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Imposter syndrome: Why Do We Feel Like Frauds?

You may be your own worst enemy. The psychological phenomenon known as “imposter syndrome” allows feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt to invade the thoughts of a person, despite evidence of their own achievements and successes.

Whilst imposter syndrome is not currently considered a psychiatric disorder, it does have implications on behavioural psychology and mental health. Understanding imposter syndrome from a scientific perspective may contribute to a more holistic understanding of these feelings and the human health impacts in increasingly competitive academic and professional worlds.

The term “imposter syndrome” was first coined in 1978 by Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes, clinical psychologists who published a paper in the journal Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice. It emerged from observations of Clance’s patients, the majority of whom were high-achieving women. Despite their attainment, these women did not seem to experience an “internal sense of success” . Further research suggests that this affects men equally, and that the feelings of discouragement are not discriminatory against gender.

Currently, imposter syndrome is a hot-topic in academic success workshops and business lectures, with this “inner saboteur” even being highlighted in Forbes. So, what does science have to do with what has historically been studied as a social phenomenon?

The Underexplored Scientific Perspective

Photo by Alan Levine on Flickr.com
Photo by Alan Levine on Flickr.com

Imposter syndrome can be accompanied by health concerns such as stress, anxiety, and depression. An article published in the Frontiers of Psychology argues that the syndrome’s potential neurobiological and evolutionary origins are heavily under explored.

The international team of authors cite a possible relation to the biological fight-or-flight response. This suggests that the feelings of imposter syndrome mimic evolutionary survival mechanisms.

From a neurobiological perspective, negative emotions like self-doubt can contribute to anxiety and depression. These effects are worsened by academic and professional situations, which can trigger the stress system and associated neurotransmitters like adrenaline and cortisol. Possible future treatments could seek to alter this process.

These ideas are currently highly speculative, as the scientific literature and research into imposter syndrome is limited. However, these are areas of study with huge potential for the scientific and medical community.

The first systematic review of the prevalence, predictors, and treatments of imposter syndrome was only completed in 2019. It argues that clinicians lack the information to diagnose and treat imposter syndrome and that the effect on healthcare professionals are unknown.

In addition, they recommend that imposter syndrome be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and urge caregivers, professionals, and employers to be mindful of the syndrome. The authors state that it has the potential to worsen the performance and health of those experiencing it.

Friend, not Fraud

It is evident that scientific evidence surrounding imposter syndrome is lacking, and that this critical gap in medical and health research needs to be filled. Mental health is a serious medical concern that is gaining more support and recognition in today’s society.

In addressing a potential area for future psychological and neurobiological research, society can move away from speculation and toward solutions surrounding imposter syndrome.

Fighting Back

You may be your own worst enemy, but you can also be your own greatest ally. If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome, check out these self-help strategies from the American Psychological Association:

  • Recognise your own expertise and strengths: reflecting on your achievements and the knowledge you do possess can help curb self-doubt
  • Speak to mentors and supervisors: sharing these feelings can open up opportunities for constructive encouragement and healthy work environments
  • Reframe your brain to think like a friend and not a fraud: when these damaging thoughts enter your mind, it can help to approach yourself from a friend’s point of view and try to avoid comparing yourself to colleagues or peers or to perfection
  • Seek professional help from a psychologist or therapist: if symptoms are severe and the syndrome is coupled with depression and anxiety, it may be helpful to seek out a mental health counsellor or psychologist to speak to

Tags: academic, Biology, imposter syndrome, professional, psychology, science

Chloe Tenn

Postgraduate studying MSc Science Communication at the University of Manchester
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