressures to excel and achieve.

Clance & Imes found that the ‘Impostor sufferers’ affliction normally starts in childhood, and its cause typically falls into one of two groups with respect to their early family histories, particularly in terms of parental expectations. The first group has a sibling or close relative considered to be the ‘intelligent one’, and the impostor is labelled the ‘sensitive and socially adept one’, or a position inferior, particularly in intellect, to their sibling. In order to prove the family wrong, the impostor is driven to achieve, but when they do, unconsciously their success is attributed to their social charm, physical appearance or just plain luck and ‘good timing’.

The other group is affirmed by their family and made to feel superior in every way – intellect, personality, appearance, and talents and is regaled with numerous examples of how as a young child they demonstrated superiority. This pressure, real or perceived, to live up to parental expectations drives them, but given their excessively high standards, anxiety and self-doubt creeps in.

The effects of parental expectations and labelling in children was studied by Phillips who researched children with self-perceptions of incompetence and found that some of the most proficient students appear to be among those who are most vulnerable to performance debilitation and self-denigration. Phillips concluded that for children who are academically proficient, their proficiency may be a liability due to parental and teacher pressure and expectations resulting in performance anxiety, lower self-esteem, self-doubt and fear of failure and not living up to expectations.

Through a process of reflection and self-insight, the ‘impostor’ can develop an understanding of their excessive drive to succeed and deliver to demandingly high standards and also get to the root cause of their underlying lack of confidence and self-worth, which flies in the face of their achievements. By engaging in ‘identity work’, and authentically aligning their internal self-concept with their external, social concept, the one that is ‘seen’ and reflected back to them by the world, the ‘impostor’ can bolster their confidence and integrate their identities. An integrated identity comprises three elements:

• A strong self-concept indicating authentic self-esteem, levels of assertiveness and self-acceptance combined with a strength of character;

• A social internalisation of this self-concept with what the world sees; and

• A clear purpose.

‘Identity work’ is conducted through being given the opportunity to self-reflect, to discover ‘what’ and ‘who’ you are, and to discover what drives and inspires you. Self-reflective work should not be positioned as ‘fixing what is broken’, but rather forming a realistic and authentic base from which to grow and develop further. Through having an ‘integrated identity’ people who previously suffered from Impostor Syndrome will feel justified in occupying their positions in the world, confident in the value they have to add in leading themselves and others to their high standards of success and performance.

Dr. Kim Howard