Impostor Syndrome

You may have heard of the Impostor Phenomenon (sometimes called “Impostor Syndrome“), the feeling that the success and praise you are getting is undeserved, that you were just lucky. You feel like a phony. It was once believed to be particularly common in successful women, but apparently men suffer from it commensurately; I suspect that men simply don’t report the feeling as frequently, being 1) less inclined to share this or any other feeling, and 2) more motivated to appear invulnerable — no cracks in the armor.

This article quotes one researcher as saying that some people are “phony phonies,” feigning modesty for their own benefit:

“Particularly when people think that they might not be able to live up to others’ views of them, they may maintain that they are not as good as other people think,” Dr. Mark Leary, the lead author, wrote in an e-mail message. “In this way, they lower others’ expectations — and get credit for being humble.”

I think that’s something our culture encourages, and is likely even wired into us. We like the successful person who doesn’t flaunt it, the astounding teammate who treats us all as equals, the beautiful woman who doesn’t seem to realize she is beautiful. We award others bonus points if they appear to underrate themselves.

It’s not hard to suggest an evolutionary basis for this bias: these people’s services appear to be on sale. In seeking an alliance or a mate or any other exchange, you would have fared better with those who genuinely undervalued themselves than with those who thought they were hot stuff. Genes causing a preference for such “deals” might well have had greater reproductive success, causing the preference to spread throughout the population. In fact, the genes wouldn’t even have to be specific to modesty; brain circuitry for recognizing a deal in any context would probably suffice.

Given such a preference for modesty encoded into our brains (or at least a preference for bargains and the ability to recognize modesty as a sign of one), that would in turn create evolutionary pressure to feign modesty, because it makes you more attractive (which of course contributes to reproductive success).

But OK, enough of phony phonies — there are plenty of folks who really do feel like phonies. I remember the feeling quite distinctly growing up, and am aware of some contributing factors. For example, my father was fascinated by telekinesis, and he described it to me one day when I was perhaps eight years old. “As smart as you are,” he said encouragingly, “you should be able to do this.” He urged me to practice moving objects with mind power.

So I did. Practice, that is — not move objects. For years, off and on, I tried to move pencils, spoons, and the like, experimenting with various ways of trying to compel them. Nothing ever worked, not even a little bit. “As smart as you are, you should be able to do this,” he had said. The conclusion was obvious: I wasn’t really that smart. That’s why the spoon was not moving.

I’m sure my father didn’t deliberately set me up to fail, or to link that inevitable failure to a lack of intelligence. He no doubt believed that telekinesis was possible and that if you could convince a young child that s/he could do it, they might just succeed. And wouldn’t that be cool! But the result was abject failure, and a resulting deep suspicion that the intelligence others thought they saw in me was illusory. I could not even move a spoon with my mind.

And there are other ways to elicit this feeling of being an impostor. For example, “intelligence” is a broad term that encompasses multiple traits, but we talk about it as if it were a single characteristic. If a child has a generous helping of all of the underlying traits, then sure, we say the child is intelligent. But what if a child has, say, strong analytical skills and good semantic memory, but poor episodic memory? The child will excel in many academic ventures and be called intelligent, but will struggle and often fail at commonplace tasks that most people can handle. “Aw, Billy — you can’t remember that? What’s the matter with you — you are supposed to be so smart!” Such children, not understanding that there are various aspects to what we call intelligence and that they possess more of some than others, can easily feel like phonies.

Or what if an otherwise bright child has a relatively limited short-term memory? Academic exercises, which are typically distilled to just the relevant facts for pedagogical reasons, will likely seem easy, but messy real-world situations will be harder to keep track of. Again, a parent’s reaction can be devastating, but so can that of peers. Classmates who might resent curve-breakers held up as examples by the teacher are sometimes eager to tear them down when they make a mistake. Monday yields an award, Tuesday a humiliation.

And of course, even academically gifted kids do stupid things. “When are you going to get Brain One?!” my father would often shout when angry.  He never told us what Brain One was, but the implication was obvious. So what’s the truth here — those awards for academic achievement in school, or these angry assessments?

There are probably lots of other ways to induce the same confusion and lack of confidence, all leading to roughly the same place. While receiving an award for academic performance, a child might secretly remember repeatedly feeling like a fool at times when his memory failed him. Simultaneously the child feels pride in the accomplishment and worry that this is all a mistake, that s/he will not be able to live up to expectations and will be exposed as a fraud.

If the child lacks self-esteem and feels unloved, the problem is exacerbated. If a child only feels appreciated for his or her intelligence, then the fear of being a phony can be quite acute.

And of course the same thing can happen with adults. You might be good at certain types of things, and really not so good at others, and not be clear on the difference. To you it just seems that sometimes you shine, and sometimes you stink. Who wouldn’t feel like an impostor, especially if you didn’t have good self-esteem to start with?

And finally, luck really does play a part in success. So do other non-meritorious factors like money, looks, connections, and outright cheating. Some portion of that feeling of being a phony may, for some people, actually be quite well-deserved.



  1. Posted March 26, 2014 at 5:51 am | Permalink | Reply

    Here’s an article about research into the idea that intelligence is not a single thing, and the implications for IQ tests:

  2. Posted May 29, 2015 at 8:39 am | Permalink | Reply

    And here is some nice info on Impostor Syndrome and things we do that can bring it on in our kids:

  3. Posted November 22, 2015 at 11:03 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I also find myself wondering about the psychological effects on women of makeup. The fact that so many women publicly wear makeup effectively raises the bar for what is considered reasonably attractive. If as a result a woman feels she has to use foundation and eyeliner and eye shadow and so on — not to mention a bra and stockings and heels and the like — to feel comfortable being seen in public, does that contribute to the feeling of being an impostor?

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