Uncovering The Harsh Truth About “Imposter Syndrome”

by Darren Hood, MSUXD

I usually write about things pertaining to UX, but today’s musing (while overlapping and being relevant to happenings in UX) has stirred me to share my thoughts on the subject.

Would you believe me if I said that “imposter syndrome is all the rage today?” There would likely be a broad range of responses to that question, ranging from folks asking what I mean to flat our denial to the nodding of the head. How about I explain? ;-)

Have you noticed how many people there are in UX circles (and in other places) claiming to have imposter syndrome or say they’re experiencing it? I’ve heard countless numbers of people claiming to have imposter syndrome, but there’s one common thread. Folks arrive at the conclusion they have imposter syndrome very quickly and without any real analysis or evaluation. They often times have no knowledge of what imposter syndrome is and/or have no knowledge of its origins and history. These things immediately signaled a red flag as I sought to understand more about this massively increasing “status” among professionals. So, I dove in to take a closer look.

“Imposter Syndrome” Factoids

Where did imposter syndrome come forth? From what did it evolve? Let’s track through some important factoids:

  • First, what is an imposter? An imposter is defined by Merriam-Webster as “one that assumes false identity or title for the purpose of deception.” If someone isn’t setting out to deceive OR has not been put in a situation through the process of deceit, the person is NOT an imposter. The term doesn’t even apply.
  • Pauline Rose Clance and Suzane Ament Imes were not regarded or respected by their male peers in the the world of psychiatry, resulting in their beginning to doubt and question their own abilities and status. This led to the conceptualization of imposter syndrome by Clance and Imes in 1978.
  • According to Nicola Andrews, “Imposter syndrome, also called imposter phenomenon, imposter experience, fraud syndrome, and imposterism, is when a person doubts the validity of their accomplishments, attributes them to external forces, and has an irrational fear that they will be revealed as a mistake.”
  • According to Psychology Today, “People who struggle with imposter syndrome believe that they are undeserving of their achievements and the high esteem in which they are, in fact, generally held.”
  • Psychology Today also states “Personality traits largely drive imposter syndrome: Those who experience it struggle with self-efficacy, perfectionism, and neuroticism. Competitive environments can also lay the groundwork…. Around 25 to 30 percent of high achievers may suffer from imposter syndrome.
  • According to the Harvard Business Review (HBR), everybody suffers from imposter syndrome. More on this later, but HBR says, “One of the greatest barriers to moving outside your comfort zone is the fear that you’re a poser, that you’re not worthy, that you couldn’t possibly be qualified to do whatever you’re aiming to do. It’s a fear that strikes many of us: impostor syndrome.”
  • Discover Magazine echoes the sentiment of HBR stating “A body of research has shown that perfectionism often goes hand in hand with impostor syndrome — doubting your accomplishments and fearing you will be sniffed out as a fraud.”
  • Early studies about imposter syndrome were focused on women, but have since expanded to be applicable to men as well.
  • According to the American Society for Microbiology, “Recent data reveals that imposter syndrome affects men as well as women, and disproportionately affects certain racial minorities.”

The Claims

Nicola Andrews, a noted Indigenous and Library Science expert once said:

We are quick to diagnose ourselves and others with imposter syndrome when we doubt or devalue our everyday work.

Can you see how far this has come since the concept evolved? Likewise, I am absolutely astounded by the numbers of people claiming to have imposter syndrome. Just like the folks who “authored” the concept, many of these people are truly qualified. They’re smart. They’re accomplished. They have ABSOLUTELY NO REASON TO DOUBT WHO THEY ARE, but succumb to doing so anyway.

I have yet, however, to encounter ONE SINGLE PERSON who claimed to have what they call imposter syndrome…. legitimately. You see, we ALL feel like there are times we could have done better. They are many times we feel like we may not belong in a certain situation or have certain responsibilities. It’s a common and regular occurrence to engage in self-doubt and insecurity to some degree. People are, in other words, taking a normal part of life and pathologizing it.

