Impostor Effect: Feeling like a phony, even though you are awesome

Picture this: you are in a classroom three days after you have taken a midterm exam.  Your professor hands you back your exam, and with a deep breath, you look at the top-right corner at the double-digit number illuminating in crimson.  It reads 98.  You made a 98 out of a hundred on your midterm! Excitement rushes through your veins and you look around to see if the rest of the classmates are sharing your excitement.  You notice only a few smiles, but mostly hear groans of disappointment.

When the bell rings, you walk out of the classroom feeling a strong sense of accomplishment.  You feel good that you did not go out to that party last weekend, and that you made sure to go to class, even if you had to force yourself to get there.  All of the good choices that you had made prior to taking the exam had paid off.

A few days later in class, your professor goes over a new topic, and begins to ask questions about the lecture that he is presenting.  You begin to see the hands of students rise.  Your professor calls on the student next to you.  The student eloquently responds to the professor’s questions, and as the professor smiles, you frown, because you feel like you should have (1) answered the question and (2) been able to answer the question as eloquently as your classmate.

You think to yourself, but I am smart, and I pay attention in class, why did I not raise my hand.  As you continue questioning yourself about why you did not raise your hand, doubt starts to set in, and you then begin to question how you made a 98 on the exam, and if you even deserved to make that grade.

This phenomenon is not uncommon and has been coined, “the impostor effect.” In 1978, two psychologists, Suzanne Imes, PhD and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD observed this trait among high achieving women who questioned their intelligence and thus were unable to accept their success.  According to Clance and Imes (1978) there are four behaviors that keep one from overcoming the impostor syndrome once doubt starts to set in.

  1. The first behavior involves diligence and hard work. Although diligence and hard work are the traits of any high achiever, the person who suffers from impostor syndrome works arduously out of fear that their phoniness will be discovered.  Thus, a vicious cycle begins with fear leading to hard work, hard work leading to temporary approval from authorities, and the it repeats all over again.
  2. The second behavior focuses on having a sense of phoniness. Meaning, the person who suffers from impostor syndrome does not discuss their real opinions or ideas.  Rather, they focus try to “psych out” their authorities and colleagues by telling them what they want to hear.  In addition, the “impostor” will bolster someone else’s idea and downplay their own abilities.  This tactic allows them to avoid have any of their ideas critiqued or evaluated by the people who they hold in high regard.
  3. The third behavior involves using charm and perceptiveness to gain favor form their superiors. Though the over goal is not sexual in nature, it is a method to get recognized to be noticed.  After the revered individual begins to take notice, the “impostor” will begin showing her intellect, with hopes of finding validation of her brilliance.  Unfortunately, after the “impostor” receives their validation, she may begin to question her abilities, thinking that the validation was given because of her charm and not her intellect.  Thus, a vicious cycle of seeking validation from different superiors ensues with the “impostor” unable to be sure of her own abilities.
  4. The fourth behavior is the “impostor” avoiding to display confidence. In essence, the “impostor” perpetuates their negative feelings by avoiding showing confidence in their intellect and abilities.  The “imposter” believes that if they show confidence in their intellect and abilities, she will be shunned and challenged by her colleagues and superiors.  In other words, it is much easier to avoid be exposed as an impostor, than to be confident and be challenged by others.

Can the impostor phenomenon be treated?  Yes.  According to Clance and Imes (1978), a “multi-modal therapy in which several therapeutic approaches are used concurrently seems most effective in altering the impostor belief in a client” as well as “a group therapy setting or an inter-actional group in which there are some other high achieving women experiencing the impostor phenomenon is highly recommended” (p. 6).   The group setting is extremely valuable because (1) women feel more secure when they realize that they are not alone in dealing with the impostor phenomenon be and (2) women have a chance to reflect when they her another woman’s story and the lack of reality in their rationale.

The result of the amalgamation of therapeutic interventions and a robust commitment to change is a well apt, brilliant woman, who at one point believed she was an impostor, beginning to allow and believe that she is truly intelligent.  She also will have the confidence to believe in her own intellectual abilities and strengths, without the validation of others.  In sum, she will no longer fear being an impostor and will embrace her intelligence with confidence.


Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice15(3), 241-247.

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  1. I really enjoyed the article. It is one of the effects that most draw my attention within psychology

    I think the only feedback I have about this is the redundant use of some words, for example in the fifth paragraph. It is unnecessary to mention the authors again since you did a few sentences earlier.


  2. Many people have felt this syndrome, in their life time, I believe. It’s extremely common in students (for the most part).

    The only real question that I have is: what other studies have been done about this? The ones referenced above seem to focus solely on women, but the syndrome could stem from the societal pressures upon women, not just the vicious cycle described above.

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