It occurred to me in the last speaking gig I did a couple of weeks back that it’s been FORTY YEARS, since clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes coined the term “Impostor Phenomenon” back in ‘78. FORTY YEARS.
So, I figured this was a great time to set the record straight about its name.
You mostly hear it referred to as the “Impostor Syndrome." But see... Clance and Imes never called it that. They called it “Impostor Phenomenon." Amy Cuddy calls it “Impostor Experience." I call it “Impostor Complex” - though it’s possible Jung may have different thoughts on that.
I mention this, because (a) naming is important and because (b) in calling it a syndrome (which it has become most colloquially known, largely from Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 blockbuster “Lean In”) is simply incorrect. It is not a clinical diagnosis of a mental health condition. So even though it sucks for my SEO to call it a “complex," I stand by it because it feels like calling it a syndrome is distracting us from the issue, especially as I see more than my share of “stop whining about your so-called syndrome” pieces of late.
Let’s take a moment to talk about what it IS and what it ISN’T.
Drs Clance and Imes started their research at Oberlin College and were working with high-functioning, high-achieving female students and noticed a curious through-line in these women. They felt that they got into the college by fluke and that some day, any day now, they would be found out as the frauds they are.
Across the board, they seemed to be incapable of internalizing their successes. Their failures on the other hand, they were MORE than happy to own. This to say, if numbers didn’t add up, they made a mistake. But if their numbers DID add up, then they just assumed they got lucky, it was a fluke or they had somehow inadvertently managed to hack the system. That factors beyond their control (and skills and talents) were at play.
The Impostor Complex isn't straight up self-doubt. And it's not simply fear.
It’s not straight up self-doubt. And it’s not simply fear. Sure, those two experiences play a part in the overall experience, but they are not the same. Self-doubt and fear show up on the precipice of doing something new, exactly when the Impostor Complex does, but this is more a function of conscious incompetence. Knowing all that we don’t yet know. Always a tricky place. (Exciting too.)
Impostor Complex, though, is more like self-doubt on steroids. You experience massive stress despite your proven track record and consistent validation of your capabilities... that’s when we’re in the land of the Impostor Complex.
So I’m a big fan of attributing my teachers, but the experience of feeling like a fraud most certainly predates the naming of it. Biologists have pointed to it being an instrument of evolution, set up to ensure mutation doesn’t happen too quickly.
Ancient sages of India apparently referred to the experience of spiritual evolution, or the threshold of greatness as “chala” - the sensation of being a fraud.
Okay. I have more, much MUCH more to say about this. A whole book’s worth, in fact. So keep your eye on this space. And in the meantime, why don’t you check out which Impostor Complex coping mechanism is tripping YOU up?