Imposter syndrome: why high achievers like Michelle Obama are more likely to feel like frauds

Those affected are crippled by chronic self-doubt, misattributing their success and status to good fortune and happy coincidence

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03: Former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama speaks at The Royal Festival Hall on December 03, 2018 in London, England. The former First Lady's memoir titled 'Becoming' has become the best selling book in the US for 2018 according to figures released by her publisher Penguin Random House. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
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Michelle Obama graduated from Princeton University, which is currently ranked number one in the US News best colleges annual list. She then went on to complete a postgraduate degree at Harvard Law School, currently ranked third among US law schools. Mrs Obama is only the third first lady in the history of the US to hold a postgraduate degree and her list of achievements in her role as Flotus and beyond are impressive, from campaigning to get more girls worldwide in school to tackling obesity and unhealthy eating.

Yet despite all of her hard-won accomplishments and accolades, the former first lady still, sometimes, feels like an unworthy pretender. At a recent function to promote her new book Becoming, Mrs Obama told a group of students at an all-girls school in north London that she still occasionally experiences "imposter syndrome".

The idea of imposter syndrome, or imposterism, can be traced back to psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, who published an article titled The imposter phenomenon in high-achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention in the 1978 journal Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. Imposter syndrome is described as a psychological pattern of chronic self-doubt, whereby a person continually questions their own abilities, misattributing their success and status to good fortune and happy coincidence.

The initial work exploring imposter syndrome identified it as a tendency that was particularly common in high-achieving women. Early case studies all tended to be women breaking new ground – for example, the first female chief executive of a company or the first female director of a hospital.

Subsequent research, however, has found a growing number of men appear to be afflicted with it too. In a paper published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences in September this year, 500 undergraduates at a US university were tested and told their results would be shared with a professor. While more women self-reported having imposter syndrome, men were more likely to feel anxious and stressed about getting negative feedback.

The link between imposterism and being the first to break the mould exists among men, too. Being the first person in the family to go to university or being the first in an ethnic group to enter a white-collar workforce is often associated with imposter syndrome. It is as if we break new ground and enter new social circles but then immediately wonder to ourselves: "Do I belong here? Do I really deserve this?" For some of us, the internal answer is “no”.

To be clear, people experiencing imposter syndrome tend to be brilliant. They are, in reality, high-performing individuals, usually with a long list of hard-won credentials. The problem, however, is that these individuals feel like charlatans and have a difficult time attributing their accomplishments to internal qualities such as intelligence, ability and skill. In other words, imposters fail to internalise their success.

At first glance, this might just look like a healthy dose of humility but for people experiencing high levels of imposterism, it can be both distressing and dysfunctional. Although not classed as a psychological disorder, imposter syndrome can result in people adopting unhelpful and unhealthy workplace practices. For example, the person’s crippling self-doubt and unfounded fear of being unmasked as a fake can manifest as a tendency to self-sabotage. Similarly, individuals scoring highly on measures of imposterism tend to be excessively risk-averse, procrastinating endlessly and adopting a pessimistic stance as a defence against constantly anticipated failure.

Another negative consequence of the imposter’s crippling self-doubt is workaholism. High-achieving imposters might feel compelled to put in extra effort to try to prove their worth, working round the clock to try to become the person they think other people have mistaken them for. Ironically, this over-industriousness might result in another promotion, an accolade the individual feels even less worthy of, and so the unhealthy cycle of anxiety-fuelled overachievement continues.

Given that imposterism is typically associated with being a first-generation professional, it would be interesting to know if this tendency will have an impact on Emirati society. As a young nation that has developed rapidly, many citizens of the UAE are among the first in their community to achieve certain accolades, from being the first in their family to go to university to becoming the first female cabinet minister, fighter pilot or astronaut. The UAE has produced a generation of pioneering individuals, some of whom find themselves charged with massive responsibilities, resting on relatively young shoulders. Much of the knock-on effect here is as yet undiscovered – but what is clear is that together with these achievements comes an awful lot of community support and pride. Those who break new ground are already championed by society, which can act as a cushion.

Fortunately, most people can learn to reduce their imposter syndrome tendencies. Just becoming aware of them as an irrational response to success can help some people get a handle on it. Similarly, talking to or hearing from others who have felt the same way can also be very helpful. For this, we have Mrs Obama to thank. Beyond raising awareness of this syndrome and giving simple tricks to override our self-doubting inner voices, professionals such as workplace counsellors or coaches can also help counteract that discouraging internal monologue, explore misguided beliefs about success and failure and let imposters know that it’s pretty common for everyone to feel like a fraud, sometimes.

Dr Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University