The Great Pretender: How To Outrun The Impostor At Your Heels

In the quiet of the night, we hear the whisper inside our heads, telling us we’re nothing but… 

“Frauds,” “Pretenders,” and “Impostors.”  

The Great Pretender: How To OutRun The Impostor At Your Heels by @JHermanKleiger #impostersyndrome #mentalhealth #psychology

At least 70% of us have heard this voice quietly proclaim that even our most heralded achievements are fraudulent. We live in fear that we’ll be found to be impostors who have fooled others into thinking we’re something that we tell ourselves we are not. Familiar sounding? 

The concept “Impostor Phenomenon” was conceived by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 to describe the secret anguish of high-achieving women who suffered nagging feelings of being phonies and frauds despite their objective accomplishments. Since then, Impostor Syndrome has been applied to men, as well, who feel that they’ve deceived others with their accomplishments or promotions.  

Clearly, the underlying feeling is one of self-doubt, which can breed anxiety and a form of success depression. The phenomenon doesn’t only apply to adults but can be found among students who feel their successes are unearned products of luck or chance factors––not their abilities or accomplishments. Even those who, in the eyes of the public, are famous for their outstanding contributions may struggle with impostor feelings.

Einstein and Maya Angelou are cited as examples of highly accomplished people struggling quietly with impostor syndrome.  

What Is It? A Disorder, A Syndrome, or A Common Experience?

First, there is no official “Impostor Disorder.” There is nothing of this sort listed among the pages of the DSM-5-TR or ICD-11 manuals of mental disorders. However, as we’ll see in a minute, imposter experiences may be associated with certain symptoms and types of mental health conditions.  

Referring to this as a “syndrome” also comes close to pathologizing and reifying what is often a common occurrence by making it into a diagnosable entity. “Impostor experiences” or “impostor phenomenon” best capture the normative quality of occasionally feeling like a fraud, which can arise under certain conditions and in some people more often than others.

However, for those individuals gripped by more frequent and severe self-doubt and feelings of falseness, the term “syndrome” may be appropriate. 

Indications of Impostor Phenomena

Signs and symptoms of Impostor Phenomena are easy to spot. They include: 

  • Pervasive Doubt About One’s Adequacy or Competence. This lies at the heart of impostor experiences. 
  • Minimizing or Overlooking Praise. Dismissing or ignoring legitimate praise or recognition for one’s good work may signal the presence of a brutal internal critic who feeds our sense of incompetence. Those internal messages from the beast of self-criticism and self-doubt are louder and more impactful than a chorus of praise from others. It is true that what we ultimately think of ourselves often matters more than what others may think. 
  • Attributing Failure to Our Incompetence and Inadequacy and Success to Luck. This attributional bias lies at the heart of impostor beliefs and is associated with the mindset of many depressed individuals.  
  • Overworking and perfectionism. To outrun the beast of self-doubt, you feel the need to work harder than others and not make mistakes for fear of having your hidden incompetence detected.  
  • Fearing Failure is closely related to the need to over-work and be perfect.  
  • So is Hypersensitivity to Criticism, which heightens the fear that you’ve been found out. 

Sound familiar? If so, read on. 

Where Do Impostor Phenomena Come From? Developmental and Societal Roots 

The sources are varied and not mutually exclusive. They include early family experiences, social expectations and pressures, and situational factors. Minorities may also experience self-doubt due to a history of discrimination and societal expectations.  

Early Family Origins. In a fascinating New York Times essay entitled “The Atmosphere of the ‘Manosphere’ Is Toxic,” author David French writes about the pressures and counter pressures on young men who are falling behind educationally and feeling adrift in finding meaning and purpose. I’ll revisit the struggles young men may face in a future blog, but the relevance of French’s essay to the topic of Impostor Phenomena is how an early over-emphasis on achievement instead of virtue and character may breed inner emptiness.

No matter the magnitude of the external trappings of success, individuals raised under the omnipresent pressure of an achievement ethos may feel unable to fill the void inside. Their successes feel hollow. When they occur, they feel insufficient and have a short half-life. No matter how high their achievements and praise, they cannot feel worthy.

Therefore, they are driven to do more and produce more with little ultimate gratification. The world may celebrate their accomplishments, but success feels false and hollow to the self-convinced impostor.  

“Watch Those B’s.” Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting our children to be the best they can be, to work hard, and learn healthy forms of competition. But the excessive emphasis on being the best student or athlete may paradoxically sow seeds for perfectionism and, ultimately, self-doubt and dissatisfaction.

I felt this eons ago when we were visited by my Uncle Vic. A celebrated Marine Corps General, Uncle Vic visited one day as I was eating lunch. I remember it vividly. My fifth-grade self felt the tension as he walked into the kitchen in his crisp uniform sporting rows of colorful ribbons and medals on his chest. I felt myself straightening up in my chair and dropping my sandwich.

The General asked how I was doing in school. I was a pretty good student, so I said with some pride, “I got all A’s and one B on my last report card.” My Uncle shot me a severe look and said, “Watch those B’s!” I’ve told this story countless times and have fun laughing at myself, but the General’s words stuck (and happened to reinforce other achievement-oriented messages I heard all the time).

