Look around the office or schoolroom. Seven out of 10 people there have one thing in common--deep down inside, they feel like fakes.
They keep this terrible feeling secret. Almost as bad as thinking they are phonies is the fear of being found out; those seven out of 10 people are certain that they're on the brink of encountering an assignment or an event that will be their downfall.
Then the world will know them for what they really are--impostors. These people are suffering from what psychologists call the "Impostor Phenomenon."
In the early '70s, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, both psychologists at Georgia State University, began studying this syndrome. They had noticed that many extremely successful students, women in particular, strongly believed they were fakes. The women all had good grades, many had advanced degrees and some had already been hired into excellent jobs.
Pegged an Impostor
Nonetheless, the psychologists observed that the women lived in fear of being "found out" and of being pegged an impostor.
As increasing numbers of psychologists began studying the impostor phenomenon, it became clear that the syndrome wasn't limited to women. As many men as women experience it; and the only trait they share is that they are successful by anybody's definition.
"It's very different from low self-esteem," said Clance, now associate director of the psychotherapy clinic at Georgia State. "Low self-esteem really interferes with a person actually achieving any kind of success. But what I saw . . . was students with objective evidence of their success, yet they all had the feeling they were the Campus Mistake."
Clance, who wrote a book this year called "The Impostor Phenomenon--Overcoming the Fear That Haunts Your Success" (Peachtree Publishers), said the syndrome is particularly pronounced in the creative fields of writing, television and film.
"Public opinion can shift so quickly," Clance said. "You can't just judge yourself on your popularity. You have to find a way to internalize your successes and really believe you're good."
She said successful people suffering from the impostor phenomenon often encounter an intriguing paradox. They keep succeeding.
Unable to understand this, because they "know" they're really fakes who have by luck, charm or the grace of God gotten where they are, these people up the ante.
"When they get a success, they raise the definition of real success a rung on the ladder," Clance said. "If they've done one good movie, next time they need to do a bigger, better movie. And the next time, if they don't win an Oscar, it's obvious to themselves that they're just fakes after all."
This cycle is exhausting, Clance said. "To keep feeling good, they have to keep doing more and more. This can contribute to burnout."
Clance said the roots of the impostor phenomenon usually lie in childhood. "There is a discrepancy between the feedback from the family and from outside sources like teachers. The family might keep saying 'You can do anything' but then the child gets to school and finds out he's good but can't really do everything . Nobody can.
"Or you have families that say, 'Jane is our bright child and John is our athletic child.' Then John starts getting excellent grades and his teachers tell him how bright he is. John may start feeling like an impostor because he knows he's not supposed to be the bright one," Clance said.
The hypercritical parent can create feelings of being an impostor in children too. If nothing a child does is ever good enough for the parent, then when the child grows up and is told by teachers or bosses that he's done a good job, he won't believe it.
Joan C. Harvey, a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia and author of "If I'm So Successful, Why Do I Feel Like Fake?" (St. Martin's Press), said "The impostor phenomenon is a facade people set up to protect their true selves.
"It often leads to perfectionism--and a feeling that if you're not perfect, you've failed completely." She said many of the clients she sees who are experiencing impostor feelings have a "horror of being average."
According to Harvey, there are three basic signs of the impostor phenomenon:
--A person thinks he has fooled other people into overestimating his ability.
--Attributing success to some factor other than intelligence or ability.
--Fear of being discovered as a fraud.
"Many people who suffer from the impostor phenomenon are extremely intelligent and talented . . . However, even if they are aware of having certain abilities, they minimize them," Harvey wrote in her book. "In their eyes, the things that come naturally and easily to them are expected. They don't count."
What does count, almost invariably, is the one area in which the person sees himself as being weak.