Impostor phenomenon’s origin story

by Suw on September 20, 2023

Let’s go back to the beginning, back to where it all started.

This is the third in a series of newsletters looking at impostor syndrome, the first of which asked whether impostor syndrome really exists or whether it’s just a healthy reaction to societal prejudices and toxic workplaces and was inspired by  Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey in the Harvard Business Review.

The second looked at the findings of Dena Bravata et al’s 2019 review of studies of impostor syndrome, which seems to show that impostor syndrome isn’t consistently defined or identified, that causation hasn’t been unpicked from correlation, and that there are several co-occurring conditions that could exacerbate or even be mistaken for impostor syndrome.

Now I’d like to go back to the origins of the scientific and public discourse on impostor syndrome, the 1978 paper The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. But before I do, let’s just have a little reminder of what life was like for women when the paper was written.

The passage of time is a strange thing because, as a year, 1978 doesn’t feel all that long ago, but it’s been 45 years. Indeed, 1978 is far closer to the end of World War 2, which happened 33 years earlier, than it is to today.

In America, women had only had the right to open their own bank or credit accounts, or take out their own mortgages, for four years, after the passage of The Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974. The UK had passed the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975, which enshrined in law women’s right to “open bank accounts and apply for credit and loans in their own name, without their husband’s permission”. Of course, having the right to do something and actually being able to do it are two different things, and women still struggled to actually access financial services.

British women didn’t get the right to be served in pubs until 1982, and statutory maternity pay for eligible women didn’t start until 1987. American women couldn’t apply for a business loan without a male relative to sign the papers until 1988. British wives’ taxes weren’t disentangled from their husband’s until 1990 (and still aren’t disentangled in the USA). Statutory maternity pay wasn’t extended to all women in the UK until 1990.

That might all feel like quite a lot of scene setting, but it’s easy to forget how crappy things were for women in 1978. We still have a way to go, of course, but 1978 was a much more oppressive time for women than perhaps our rose-tinted nostalgic spectacles might have us believe.

So it’s in this environment, when the ability to have a bank account is still a new and exciting thing for women, that Clance and Imes write the paper that kicks off nearly half a century of conversation around impostor syndrome.

The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women 

The first thing to notice when reading this paper is that it’s essentially an opinion piece based on Clance’s and Imes’s experiences working with “high achieving women”, so there’s no data, no methodology, no analysis and no conclusion. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad paper or that it has no value. In fact, a lot of the paper spoke to me, much more than I had expected.

Firstly, Clance and Imes call it impostor phenomenon, not impostor syndrome. ‘Phenomenon’ is a much more neutral and transient word than ‘syndrome’, which implies that it’s a potentially permanent illness. The pathologisation and medicalisation of women’s experiences that Tulshyan and Burey complained of in their HBR piece isn’t present in this original paper.

Impostor phenomenon is viewed through the same lens one might view co-dependency or low self-esteem, as an attitude picked up in childhood that more self-aware adults then have to address through therapy. It happens to be largely gendered because of the gendered beliefs of parents and society, not because women are uniquely susceptible.

Clance and Imes describe impostor phenomenon (and yes, in the light of the above, I’m changing my terminology) thus:

 Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persists in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample object evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief.

This isn’t far off modern definitions, though in the popular press, there is a tendency to significantly broaden it out into the “doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud” that Tulshyan and Burey use. It’s this watering down, I think, that creates the environment in which pathologisation can occur.

If merely doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud is diagnostic of the impostor phenomenon then everyone has it, but when only women’s experiences are interrogated and only women are subjected to advice on what they should do to combat it, then pathologisation follows. Given that’s much what we see in the popular press, Tulshyan and Burey are right to call it out (even as their imprecise definition plays into that debate).

Clance and Imes, however, emphasise that in the impostor phenomenon, these strong feelings of doubt and of fraudulence persist in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It’s the persistence and strength of these counterfactual feelings that are the problem.

The origins of impostor phenomenon

In their paper, Clance and Imes focus mainly on two aspects of impostor phenomenon: Where does it come from? And which psychotherapeutic approaches worked well with their clients? Interestingly, that first aspect is rarely touched upon within modern popular discourse, or even the scientific papers, that I’ve read.

Whilst they acknowledge that the internalisation of “societal sex-role stereotyping appear to contribute significantly to the development of the impostor phenomenon”, they mostly focus on two types of “early family dynamics” when discussing the origins of impostor phenomenon.

In one group are women who have a sibling or close relative who have been designated as the “intelligent” member of the family.  Each of the women, on the other hand, has been told directly or indirectly that she is the “sensitive” or socially adept one in the family.  The implication from immediate and/or extended family members is that she can never prove that she is as bright as her siblings regardless of what she actually accomplishes intellectually.

No matter what she achieves, her family remains unimpressed, her quest for “validation for her intellectual competence” goes unfulfilled and, worse, she starts to believe them.

For the second group:

The family conveys to the girl that she is superior in every way – intellect, personality, appearance, and talents. There is nothing that she cannot do if she wants to, and she can do it with ease. […]

The child, however, begins to have experiences in which she cannot do any and everything she wants to. She does have difficulty in achieving certain things. Yet she feels obligated to fulfill expectations of her family, even though she knows she cannot keep up the act forever. Because she is so indiscriminately praised for everything, she begins to distrust her parents’ perceptions of her. Moreover, she begins to doubt herself.

