In 1978, clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes published a paper, “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamic and Therapeutic Intervention,” which theorized that young women, in particular, were most affected by what they termed impostor phenomenon, an “internal experience” of feeling like an intellectual phony. Clance and Imes pointed to a number of factors that created impostor phenomenon, in particular, “societal sex-role stereotyping,” which, they argued, was the primary point of creation for impostor-related anxiety. They also, rather accidentally, gifted an entire generation of essay writer the bastardized phrase “impostor syndrome.”
When Clance and Imes published their findings on impostor phenomenon which, to be clear, is not a diagnosable syndrome that is clinically treated, but rather an observation of a handful of women in the 1970s, they didn’t find much traction. That’s in large part because subsequent studies were unable to locate the link between impostor phenomenon and gender. As Slate’s L.V. Anderson noted, follow-up studies instead found, “no difference in self-reported impostor feelings among male and female college students, professors, and professionals.” In 1993, Clance retracted her theory of impostor phenomenon as an experience that’s unique to women. She also acknowledged that the set of feelings she had initially described was applicable to nearly 80 percent of the population.
And yet, the phrase “impostor syndrome,” found its way out of academic studies and into the wide, wide world, popularized largely by books marketed to the MBA set. The phrase was particularly appealing to a surreal genre of books that’s most easily described as “business self-help,” where the self-help lingo of pop psychology found an awkward bedfellow with the maxims of “how to succeed in business.” Here, impostor syndrome was something to be recognized and overcome; a self-imposed hurdle on the road to Brooks Brothers suits and corner offices.
Impostor syndrome seemed to creep out of boardrooms sometime in 2012 when Amy Cuddy, a Harvard Business School professor, gave a TED Talk about her affliction. Cuddy had struck gold, finding a perfect phrase to describe a board room iteration of gender equality that had taken hold with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In feminism, a project which pinpointed obstacles that women created and thus could overcome. Impostorism was, like apologizing and vocal fry, keeping women from achieving their full corporate potential. Re-linked with gender—nearly a decade after Clance acknowledged that gender had little to do with the universal feelings of impostor syndrome—the feminist internet seized on the idea, a neat phrase that captured the anxieties of women in the workplace. Inevitably, an endless stream of essays in which women wrote about their struggles with impostor syndrome followed.
The essays generally follow a familiar format: a woman acknowledges that she feels like a fraud, self-diagnoses, points to the cultural perceptions which have produced her affliction, and vows to rid herself of the demons. The affliction is, apparently, so wide-spread that Emma Watson, Natalie Portman, and Lena Dunham have all acknowledged that they too are victims of impostor syndrome. The symptoms were so apparent that Jessica Williams was diagnosed with impostor syndrome by numerous bloggers after she called herself “unqualified” to take over The Daily Show, a description she vocally rejected.
The market for impostor syndrome essays tracks with a particular kind of essay writing that’s become synonymous with the female confessional tone in certain corners of the internet. It’s one in which a woman reveals a flaw, or what they perceive to be a flaw, which is a necessarily minor one (for example, apologizing; vocal fry; not loving their body). The revelation promises to banish these feelings: “If only you knew what lay behind your impostor feelings, these fears would melt away under the light of truth.”
But that promise of revelation has always seemed a bit oversold. At best, confessing impostor syndrome might confirm a role in a subculture where feelings are mutually shared, but in order to achieve membership, perfectly normal feelings are coded in the language of disorder, as something to be healed or treated. It’s conceptually shaky at best. And, that kind of performance of female emotion—of codifying women’s expression of perfectly mundane emotions as a syndrome or disorder—has a long and ugly history. As Anderson writes:
We should stop calling people who experience impostor syndrome “people who experience impostor syndrome” and start calling people who don’t experience impostor syndrome “overconfident weirdos.”
Emma Watson seems fine, you seem fine, but none of you have impostor syndrome. Anxiety is normal. It’s fine!