Imposter Syndrome Pt. 1: What Is It?
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
Written by: Claudia Westwood
Edited by : Khushi Karnawat, Jesie Randhawa
Graphs by: Angelia Gan
The first time I remember feeling like an imposter was in my middle school algebra class. At just 13 years old, I remember going to class anxious that I’d be ‘found out’ as a fraud that had somehow accidentally been registered for a class way above her ability. A lot has changed since that time, but the nagging feeling of self doubt has never truly left me. On my first day of university, a lecturer announced to the class:
“I know that a fair proportion of you sitting in this room are thinking ‘I don’t deserve to be here. It must be some mistake'. I’m here to tell you it wasn’t."
In one sentence he alleviated the feeling of inadequacy which had been stifling my excitement. Though this encounter was not a permanent solution to feelings of inadequacy, it was a crucial part of my recognising, naming, and denouncing my imposter syndrome (IS).
The term imposter syndrome was first coined in a psychological study of 1978 by two researchers, Pauline Clance and Ament Imes. They defined it as an:
“Internal experience of intellectual phoniness” which they found to be “particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women”.
Focusing only on high career women as affected, they found gender roles and key stages of development as the root cause of this self doubt. Now, it is known that imposter syndrome can affect all genders and career stages. There have been neurological investigations which suggest that the thoughts associated with imposter syndrome can increase the stress hormone cortisol, and decrease the mood-related neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. It has also been linked to confidence and testosterone levels. Imposter syndrome can inhibit workplace participation, enthusiasm about new responsibilities, confidence carrying out tasks, and therefore, can be a barrier to career progression.
If these symptoms seem familiar, you are not alone. Studies estimate that a large proportion of the population is likely to be affected by Imposter Syndrome. An article in the Journal of Behavioral Science estimated that over 70% of the US population will feel imposter syndrome at some point in their life. A 2019 study found that 66% of UK women were reported to have felt the self doubt of imposter syndrome in the last year. As imposter syndrome is the belief one is underqualified despite evidence to the contrary, it often increases in frequency with career progression. That is, the more responsibility we acquire, the more likely it is that we feel it to be unwarranted. Imposter syndrome is therefore something that most people do experience in life, and it is not something that we grow out of. There is no level of career progression in which we suddenly start to feel qualified for the position held. Addressing it early, in education or early career stages, helps to develop a good practice of identifying and dismissing self-doubt when it arises.
In order to investigate this issue in our own community,
Women Unbounded carried out a survey of the network to gain insight into how imposter syndrome has affected members.
With almost 100 individuals responding from across the Women Unbounded network, we found that over 68% of respondents reported they had at some point felt like an imposter, a finding which is largely in line with the commonly estimated average of 70% of the population being affected
Responses to 1. Are You Based in Singapore? and 2. Are You a Minority in the Country You Are Based in?
Gender Identification of Respondents
The survey group was mostly female (71%), with almost 40% of respondents based in Singapore and 42% of respondents self identifying as an ethnic minority in their country. The most common area of life in which respondents reported feeling imposter syndrome was their education (60%), followed by in their career (48%), in their personal relationships (32%), and finally in their community (29%).
As imposter syndrome usually results from achievement or responsibility, it is consistent that education and work are the two most cited areas where imposter syndrome was felt, and this is a finding which this series will seek to explore further. Self-cited sources of imposter syndrome included age (45%), gender stereotypes (39%), family dynamics (38%), ethnicity (23%), language (18%), religion (10%), and sexuality (9%).
Therefore, experiences of imposter syndrome are varied, culturally-specific and deeply personal. However, it remains true in our study that the majority of people have felt imposter syndrome at some point in their lives, highlighting the importance of acknowledging, investigating, and tackling this issue.
In conclusion, imposter syndrome is the feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt that can accompany accomplishments or the delegation of responsibility.
It is common, and the majority of people are likely to encounter it, but it is debilitating and can stifle participation, achievements, and careers. Over the course of this series, I will examine the interaction between Imposter Syndrome and the systemic racism and misogyny inherent in the workplace to understand why women and people of colour disproportionately report experiencing these feelings of self-doubt. In investigating some potential causes of this correlation, I will also seek to offer solutions and ways to address these issues in a professional environment. Finally, I will outline some steps that we as individuals who face imposter syndrome can take towards naming, addressing, and overcoming our inner monologues of self doubt.