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Imposter Syndrome, Anxiety, and You, pt. 1: The History of Imposter Syndrome

While not exactly a true “syndrome,” imposter syndrome is an incredibly toxic, damaging, and self-perpetuating thought pattern most commonly associated with people with anxiety disorders. But where and when did the term originate, and how can you know if you’re suffering with imposter syndrome?

This is part one in a series on imposter syndrome and its relation to anxiety disorders. I’d like to start with defining what imposter syndrome is and the history of the term before getting into how it manifests, the disorders and groups of people it’s usually associated with, and how to cope with and overcome this insidious and toxic thought pattern.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

It’s important to first understand that “imposter syndrome” is actually a bit of a misnomer; it isn’t actually a diagnosable mental illness but rather a term for a psychological phenomenon often associated with anxiety disorders. You can think of it more as a symptom of a cluster of illnesses than an illness itself.

The term was originally defined by Pauline Clance, Ph.D, and Suzanne A. Imes, Ph.D., in their 1978 article, “The Imposter Phenomenon in High-Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention,” while the two were working at Oberlin College. (It’s worth noting that imposter syndrome is most commonly observed in women and other minorities, but we’ll get to that later.)

Clance and Imes initially referred to imposter syndrome as “the imposter phenomenon,” a thought pattern where the sufferer consistently fears being exposed as a “fraud” and feels as though their accomplishments, skills, or talents are invalid and not worthy of recognition, even if the individual has extensive, consistent evidence of those accomplishments and talents.

The Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale (CIP)

Over time, the term eventually came to be known as “imposter syndrome,” and in 1985, Dr. Clance came up with a scale with a list of six individual criteria, or the Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale, to more accurately measure how the thought pattern manifests.

The six criteria were, to sum them up as briefly as possible, as follows:

  • The perpetuation of the imposter cycle (see below)

  • A persistent, compulsive need to be the best at everything, special, or otherwise extraordinary

  • Characteristics of a superman/superwoman mentality, or a need to be perceived as flawless at all times; this typically presents as setting absurdly high standards for oneself and refusing to accept failure

  • A deep-seated fear of failure and extreme aversion to experiencing failure

  • Denying one’s skills and abilities and refusing to accept praise

  • Persistent feelings of fear, guilt, and anxiety about one’s successes

What is the Imposter Cycle?

The first and perhaps most prominent characteristic of imposter syndrome is the imposter cycle, a pattern of repeating, self-perpetuating behaviors present in people suffering from this particular thought pattern. It works something like this:

  1. The sufferer takes on and begins a certain task (usually work or school-related)

  2. Feelings of anxiety and self-doubt begin to arise; the individual fears they are unable to achieve the task. The individual then responds to this anxiety and fear with either procrastination or over-preparation.

  3. If the individual responds to the task with procrastination, then they will put it off until they eventually frantically complete it. After completing the task, the individual will temporarily feel relieved and accomplished, though they will later attribute their success to pure luck.

  4. If the individual responds to the task with over-preparation, they will obsess over completing it and hold themselves to an absurd degree of perfection. After completing the task, the individual will feel similarly accomplished and relieved, though they will in this case attribute their success to their hard work rather than luck or a measure of their inherent ability, the skills they’ve developed, or their talent.

  5. Regardless of how the individual responds to the task or the praise they receive, they will dismiss any positive feedback and feel as though they are a fraud or not deserving of their success.

  6. Over time, the person with imposter syndrome’s feelings of guilt and fraudulence build up, and the more subsequent tasks the person takes on, the more the cycle is reinforced. The individual constantly feels as though their successes are invalid and merely the result of either luck or frantic over-preparation.

The most insidious part of this cycle is how difficult it is to break; as you can see, it is surprisingly easy for someone with anxiety to fall into this pattern and feel as though their successes aren’t truly their own.

Up Next, Part 2: Who Has Imposter Syndrome?

Now that we have a better understanding of what exactly imposter syndrome is, in the next part of this series, I’ll be looking into what types of people tend to grapple with this thought pattern the most and why. I’ll also be exploring how and why imposter syndrome is so commonly associated with anxiety disorders such as panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and social anxiety.

Finally, we’ll also later look into how to cope with imposter syndrome in your own life and how to eventually overcome it.

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