The term "impostor phenomenon" (currently better known as "impostor syndrome") was coined in 1978 by a pair of psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, who studied high-achieving female faculty and students and even wrote a book about it. "Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the impostor phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise, the researchers wrote. "Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample object evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief."
To the casual observer, it doesn't make a lot of sense. Most people have to work hard and be smart to excel in a chosen field, so their success is therefore well-deserved. Just try telling that to the person who feels like an impostor, however, who's often dealing with a host of other issues that further exacerbate the problem.
"I have suffered from impostor syndrome much of my life as I'm a black woman who comes from a highly impoverished background and was often told I would never amount to anything from my own parents," emails Christian Sismone, a project manager who lives in Minneapolis. "Going through college I felt as though I needed to overperform in order to receive validation from others. I was a model student even suffering from major depression. I ensured my assignments were stellar even after having a suicidal incident," she recalls.
Sadly, Sismone's experience is not uncommon, and impostor syndrome doesn't only affect women as many people think. "While it was originally researched among college women, newer research suggests that it is experienced across the board. It makes sense – people of all genders experience specific expectations and struggle with self-image," emails Sara Stanizai, LMFT and the owner of Prospect Therapy, a psychotherapy group in Long Beach, California.
Still, the impact is often quite different between men and women. "For instance, women are still able to achieve, but are constantly plagued by feelings of being a fraud," says Dr. Richard Orbé-Austin, psychologist/executive coach, and author of "Own Your Greatness: Overcome Impostor Syndrome, Beat Self-Doubt and Succeed in Life.""Men, however, [will] tend to affiliate with peers with fewer qualifications or skills, which can protect their self-esteem, and avoid situations where they can be exposed as a fraud, which can cause them to underachieve."
Research from 2007 estimates that 70 percent of people will suffer from impostor syndrome at least once during their lives. And a more recent 2019 study out of Brigham Young University (BYU) found the percentage of students regularly dealing with extreme impostorism was 20 percent. The research also found that most of the study participants with this issue could do their jobs well – they just didn't believe in themselves.