I’ve known the self-doubt and fear of being found out that fuels over-achievement in search of that illusive A.   

Apart from Uncle Vic-like experiences, childhood Impostors-to-be may have received contradictory messages of over-praise and excessive criticism that disrupt the development of a healthy, realistically based self-image. When a sense of self-adequacy and worth is too closely tied to achievement and production, it’s hard to feel satisfied with core virtues like prudence, justice, temperance, and courage, as French points out.  

Social Influences.  Societal expectations and stereotypes play a role in the development of feelings of being an impostor. As with a family achievement ethic, society can impart expectations about what it means to be a man or woman.

Individuals may feel a deep and often private sense of inadequacy when they feel they are falling short of external gender-based expectations. This can lead to over-striving to prove one’s worth ten times over. 

Situational Factors. Changes and transitions may be times that confront us with pressures to prove our worth. We may feel that those who don’t know us well will be especially attuned to seeing through the veneer of our competence. If we’re transitioning to a high-powered, competitive setting, we may feel even more pressured to work harder to prove our worth.

Listen to those words, “prove our worth.” It’s as if demonstrating that we can do a job becomes conflated with essential worthiness as a human being. 

Experiences Of Minority Individuals. Cultural and racial stereotypes may contribute to impostor experiences. Minorities may feel pressured to work harder than others to prove their adequacy but then sadly attribute their accomplishments to external factors such as DEI or affirmative action.  

The Great Pretender: How To OutRun The Impostor At Your Heels by @JHermanKleiger #impostersyndrome #mentalhealth #psychology

Connections to Mental Health Syndromes 

While Impostor Phenomena may not be a formal mental health diagnosis, feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt are core challenges for people struggling with social anxiety, depression, and avoidant personality, to name but a few.

A common fear in individuals with social anxiety is that if they lower their guard and let others come to know them, then others will see the inadequacies that the individual is convinced are there. The sad fact is that positive experiences in the real world like receiving praise or awards for merit and achievement do not alter one’s firmly held beliefs about themselves.  

Prominence Among Writers and Therapists

Writers often struggle with feeling that we’re impostors. There has been a great deal written about impostor phenomena among writers who question their worth as writers. Even published authors recognized for their talent may shy away from claiming the title of “author,” “novelist,” or “writer.”

We hem and haw and view others as the legitimate holders of that title—surely not us. Authors who have succeeded may become gripped by fear that they cannot repeat this in subsequent works. It’s easy to see how this may lead to writer’s block, fear of failure, and avoidance.  

Therapists, with their presumably rarified status as experts, may also struggle with impostor phenomena. Cursed are those of us who happen to be both writers and therapists. Both undertakings involve holding ourselves out as so-called “experts” who have privileged insights, knowledge, or something of importance to say. But for many, especially early in our careers, the mantle of “expert” may quickly succumb to self-doubt, impostor feelings, and not-good-enoughism.  

Pamela Clark and her colleagues (2021) studied impostorism in mental health professionals and found that imposter phenomena were positively correlated with higher scores of compassion fatigue and lower scores of compassion satisfaction (the inherent fulfillment one feels in understanding and empathizing with others). Imposter phenomenon was also associated with less experience working in the field.  

What Can Help 

There are a lot of online resources for combating impostor phenomena. These include lists of self-help strategies like: 

  • Understanding the existence of a self-saboteur and how it manifests itself. 
  • Tracking the evidence for one’s belief in their inadequacy. 
  • Refocusing on what matters most. Think about your values and distinguish achievement ethics from virtue ethics.  
  • Writing and keeping a gratitude journal which can help you think about what matters most in your life. 
  •  Surround yourself with people who value who you are and not just what you do. Writers can find a supportive and understanding community of other writers familiar with the phenomenon of impostorism. 
  • Practicing acts of self-compassion.  

In the 1980s and -90s, Al Franken played an SNL character called Stuart Smalley, whose daily affirmations were hilarious. But there is always truth in jest. If you can stop laughing long enough at the Franken character when he looked at himself in a mirror, his words, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me,” maybe you can distill a valuable message to help quiet your internal saboteur. Like, B’s are just fine.

Individual and group psychotherapy are viable avenues for working on the underpinnings of impostorism. Individuals can explore the roots of their tenacious self-doubt and understand the internalized messages of inadequacy and falseness. Group therapy is a powerful experience where one can come to appreciate the validity of what others see in us.  

Whether through self-help or professional assistance, it is important to realize how common it is for people of all sizes, shapes, professions, levels of accomplishment, and success to suffer from the impostor beast nipping at their heels.   

Impostor Syndrome in Literature

The experience of being an impostor lends itself to fiction. The website CrimeReads reviewed five novels about characters hidden under the yoke of impostorism because they fell outside the typical norms of social class, gender, and race.  

Included in the list were  

In my work-in-progress, called Whispers, the central character, Raven, struggles with the legacy of a charmed life encumbered by oppressive expectations of limitless success. Beneath it all, she was left with a feeling of hollowness that could only be filled by doing more.  

Here are links to my other works Tears Are Only Water and The 11th Inkblot, available now wherever fine books are sold!  


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