You Can’t Self-diagnose Impostor Syndrome

Lately I’ve read quite a few tweets and blog posts about impostor syndrome. Often the author is self-assigning himself to the group of people experiencing the syndrome. Something about the casual discussions and self-diagnosis of impostor syndrome put me off and triggered my bullshit meter.

Impostor syndrome is the belief that your success is due to factors other than your own ability, despite actual evidence to the contrary. The name comes from the accompanying feeling of being an impostor. In other words impostor syndrome is the belief that people who praise your success are being fooled about your true (lack of) ability. Wikipedia has a good description. The initial paper by Clance and Imes describing impostor syndrome is also a pretty straight-forward read.

The critical parts of impostor syndrome are two-fold. 1.) the perception of being an impostor, of feeling like a phony 2.) the reality of not being an impostor, of genuinely having high ability. Both of these are requirements to have impostor syndrome. It’s possible to feel like an impostor and genuinely be an impostor. This is not impostor syndrome.

What I find troubling from a logical standpoint is when people self-diagnose themselves as having impostor syndrome. To self-diagnose impostor syndrome you have to know and accept both requirements of the condition. You have to acknowledge that you feel like an impostor and acknowledge the reality that you do have high ability. However, to acknowledge the reality (that you do have ability) is to destroy your perception (that you don’t have ability). Accepting one premise negates the other.

I’m mainly irked by this logical contradiction, but there are other troubling parts about self-diagnosis.

Self-diagnosing impostor syndrome seems like a quiet way of self-aggrandizing. It’s a way of trying to humbly say “I’m really good but I’m not going to flaunt it.” To me this mirrors the situation when an interviewer asks,”What’s your greatest weakness?” and the interviewee responds, “I’m a perfectionist” or “I just work too hard.” It’s a sly self-compliment.

I often think people who self-diagnose impostor syndrome don’t actually feel like an impostor. In other words, they are declaring the first premise only as a way of covertly declaring the second premise. After all if someone really felt like an impostor he wouldn’t go around telling people about it. Being labeled an impostor is a negative attribute. No one would stand up and say “I feel like an impostor” unless he really felt like he was not an impostor and instead had high ability.

Clance and Imes describe three types of behaviors as response to feeling like an impostor. Using their words, I’ll label them “diligence and hard work”, “intellectual inauthenticity”, and “charm and perceptiveness to win the approval of superiors”. I find it odd that of the three types of behaviors described as impostor syndrome only the first one is self-diagnosed. In the tweets and blog posts I’ve read I see people write about the hard work they put in not to be discovered as a phony. I never hear any one write about charming someone into believing they’re not an impostor. After all that wouldn’t be very flattering. Clance and Imes describe this third behavior:

Another kind of behavior has to do with using charm and perceptiveness to win the approval of superiors. For a woman who uses charm in this way, the aim is to be liked as well as to be recognized as intellectually special. Typically, she believes, “I am stupid,” but at anther level she believes she is brilliant, creative, and special if only the right person would discover her genius and thereby help her believe in her intellect. She first finds a candidate she respects and then proceeds to impress that person. She studies the person carefully and perceives very accurately what that person will be responsive to. She uses her friendliness, charm, looks, humor, sexuality, and perceptiveness to win the person over.

Even though Clance and Imes are writing about the women they interviewed, the same false charm would be looked down on in men too. It’s clear to see why no one self-diagnoses themselves as a “charmer” impostor. It doesn’t sound very flattering.

Simply feeling like you don’t know enough to be good at your profession or that there is always more to learn does not make you an impostor. It’s normal. It’s whats going to make you truly great in your profession. Don’t stress over this.

If you really care about impostor syndrome, then the best way to help is to diagnose it in others and help them overcome it. Clance and Imes provide some ways to overcome these feelings and you can help others that you see who are struggling with unwarranted feelings of impostorism.

While you can’t self-diagnose impostor syndrome, you can believe that in the past you had impostor syndrome. This isn’t a contradiction. In this case you believed one premise (that you are an impostor) and the later believed that you did have high ability (that you are no longer an impostor).

In general, impostor syndrome is just a buzz phrase and you probably don’t have it. If you think you do then you certainly don’t.

UPDATE:
I really like this article by Alicia Liu. Her experiences mimic some of what I am talking about.

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