I’ve read a ton of stuff on impostor syndrome, including a fair amount in the media, and it is striking to me that none of it addresses these deep roots of women’s insecurity. Indeed, most of the research I’ve read is instead focused on quantifying the extent of impostor phenomenon in a particular cohort, often women working in male-dominated environments.

When we talk about the environmental causes of impostor phenomenon – the toxic workplace, societally endorsed prejudice, etc – all that is layered on top of the mixed messages many girls get from their families as they grow up.

I fell into the ‘brightest kid in school’ trap. In primary and middle schools, I was seen as one of the most intelligent children in the school and was enrolled in special ‘stretch’ classes with just one or two other children.

The one careers advice session I had at upper school ended with the advisor saying, “Well, you seem to be very good at everything, so really, you can do anything you want”, which is crippling advice. It provides absolutely no framework within which to evaluate options and make decisions, and it led to a good 10-15  years of uncertainty as to what my “anything” should be.

Worse, I didn’t learn how to learn, because I didn’t have to until it was too late. And that led to my significantly underperforming at A Level and struggling at university. I think this is the first time I’ve had an inkling of where the foundations of my own impostor phenomenon came from.

Environmental factors

Clance and Imes devote just half a page to discussing environmental causes, or perhaps reinforcement, of impostor phenomenon, but their focus is on family rather than society, discussing “the societal sex-role stereotyping in the preschool years that can be transmitted through the parents”.

The closest they come to examining external, environmental factors is when they say:

Feelings of phoniness for both groups are further affirmed by the differential between high achievement and low societal expectations. The women’s own self-image of being a phony is consonant with the societal view that women are not defined as being competent. If a woman does well, it cannot be because of her ability but must be because of some fluke. If she were to acknowledge her intelligence, she would have to go against the views perpetuated by a whole society – an ominous venture indeed!

I’m not surprised that they skim over how women’s experiences as adults can affect their perceptions of their own competence. In 1978, feminism was only halfway through its second wave, with a long way to go before we reach our modern understanding of sexism and misogyny in the workplace and wider world.


Clance and Imes discuss several approaches to therapy, and recommend using “several therapeutic approaches […] concurrently” along with group therapy so that “one woman can see the dynamics in another woman and recognize the lack of reality involved”.

The approaches they recommend include:

  1. Help the woman “become aware of the superstitious, magical aspects of her impostor belief” and help her “consciously experiment with changing her ritualistic behaviors”.
  2. Ask her to “recall all the people she thinks she has fooled, to tell them in fantasy how she conned or tricked them, and to have her imagine out loud how each person would respond to her”.
  3. “Keep a record of positive feedback she receives about her competence and how she keeps herself from accepting this feedback. After she becomes aware of how she denies compliments, she is instructed to experiment with doing the opposite to listen, to take in the positive response, and to get as much nourishment as possible out of it.”
  4. “Role-play the opposite of ‘I’m not bright,’  i.e., to have her act out being bright, feeling it and expressing it in the presence of the group or therapist.”
  5. Women who engage in approval-seeking behaviour are “encouraged to risk ‘being herself’ and seeing what happens. Usually the catastrophic expectations do not occur. Also, by eliminating approval-getting behaviors, the woman can begin to accept compliments from others regarding her intelligence as being ‘real’ and can internalize the external reinforcement she does receive.”

These are all things that one can do for oneself, if one is capable of the self-reflection and brutal honestly necessary! Whilst I’ve not done it myself, a nightly journal that focused on working through these exercises in depth could be very helpful indeed. In fact, I might try it.

Have I changed my mind?

At the end of my last newsletter about impostor phenomenon, I had pretty much concluded that “the majority of what we consider to be ‘impostor syndrome’ is more likely a combination of low self-confidence, perfectionism, anxiety and depression on the one hand, and a normal reaction to bias and prejudice in the workplace and, indeed, wider world on the other”.

I still think that, but largely because the definitions of impostor phenomenon have become too wide and too vague, and other causes aren’t sufficiently ruled out. We have to move past prevalence studies based on overly broad impostor phenomenon scales, and look in more detail at the experiences of women who experience it, particularly:

  1. Mixed messaging about intelligence and talent during childhood.
  2. Societal reinforcement, such as the widely-held idea that women aren’t capable of succeeding in certain fields due to a gender stereotypes.
  3. Specific workplace and societal actions that cause impostor feelings, such as being undermined in meetings or or not given deserved promotions, and being bombarded with messaging that women don’t belong in certain jobs.

Where I have found the Clance and Imes paper interesting is their look at childhood experiences and how those can shape a girl’s feelings about herself as she grows into an adult, and how those experiences can really stay with you until you learn to confront them.

I am going to have to delve a bit more into the literature to see if there’s further research that looks as the root causes of impostor phenomenon. However, I fear that, as with so many other issues that predominantly affect women, researchers have been forced to spend so much time simply proving that the problem exists that they never get to devote time to understanding causation or cure.

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