Imposter syndrome is a widespread condition that makes people feel undeserving of their position. It is rooted in bruised egos and the need to compare ourselves to others.
“The Imposter syndrome” is the name psychologists give to this phenomenon. It was exposed in 1978 by Pauline Clance and Susanne Imes. These two psychologists studied 150 women with university degrees who had prestigious jobs and were acknowledged for their skills. However, these clever women did not consider themselves successful. They explained their situation by external factors such as chance or luck, whereas most people of the same level asserted their skills and hard work. These women felt that they were overrated. They were fearful of being ‘found out, that others would see that they were not as talented as they thought.
The impostor syndrome creates discomfort in the person concerned and can lead to disproportionate reactions. For example, victims sometimes take refuge in hard work for fear of being found out. They want to be perfect, exhausting themselves (hence the risk of burnout), which reinforces their feeling of incompetence, given the efforts they make. Others become discouraged, underestimating their abilities. As a result, they fall into procrastination.
Psychologists estimate that 70% of people have been affected by this syndrome. In other words, the phenomenon is widespread. In addition, the impostor syndrome appears in particular during periods of transition:
- When one qualifies for the first time in one’s field of competence (first diploma, first job…).
- When one starts a new course or a new cycle of studies.
- When one obtains a critical promotion.
Far from being confined to the world of work, the impostor syndrome also concerns family life. Psychologists refer to it in parents who underestimate their ability to take care of their children or in couples when the other person’s image of themselves is considered too optimistic about the one you have.
A transitional experience
The psychologist Valérie Young has identified profiles that would lead to the development of this syndrome: students, researchers, academics and creative people who often have to compare themselves with people deemed to be talented; those who have brilliant careers or who succeed at a very young age (the genius perceived as natural can give the impression that they do not deserve their place); older siblings who are pushed to succeed by their parents and who may come to think that they do not deserve the support they receive; those who reach their goal by taking side roads (the sociologist who became a journalist… ); social minorities or discriminated social groups (women, blacks, homosexuals, religious minorities…); children of brilliant parents; or self-employed people whose professional relationships, especially feedback, are limited, which does not always allow them to appreciate themselves.
Is this a female specificity?
According to psychotherapists and specialists Elisabeth Cadoche and Anne de Montarlot, women are more prone to impostor syndrome.
▪ They are under intense pressure to perform and give a good image of themselves, which can only increase the lack of confidence they sometimes feel.
▪ They remain under-represented in positions of responsibility and leadership. Those who do are more likely to feel isolated and exposed to criticism.
▪ Clichés that still have a hard life (“women don’t know how to negotiate”, “don’t know how to express themselves publicly”, “have difficulty with the exercise of power”) can make people doubt themselves.
However, according to recent studies, men are just as affected as women. According to psychologist Sandi Mann, there is a tendency to make the syndrome a female specificity because the first studies were conducted on women. However, subsequent studies show that many men are affected: students, top academics, business people, successful athletes, fathers, etc.
Mann believes that men show the same symptoms as women. Their malaise would be just as strong in a world where men still have to show they are solid and hide their doubts and weaknesses.
Women would seek help more efficiently, either from their loved ones or through positive thinking techniques. On the other hand, men are more likely to take sanctuary in addictive behaviour or to try to sidestep stressful situations.
- The Deception Syndrome. Why are women so lacking in self-confidence?
Élisabeth Cadoche and Anne de Montarlot, Les Arènes, 2020.
- Le Syndrome de l’imposteur
Sandi Mann, Leduc, 2020.