These feelings, situations, and scenarios do NOT make us imposters. We’re just in the process of building confidence. It’s a normal path. We build confidence across several stages of our lives. We transition and progress from toddler to teenager to professional to expanding as a viable person in society. Across this transition, we experience a broad wealth of firsts — all of which begin with many of the same feelings people profess to be a part of imposter syndrome.

And again, such a case is NOT imposter syndrome. We’re just transitioning. Interesting, none of these scenarios are even remotely similar to that the progenitors of imposter syndrome experienced. It’s so easy to make the claim, however, that people are opting for it. In so doing, such folks are short-changing themselves and emboldening others to follow in their footsteps.

Then, there are the folks who don’t feel qualified because someone’s comments or the treatment they’re being subject to make them feel it’s in order to question who they themselves are. For those who have felt this way, are you right to question who you are (because of what someone said about you or because of how someone is treating you)? Have you stopped to ask yourself whether or not THEY are accurate in their treatment and portrayal? Have you confirmed whether or not they are qualified?

Critical thinking is a life-saver. Instead of taking the impressions of others at face value, make sure you limit claims about yourself to that which is true, that which is accurate, and that which is constructive. Otherwise, you are ripe to become victimized in the same manner as those who created the concept of imposter syndrome.

Dr. Carolyn Teschke, molecular and cell biology professor and Associate Department Head of Undergraduate Research and Education at the University of Connecticut, said “Self-doubt is part of being human. I worry when I see people who appear to be completely confident — I think they generally are not very empathetic.” It’s important to leave room for humility as a scientist and to leave room for empathy as a person. They beget authenticity. Is there anything more antithetical to an imposter?”

As Andrews said, we are quick to claim imposter syndrome. And this isn’t a good look. This concept must be laid to rest.

The Crutch

Speaking of being quick to claim imposter syndrome, this dependence upon such a concept is something that’s known metaphorically as “a crutch.” A crutch is a device used by a person who is physically challenged to help them get around (e.g., someone with a broken ankle). The crutch allows such a person to get around while their injury heals. Per the metaphor, a person relies on a figurative crutch (i.e., an excuse for why someone does or doesn’t to a particular thing), but they condition they claim is a facade or even a ploy. No matter the situation, the crutch really isn’t needed.

I have seen people claim to have imposter syndrome at the drop of a hat. You can tell the claimant is excited about the concept of blaming an external factor on their perceived (or desired) state. Interestingly, in every case I’ve observed or read about, ZERO desire to overcome said state was expressed or sought after. In such a case, the “crutch” wasn’t a necessity. It was, rather, an accessory — like a piece of jewelry or a hat.

Claiming imposter syndrome may be easy, convenient, and even attractive to some people, but it’s also destructive, merciless, and deceitful. One should be careful about opting in to such a state.

Trends & Traits

In an article about The Origins of Impostor Syndrome (by Dynamic Transitions), the following characteristics of impostor syndrome are listed:

  • High level of achievement
  • Tendency to deny ability and attribute success to luck, mistake, overwork, or a result of a relationship
  • Discounting of praise, feeling fear and guilt about success
  • Fear of failure and being discovered as a fraud
  • Not feeling intelligent
  • Perfectionism
  • Overestimating others, while underestimating oneself
  • Not experiencing an internal feeling of success
  • Overworking or self-sabotage to cover the feelings of inadequacy

Many are also reporting that at least 70% of people in our society have experienced imposter syndrome. Many who make the claim are very quick to tell you how “real” imposter syndrome is.

That said, look at the list from Dynamic Transitions again. Doesn’t it sound normal? Do you realize how many people are represented by a figure of 70%? Do you realize that the 70% is actually very low in light of the normalcy associated with the items in the list?

How much the things associated with imposter syndrome happens is grossly irrelevant. They’re normal. They’re not syndrome-related. For example, smart people don’t always feel intelligent. The supposed trends and traits don’t prove anything.

