What is the impostor syndrome?

The term entered the OED in April 2017. Here Kate Atkin writes about what the imposter syndrome is and isn't...

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Have you ever wondered when you would be ‘found out’, or concerned that you would be discovered to be the fraud you think you are? Perhaps you worry about making a mistake because it would ‘prove’ that you’re not perfect and, therefore, no good at what you do.

If the above sounds a little like you, then you could be experiencing the impostor syndrome, a recent entry into Oxford Dictionaries’ free online dictionary.

Let’s take a look at what it is and isn’t, who it affects, and how the term has come to be used in everyday life.

When did impostor syndrome first become known?

The ‘impostor syndrome’ is “the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills”.

In psychological terms, it is known more accurately as the ‘impostor phenomenon’, an “internal feeling of intellectual phoniness”, and was first noted by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. Clance and Imes called it the “impostor phenomenon” because they noticed that high achieving women were believing their success was down to luck, or that they had somehow fooled others and therefore felt fraudulent and unworthy of their success; i.e. they felt like an impostor.

What is it?

The impostor syndrome is not the same as actually being an impostor, with the intention of deliberately deceiving others. Nor does it refer to those people who ‘fake it until they make it’, which can be an effective way of pretending to be confident before your confidence grows. Nor does it refer to those moments of self-doubt that we all experience from time-to-time, especially when trying out something new. Those who experience the impostor syndrome really are successful: they are good at what they do and have objective, external evidence to prove it. The problem is they just don’t believe it. Or more accurately they haven’t internalised their success.

Instead, successes are put down to luck or someone being kind. Or perhaps down to hard work and long hours of careful crafting so no mistakes are made. Or to the success being nothing special with the assumption of “if I can, then anyone can”. Those experiencing the impostor syndrome truly are competent, knowledgeable, or skilled, but they just don’t believe it, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Who gets it?

In short, anyone! The impostor syndrome generally affects high achievers, those who have a good track record of success in many different fields, whether as an entrepreneur or a parent or in their chosen career. Actors, sports professionals, business people… men and women. Around 70% of people at some point will experience the feelings to some degree.

Phenomenon or syndrome?

The original academic usage of ‘impostor phenomenon’ was due to the fact that impostor feelings are not constant. Such feelings are occasional experiences, intermittent and often specific to certain situations. For instance, I don’t get the ‘impostor’ feelings when digging at the allotment or walking my dog, but they do occur in some work-place situations… and when asked to write a blog post on the subject!

A syndrome, by contrast, is “a group of symptoms which consistently occur together, or a condition characterized by a set of associated symptoms”. So referring to the ‘impostor syndrome’ is technically incorrect; it really is a phenomenon and not a mental health condition. However, as reflected in the term’s new dictionary entry, it is ‘syndrome’ that is being used colloquially, particularly across social media. Easier to pronounce and easier to spell, ‘impostor syndrome’ infiltrated academic circles in 1990, but it was probably Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book Lean In that brought the term into common use.

How is it currently used?

The impostor syndrome is often confused with self-doubt. Colloquially people are referring to themselves as having the impostor syndrome when they try something for the first time and are concerned whether it will go well or are in the early stages of learning something. But that is self-doubt which is quite normal. Experiencing self-doubt, and the consequential stress, when you already have a proven track record of success and when there is already plenty of external validation of your success – that is the impostor syndrome.

  • The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.

Guest Blogger

Kate Atkin is a professional speaker, facilitator and coach. She has written two books, The Confident Manager and The Presentation Workout and regularly speaks on the impostor phenomenon. Kate researched the impostor phenomenon for her MSc and is continuing with a PhD which is on determining which coping strategies are most effective when dealing with the phenomenon. She also shares her own experiences, as a self-confessed sufferer of impostor feelings! For more information, see or follow her on Twitter @kateatkin

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