Making It, Still Faking It


illustration by by Cecilia Salama

Yes, I read the Financial Times. But, ashamedly, only for Vanessa Friedman’s articles on fashion. However, one time I came across another article in the Life & Arts section written by a girl who went to my high school. The article was entitled “The Impostor Syndrome.” Instantly, I knew I had it.

Impostor syndrome is the internal belief that one’s own achievements are false illusions. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, two clinical psychologists, first described the syndrome back in 1978. They posited that the syndrome could be defined as the feeling that one is not smart and that one has “fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.” Even though the women participating in their studies had plenty of objective evidence from their professional careers that pointed toward success, they continued to believe that they were frauds, attributing their success to an overestimation of their intelligence by others. By 1991, researchers were able to explain the evolution of this syndrome. Kolligian and Sternberg, two Yale psychology professors, identified that those who suffered from impostor syndrome were also those who displayed the inherent personality traits of social anxiety (I worried people would think I was pseudo-posh because of my British accent), depressive tendencies (I do prefer to drink red wine alone), self-monitoring skills (I tend to measure myself against the twelve year-old I babysit) and over-achievement (I expect not just an A, but at least a 99%).

Kay Deaux, a professor of psychology and women studies at the CUNY Graduate Center sheds light on another possible source of Impostor Syndrome: le deuxième sexe. She claims that the treatment of women by a patriarchal society has allowed for the development of “sex-role stereotypes”. In the results of an anagram test, “men were more likely to claim ability as a cause of their success than were women,” she says of research on the Syndrome. The women, unlike men, could not equate either luck or effort with inherent ability as the “woman who succeeded was more likely than the man to attribute her success to luck.”


I share my high school alma mater with Rachel Johnson of Financial Times, along with her feelings of self-doubt. Like the women in Deaux’s study, I attribute my success to pure chance. Despite her expectations, she had successfully gotten into Oxford, and has felt guilty about it ever since, while my guilt stems from getting into Brown as a transfer in the spring of 2010. I didn’t have Ivy League SAT scores nor the best grades in high school, but somehow Brown admissions let those slide. I consulted my friends who had also gone to colleges like Harvard, Yale and Cambridge; they too believed their successes were lucky strikes. A few studies into my frantic research, I came to the realization that I had been feeling such inner anxiety all along, and that I wasn’t the only one.

A 2004 study by psychologists Castro, Jones, and Mirsalimi tested 213 graduate students from a private, southern university, of which 85% were female and 15% were male aging from twenty to fifty-nine years old. At the end of their study, they concluded that as many as 80% of these graduate students displayed “moderate levels of impostor feelings.” I was convinced that these were the signs of a pandemic. As I continued my research, I started seeing impostor syndrome everywhere.

Dr. Margaret Chan, the former director general of the World Health Organization, prevented H5N1 from becoming a global disaster in 1997 by managing Hong Kong’s SARS investigation, and yet continues to attribute her achievements to external factors. When a New York Times reporter asked her in 2007 how she had become one of the highly regarded public health officials, she responded by saying it was due to “being in the right place at the right time.”

These women, when asked to explain their success, denied it every time. Michelle Pfeiffer, an Academy Award nominated actress, has expressed exactly those feelings of fraudulence. In a 2002 interview, she revealed her difficulty in overcoming her irrational fear of abilities, saying that, “I still think people will find out that I’m really not very talented, I’m really not that good. It’s all been a big sham.”


However this could all be part of the new and more cynical theory brought to the fore by Benedict Carey in the New York Times in 2008. He argued that most impostors are “phony phonies.” Many self-diagnosed ‘impostors’ vocalize the belief that they are a fraud as a means of lowering others’ expectations, thus “getting credit for being humble.” Carey judged most expressions of impostor syndrome not as a bold confrontation with a self-destructive mental problem but a dishonest social strategy to win over an audience.

I knew I wasn’t exploiting my feelings of impostorism for social gain. These were genuine, which only hastened my sense of urgency in finding a cure. Where to turn, but to the notorious self-help aisle. I hoped that one of these self-help books would actually say something along the lines of, “feeling like an impostor is all in your head, take a break from paralyzing self-consciousness and get outside of yourself” or, “Take a step back and realize that everyone has also felt some sort of self-criticism, social anxiety, depressive tendency and over-achievement.” Instead, John Graden’s book The Imposter Syndrome: How to Replace Self-Doubt with Self-Confidence and Train your Brain for Success stared out at me through the eyes of a plastic-looking woman holding a Venetian mask. She was clearly a fellow sufferer. “See the world in varying shades of gray,” Graden’s words crooned. I sure didn’t want my “lingering self-doubt [to] cast a gray cloud on [my] clear blue future,” but despite the book’s encouragement and 21 points to address my self-confidence, the forecast still looked partly cloudy.

So I traded in self-help for the self-deprecation of Tina Fey. In a 2010 interview with the British newspaper, The Independent, Fey shared her wisdom on the condition: “Ah, the impostor syndrome!? The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania, and a complete feeling of 'I'm a fraud!...Seriously, I've just realized that almost everyone is a fraud, so I try not to feel too bad about it.

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