The Solution

It’s a bit ironic that people are taking a normal occurrence of life and transforming it into a condition. It’s also quite interesting that people are very quick to declare the presence of imposter syndrome, while rarely (if ever) talking about how to overcome it. After all, if you have a condition, wouldn’t you want to know how to get rid of it, if possible?!?!?

So-called imposter syndrome is quite easy to overcome. Consider these steps:

  • Always strive to be qualified.
  • Know who you are.
  • Never allow someone to convince you that you’re something other than what you truly are (i.e., don’t let folks gaslight you).
  • If you’re not qualified, get qualified.
  • If and when you ever fail, just get back up and learn from what you did wrong.
  • Repeat!!!

Remember, even qualified people have moments of self-doubt. That’s when we buckle down, do what we know to be the right thing, and stand our ground. Failing to be qualified, not knowing who you are, being subject to and falling for gaslighting by others, and not taking steps to fill acumen gaps in our lives make us susceptible to genuine failure, which is far worse than a faux syndrome made up by gaslit individuals.

Conclusion

As I wrap up, please note that imposter syndrome is NOT characterized as a psychological disorder. Makes you wonder what the point is. Clance and Imes were NOT imposters. They were educated. They were bright. They were credentialed. They did, however, clearly fail to stand their ground, succumbing to the gaslighting of their sexist male peers and sought a crutch. They succeeded and others are now following in droves.

Here’s the hardcore truth. There isn’t any such thing as imposter syndrome (though there is self-doubt, fear of failure, and a host of other related emotions, scenarios, and states). I know some folks won’t like this statement, but I challenge you to take a closer look — at what I’ve said AND why you’re responding that way. It’s a tell-tale sign of bias at work. Just as the folks who came up with the concept failed to face the truth and fell short of knowing who they were (making themselves susceptible to gaslighting), many are repeating the same issues and opting for the claim of “imposter syndrome,” making it nothing more than a crutch.

It should also be noted how the person that isn’t who they claim to be isn’t suffering from imposter syndrome. Such a person is an imposter. And a person can choose to either transition from imposter to a level of authenticity or remain in that position and make claims. Those who claim to suffer from imposter syndrome, but spend more time trying to take authentic people down that becoming better at their craft are not suffering from imposter syndrome.

In my travels, I’ve discovered that these types of folks are suffering from an inferiority complex, are guilty of character assassination, and/or are just haters who use the claim of imposter syndrome as a cloak, appearing to be needy while doing damage to others (i.e., taking advantage of the sympathy of others). I’ve also encountered my share of “imposter syndrome club members” who are in the business of projecting their state onto others, laboring to do anything they can to get others to question who and what they are. How’s that for misery loving company? By the way, these behaviors and attitude are getting ANY coverage in articles on imposter syndrome, indirecting giving these perpetrators a place to hide in plain sight.

Albert Einstein (yes, THAT Albert Einstein) once said “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” Do you think Albert Einstein was an imposter? Of course not!!! This just helps to illustrate the perplexity ANYONE might experience on any given day. IT’S NOT A SYNDROME!!! It’s just life!!!

Therefore, if you’re feeling like a fraud, a phony, or a pretender, but you know you know your stuff, take a breath, regroup and go forward. You know who you are. Don’t be in the business of deceiving yourself and don’t let anyone else do it. Seek to excel in emotional intelligence as well. This will help to safeguard you.

Those who follow this advice will watch their (supposed) imposter syndrome disappear like the puff of smoke that it was.

Just don’t be an imposter. ;-)

You can hear more from the author by checking out the UX Uncensored Medium page or listening to The World of UX with Darren Hood wherever podcasts are available.

Darren Hood: UX pro (20+ yrs), adjunct professor, international conf. speaker, founder of Kaizen UX Consulting & Education, & host of The World of UX podcast