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Imposter syndrome is real. It can affect us all at different times of our lives, but I have found that this condition can be especially prevalent amongst students (hence I have chosen to write this post!). In this article I will tell you exactly what is meant by the term ‘imposter syndrome’, what causes it, who is susceptible to getting imposter syndrome and how you can get rid of it. If you want to learn more, read on…

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a relatively new term, used when somebody doubts their skills and talents, their accomplishments, their knowledge and so on. It was first mentioned in 1978, so just over 40 years ago.This was in an article by Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes, called The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.

People who suffer from imposter syndrome believe they are unworthy of success, or that they do not deserve the things they have achieved. This can manifest in people thinking they are not good enough to be doing their job despite being qualified to do so, for example. Or, people will believe they are undeserving of a loving relationship. This is common in people who have experienced abuse in the past.

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People who suffer from imposter syndrome believe they are unworthy of success.

Imposter syndrome definition

In the aforementioned article, ‘imposter phenomenon’ was described as ‘an individual experience of self-perceived intellection phoniness (fraud)’. Clance and Imes concluded that this feeling – this mental framework – came from a few different factors including: family dynamics, gender stereotypes, and culture. Symptoms seemed to be somewhat related to depression, generalised anxiety, and low self-confidence.

The dictionary definition says that imposter 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. Essentially, people suffering from imposter syndrome feel undeserving of what they have.

Who gets imposter syndrome?

Anyone can suffer from imposter syndrome. Even though the early research was focused on ‘high achieving women’, imposter syndrome can affect people from all walks of life, at any age too. Students often suffer massively – not believing that they deserve to be studying at a certain university, for example, or feeling like they didn’t deserve that high grade. It is more common at ‘prestigious’ universities that make it clear how lucky you are to be studying there, or that have particularly small student intakes. 

If you are a student reading this and you feel as though you are suffering from imposter syndrome, remember you DO deserve to be studying wherever you are. And you are more than capable of succeeding! University College London have released some tips for dealing with imposter syndrome as a student. This is definitely worth a read.

imposter syndrome
Students often suffer from imposter syndrome.

People in typically high-flying (and well-paid) jobs are also at risk of suffering from imposter syndrome. This is especially true when it comes to women, as shown in Clance and Imes’ research. Women are more likely to experience imposer syndrome because typically, women have lower confidence than men and less self-belief. It also comes from the lingering issues caused by the fact that up until recent history, it was only men that worked. A lot of jobs are still seen as male careers – politics, medicine and so on. People who got their job through an unconventional route may also feel like an imposter at work. If you went through an apprenticeship rather than heading to university, for example, you may feel less deserving than someone who studied for this career. But all routes to employment are valid!

Essentially, anyone can experience imposter syndrome. With any type of success or achievement, there is the risk of feeling as though you don’t deserve it…

What causes imposter syndrome?

There is no one specific cause when it comes to experiencing imposter syndrome. It can happen for many reasons, some of which I will explore below!

Your inherent personality 

Are you a perfectionist, or an anxious person? Do you have low confidence? These things can lead to you experiencing imposter syndrome when you achieve success. As a perfectionist, you might feel like what you’ve done isn’t good enough to have allowed you the success that it has. Anxiety and low confidence mean you are already pre-disposed to worrying. This can manifest itself as imposter syndrome down the line!

Other peoples’ opinions 

When it comes to your success, you should always own it. But this can sometimes be difficult, especially when people are telling you that you don’t deserve it. They may not even be saying it outright, of course. If people are questioning your route into the job, for example, or showing surprise when you announce your place at a brilliant university… well, this will place doubts in your mind which could easily lead to imposter syndrome.

Making comparisons 

It is important in life to not compare yourself with others. If you have achieved something (like getting an essay published somewhere, or being asked to speak on a panel) don’t compare yourself with others who have achieved the same thing. You will only start to question *why* you have been able to achieve this success, despite your X Y Z differences. This, in turn, can lead you to feeling like an imposter.

imposter syndrome
There are many different causes of imposter syndrome.

Is imposter syndrome a mental illness?

Imposter syndrome in itself is not a mental illness. It can appear in mentally ill patients however, who might believe they are not sick enough to accept the help they are being offered. There is often a competitive mindset when it comes to mental illness. This is especially true in places like inpatient facilities where there are many people suffering from the same or similar illnesses. Sometimes people with mental health problems will worry that their diagnosis is unnecessary, or that they are a fraud.

David Susman, clinical psychologist and mental health advocate, says: “A person may acknowledge some mental health concerns, but can lack full awareness of their significance,” or fail to “understand they have an actual illness,” He then goes on to say: “They may dismiss or minimize their issues and say ‘everyone gets stressed out’ or ‘my problems aren’t that bad’ or ‘you’re making more out of this than you need to.'” 

While imposter syndrome is not a mental illness – and isn’t listed in the DSM or the ICD – the symptoms do overlap with depression. Not feeling worthy, having low self-esteem, feeling like a failure… these are common symptoms of depression. There is definitely a link between the two, although that is not to say that everyone with imposter syndrome is also depressed!

How do you know if you have imposter syndrome?

If you start to feel as though you’re not good enough for what you’re doing, or don’t deserve the things you have achieved (personally, academically or in your career) then it is likely you are suffering from imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome test

There are a few different ‘tests’ or quizzes you can take to find out whether you have imposter syndrome. These are not medical diagnoses, and should not necessarily be taken as such. However, they can help you understand your feelings. It is important to understand how you feel and why, in order to try and solve the issue going forward.

The Clance IP Scale via Pauline Rose Clance. This is the most substantial and trustworthy imposter syndrome test, as it was developed by Pauline R. Clance of the aforementioned article, The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.

Do You Have imposter Syndrome? Take Our Quiz and Find Out via Psycom

Impostor Syndrome Test via TestYourelf / Psych Tests

Do you have imposter syndrome? via Femme Palette

How can you get rid of imposter syndrome?

There are many ways to at least try and get rid of it. The following may not work for everyone but they are a good place to start!

imposter syndrome
There are different ways to overcome imposter syndrome.

Talk about it

Speak to your friends, parents, peers, tutors, boss… a problem shared is, indeed, a problem halved. Sometimes just saying it out loud can help you start to release those feelings.

Examine your past

As painful as this might be, it can be worth looking at your childhood to discover why you don’t feel as though you are worthy of your successes. If you were overly criticised as a child, this could be why you’re feeling this way. Come to terms with the fact that this wasn’t right, and you’ll be on your way to overcoming your imposter syndrome.

Surround yourself with supportive people

Pay attention to the people who congratulate you in everything positive that you do, and stick with them. Their support will help you realise you do deserve everything you have!

Work hard

Continue working hard so you can tell your brain that you *do* deserve this success and these achievements. 

Accept your failures

Develop a healthy relationship with failure and not getting what you want. This, in turn, will allow you to recognise when you have done well and got what you have worked hard for!

Imposter syndrome

Have you experienced imposter syndrome? What advice would you give to others?