Imposter Syndrome: The Origin of the Disorder

In 1978, American psychologists Pauline Rose Klans and Suzanne Imes described it as a “deception event”, the title of their masterpiece published the same year (1).. The “phenomenon” is not a “syndrome” but a category they reject: for them, in fact, the phenomenon of deception has a universal dimension, which distinguishes it from a pathology. At the time, both based their analysis on the observation of a population of women with intelligent occupations.

Despite their academic and professional successes, these women have not been able to acknowledge their success, recognize their intelligence or their talents, and believe that it is wrong to believe that those around them have ways to achieve their goals. The worst thing is that they live in fear that their incompetence will be discovered.

Long before the TedX conferences captured the subject, the discovery of two therapists sparked decades of leadership reflection, as well as numerous research projects to better understand how this inadequate sense of work is operating in the world. Now 84, Pauline Rose Clans continues to receive patients and continues to actively pursue her work.

Forty years later, he is stunned by the level of curiosity of an observer he shares with his colleague Susan Ims. For us, he reflects on his research, the evolution of the fraudulent phenomenon and its implications for today’s business leaders.

How did you get the impression of this traitorous incident with your colleague Suzanne Imes?

Pauline Rose Clans: That was after my PhD. I was then teaching at Oberlin, a small liberal arts college in Ohio, where I also conducted therapy sessions. My students were very ambitious and they had excellent grades and recommendations. Nonetheless, some said they were suffering from inferiority complex. One of them said to me: “I feel like a cheater among these brilliant students.” Others have expressed a similar feeling to me.

I personally know Dr. Ames who worked on another campus. His students generally had lower academic results than mine. For some of them, the pursuit of a university education is not entirely guaranteed. Nevertheless, even though my students tended to underestimate their abilities, he did the opposite!

This is how our first observations determined that the occurrence of the deceiver mainly affected the subjects of the best profession. From there, through continuous courses and workshops, we saw many people across the country, from various professional backgrounds, reporting the fear of not being able to do it due to this phenomenon of cheating.

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You refer to it as an “event”. Most media outlets trigger the “syndrome”. What is the difference?

We never considered it a syndrome, and we certainly did not want to stigmatize the women we cared for by giving the impression that it was a pathology. For us, the event of the deceiver is a life experience. The idea may be easy to conceive of as a symptom, but the symptoms associated with this phenomenon do not meet the criteria for mental illness. Dr. Valerie Young talks about Syndrome (2).

You first focused on the effects of the event on women. Today we know that it affects men as well. Are its expressions different according to gender? ?

We started with women very simply because during the session, they were the first to express these feelings to us. But we soon realized that the issue was not reserved for them. Men report it less and less, especially when it is not, as they are more encouraged to show that they have the skills needed for a job or a project. Conversely, women should restrain themselves from thinking that they are not entirely suitable for job description because of their education.

To what extent are the original characteristics of the event still relevant?

It seems to me that I can still observe them all today. Individuals who have had definite successes are always haunted by the fear that these successes will not be repeated or that they will not be as efficient and intelligent as others think. They clearly perceive the strengths and qualities of those around them, appreciate and exaggerate the ingenuity and success of others, and position themselves systematically in comparisons. They are very skeptical of themselves and overly concerned.

They tend to be more introverted than outward (although the opposite may seem real at first glance) and rarely experience the joy and satisfaction associated with success. They remember the difficulties they encountered and the tasks they made easier than their successes. They live on their flaws, not on their knowledge. Finally, they despise or distort the compliments given to them because they cannot accept positive criticism.

All of these can cause a great deal of suffering, anxiety and depression. What is different today is that people talk about it in their professional and personal lives. Michelle Obama speaks openly about this. Business leaders like Sheryl Sandberg [directrice des opérations de Facebook] And Howard Schultz [principal actionnaire de Starbucks] I brought this subject up A nurse in Wuhan, China contacted me, who offers behavioral and psychotherapy, and would love to read about this event. I honestly think the more we talk about this, the more we help each other.

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Have you experienced for yourself this event where you spent your life studying?

Absolutely! In high school, I was part of the lecturing club and even ran for school representative against the captain of the football team. I hit him! I did not expect it at all and I did not want the sports team to be selected. I have to say that I was appreciated, respected, and took advantage of my successes. But everything changed when I got to college. I was nervous. One of my teachers had warned me that it had nothing to do with high school and that I was going to redouble my efforts.

This is the moment of reaction for me. I worked hard and got good results, but I was overwhelmed by the fear that one day everything would stop. I talked to my friends about my concerns but annoyed them because my marks were good. So I started to hide those worries. But as I began to study and speak at conventions, I did not give up.

More recently?

At 84, people ask me a lot for interviews or articles about my work. But, in a week, if I get less requests, it makes me nervous: is it over? Did I forget? During the National Institutes of Health [agence américaine pour la recherche médicale] When he called me to speak, I immediately felt a strong sense of deceit. Then they invited me back to lead a workshop. It is important to manage these emotions and understand what drives them so you can move forward.

So let’s get rid of this phenomenon. How do we adjust our behavior or mood?

Carrying out treatment is a great help. But if you are not ready for this action, you can work on your awareness of yourself first, and accept that part of this emotion comes from your brain. It’s about rewriting history and changing your negative thoughts.

It is important to look at your emotions positively or negatively and monitor your successes and failures so that you can see the bigger picture. Instead of rejecting compliments, you should learn to accept them, and take the time to ask yourself questions about your strengths and weaknesses. First look at what it brings to you.

To overcome the fear of not having enough, you need to ask yourself: “What if my job is not right? What is the worst that can happen? It allows you to see the face of this catastrophic situation and see if it is really likely to happen. And remember: you are allowed to make mistakes! It does not question your worth or your worth.

Now that the phenomenon is well known, how has the business world embraced it? Do you think leaders have changed their management style with this in mind?

Considering the scale of the event among the best performers, the corporate world has made a real effort to identify its presence and find solutions. Leaders need to pay attention to their people, listen to them, and engage in honest conversations to understand how to develop self-confidence.

It can go through training, guidance or regular monitoring. It is important to be clear about the culture of the company and the form in which to take “success” in this context, thus helping those experiencing difficulties to evaluate themselves. But the person affected by this feeling is to build a solid relationship with his co-workers and superiors and return to them when needed.

What are you currently working on?

With one of my alumni, we started writing a handbook for those who are most disabled by the cheating event, which includes exercises to better manage these emotions. At my age, I have to admit that I can not move as fast as I would like. But I promise I will not feel any worries about it anymore!

Interview with Lindsay Drumuta, translation by Louis Perosche

1. From Pauline Rose Clance, we can read in French Sham campus (Flammarion, 1986).

2. Co-founder of the Imposter Syndrome Institute, by Valerie Young Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Talented People Suffer from Imposter Syndrome and How to Overcome It (2011, not published in France).

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