Do You Suffer From Impostor Syndrome? Take This Test to Find Out

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Photo: Christopher Oates/Getty Images

Have you ever had the feeling that your friends or co-workers are going to suddenly realize that you’re a fraud — that you’ve been fooling everyone this whole time, because actually you’ve stumbled into your career or your accomplishments as a result of pure luck rather than actual talent or hard work?

So-called impostor syndrome, often referred to by psychologists as impostor phenomenon, or IP, is an intense feeling that one’s accomplishments or status are built on fraud — and that other people will find this out. Research suggests that if you haven’t had a moment in which you were buffeted by these sorts of fears, you’re in the minority. As one review article by Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander explains (PDF), something like 70 percent of people “will experience at least one episode” of IP in their lives, and it’s been found in a wide variety of professional and academic settings. (IP, it should be said, is not an “official,” DSM-defined diagnosis.)

The godmother of this concept is the psychologist Pauline Clance, who in 1985 published the book The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the Fear That Haunts Your Success. She and other researchers initially thought that only women were afflicted by IP, but subsequently realized that it affects men, too. Since then, Clance has developed a scale to measure individuals’ levels of IP, and you can take a shortened, adapted version here:

Do you have impostor syndrome?

  1. I’m afraid people important to me may find out that I’m not as capable as they think I am.

  2. It’s hard for me to accept compliments or praise about my intelligence or accomplishments.

  3. At times, I feel my success has been due to some kind of luck.

  4. I often compare my ability to those around me and think they may be more intelligent than I am.

  5. I sometimes think I obtained my present position or gained my present success because I happened to be in the right place at the right time or knew the right people.

  6. If I receive a great deal of praise and recognition for something I’ve accomplished, I tend to discount the importance of what I’ve done.

  7. I tend to remember the incidents in which I have not done my best more than those times I have done my best.

  8. If I’m going to receive a promotion or gain recognition of some kind, I hesitate to tell others until it is an accomplished fact.

  9. Sometimes I feel or believe that my success in my life or in my job has been the result of some kind of error.

So what does it mean to have a high level of IP? In short, the more IP you have, the more likely you are to discount your own achievements and to worry about being “found out” as a fraud. Folks high in IP have trouble feeling satisfied by a job well done, and as a result can end up extracting less pleasure and meaning from work or school than people who are better equipped to take pride in their accomplishments. “For Impostors,” write Sakulku and Alexander, “success does not mean happiness. Impostors often experience fear, stress, self-doubt, and feel uncomfortable with their achievements.”

As for who is most likely to have a high level of IP, in summing up the research, Sakulku and Alexander note, perhaps unsurprisingly, that there’s some evidence of a moderate correlation between anxiety and IP and a strong correlation between neuroticism and IP. The sort of people who worry about stuff in general, then, are more likely to fall victim to impostor concerns. Perfectionism, too, seems to be a correlate of IP — people who feel they need to do everything perfectly are more likely to feel fraudulent when they can’t achieve this impossible standard. There’s also some intriguing evidence that family upbringing can play a role, that “[a]chievement-related messages from family that are invalidated, inconsistent, or confusing” may be a factor.

Impostor phenomenon has been linked to various mental-health problems, including depression, though the direction of causality is unclear — it may be that people already prone to depression are more likely to fixate on IP thoughts, rather than that IP leads to depression, for example. Either way, in its severest forms IP can take a serious toll on sufferers’ ability to function — it’s the sort of thought pattern that can lead people to dark places and rob them of everyday joy and excitement.

So if you scored high on this measure and find yourself ruminating about your “fraudulence,” you might want to look into talking to a mental-health specialist. Life is a lot better, after all, when you can appreciate who you are and what you’ve accomplished.

Note: Scale adapted from The Impostor Phenomenon: When Success Makes You Feel Like a Fake (pp. 20-22), by P.R. Clance, 1985, Toronto: Bantam Books. Copyright 1985 by Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., ABPP. Reprinted by permission. Do not reproduce without permission from Pauline Rose Clance, drpaulinerose@comcast.net, www.paulineroseclance.com.