• Madeleine Puschautz, MT-BC

Imposter Syndrome and Professionals in Human Services

Updated: Oct 1

Well, it has surely been a tumultuous year of uncertainty, unrest, instability, injustice, and so forth. With such a year in which change was inevitable and roles have greatly shifted, you may have heard a certain term floating around, imposter syndrome. If you have heard this term years prior, kudos to you. For those who are unfamiliar with it or perhaps just want some more information on it. Let’s get started.


My goal throughout this blog post, is to offer a brief overview of Imposter Syndrome (IS) and how it exists and manifests in professionals in human services. I do not in any way wish to diagnose any one, place anyone in a category, or have any one feel the need to place themselves in a category. I would love for this to be an exploration of this topic and an opportunity for us to learn more about the complexities of being human. First and foremost, we need an origin story and definition.



Origin Story and Definition


Imposter syndrome (IS) was coined by two female psychologists, Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in 1978. It was defined as the “internal experience of intellectual phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable, or creative despite evidence of high achievement” (Kerrigan, 2015). However, Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey in their Harvard Business Review article entitled “Stop Telling Women they have imposter syndrome” brilliantly point out that at the time the term did not include the severe impact of systemic racism, classism (class discrimination), xenophobia (prejudice against people from other countries), and other biases. It also excluded many groups from the study, namely women of color and people of various income levels, genders, and professional backgrounds (Tulshyan and Burey, 2021). We will delve into more of these pertinent points a bit later but for the moment, let’s identify some symptoms of IS.


Symptoms


There are a collection of symptoms of IS as cited in Arlin Cuncic’s article entitled, “What is Imposter Syndrome?” (2021). These include:

  • Chronic self-doubt, sense of intellectual fraudulence (not feeling competent or successful)​

  • Inability to internalize accomplishments, despite level of success in field, education, training, or experience​

  • Berating your performance​

  • Fear that you won’t live up to expectations​

  • Overachieving​

  • Sabotaging your own success​

  • Setting very challenging goals and feeling disappointed when you fall short

These symptoms are echoed in the statement that those who have IS, their core beliefs about themselves are so rock solid that they don’t change even though there is evidence to contradict them. So, what are some common thoughts and feelings associated with IS? Let’s talk about it.


Thoughts and Feelings Associated with Imposter Syndrome

  1. “I must not fail” Huge amount of pressure to not fail in order to avoid being found out

  2. “I feel like a fake” Fear of being found out, discovered, or unmasked, belief of giving the impression that they are more competent than they really are, believe somebody made a mistake

  3. “It’s all down to luck” Success due to external reasons and NOT their abilities, belief that it was a fluke

  4. “Success is no big deal” Tendency to downplay success, may attribute their success with it just being an easy task, having support, and often have a hard time accepting compliments

It is estimated that 70% of people will experience at least one episode of IS in their lives, in which they may be absorbed in these thoughts and feelings (Cuncic, 2021). Now, let’s move onto the WHY factors.


The WHY Factors: How IS Manifests in Everyday Life


Social

Starting with the social factor, Jolie A. Doggett from her Huffpost article entitled, “IS Hits Harder When You’re Black” expresses “it’s the feeling that you don’t belong here, wherever “here” is for you: the office, your friend group, the classroom or the boardroom” (2019). In the article she also speaks about not seeing other people that look like her in the workplace and how that affected her work experience which in turn affected her self-esteem. There is also pertinent information from Cuncic on how social anxiety and IS can overlap such as with…

- conversations and feeling like you are masked with this cover that you are better than you really are

- with presentations and the tendency of a type of IS called “the perfectionist,”

- social media and keeping up your outward presentation

- the double-edged sword of pursuing higher education (feeling inadequate to do so or doing so and setting too lofty of goals) (2021).


Personal

In Jane Leonard’s article on Medical News Today she speaks about how success is a cycle of doubt for those with IS since they have this inability to recognize their own accomplishments(2020). Other personal factors may be human giver syndrome, which consists of a “moral obligation to give their humanity to the human beings”. Human giver syndrome is a prime recipe for burnout and most common in women. Some stunning statistics are that 20-30% of teachers in America and 52% of medical professionals experience burnout each year (Nagoski and Nagoski, 2019).