Is imposter syndrome a sign of greatness?

Some of the most successful people in history have suffered from secret fear that they’re terrible at their jobs. “I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people,” John Steinbeck wrote in his diary in 1938. “I always feel like something of an impostor. I don’t know what I’m doing,” echoed actress Jodie Foster, speaking at a 2007 Women in Entertainment Power 100 event where she was the guest of honor. But is this anxiety-inducing insecurity actually an asset?

It’s estimated that 70% of people have imposter syndrome, feeling that they don’t deserve to be where they are in life. But when I took an imposter syndrome test, my results were fairly low. A score of 80 or higher shows an intense feeling of imposter syndrome, 61 to 80 shows frequent experience of imposter syndrome, and 41 to 60 shows moderate experience. I scored 46, barely making it into the moderate category.

It’s not that I’m constantly confident. I have plenty of insecurities and worries—skills I know I need to improve and areas where I struggle—but I don’t think I’m a complete imposter at work, either.

True imposters don’t suffer imposter syndrome

There is evidence to suggest that imposter syndrome correlates with success, and that those who don’t suffer imposter symptom are more likely to be the real frauds. People with imposter syndrome tend to be perfectionists, which means they’re likely to spend hours working overtime to make sure they excel in every single field. So if you do suffer from imposter syndrome, chances are you’re doing a pretty good job.

Conversely, those of us who don’t have imposter syndrome might have reason to question our abilities. High levels of self-confidence can be a result of “Dunning-Kruger effect,” which essentially means you can’t recognize your own ignorance.

Jessica Collet, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame who has conducted research on the prevalence of imposter syndrome among women, tells Quartz the Dunning-Kruger effect can be summarized as “people who are too dumb to know that they’re dumb.” She adds:

“They don’t feel at all like frauds—they feel they know exactly what they’re doing and how could other people not know what they’re doing. But it turns out, they don’t know enough to know how little they know.”

Upbringing, personality, and culture are behind imposter syndrome

Though imposter syndrome is a popular research subject, there’s still a great deal of uncertainty about the causes. Some studies point to the effects of family dynamics, others emphasize the impact of personality traits such as neuroticism, while the broader cultural effect of being a minority in the workplace are also considered important.

Imposter syndrome was originally identified as a condition unique to women. While it is not sex or gender exclusive, it is now believed to be far more prevalent among women than men, especially among women working in male-dominated industries.

Actress Emma Watson has also said she feels like an imposter.(Reuters/ Brendan McDermid)

In my case, as a relatively anxious woman working in a predominantly male field, it might even seem unusual that I don’t have imposter syndrome. And the more I told people I don’t suffer from imposter syndrome, the more I started to worry that this was a sign of arrogance.

Part of that is likely because women are often expected to downplay their abilities, as clinical psychologist Hamira Riaz tells Quartz. “They can’t get away with some of the peacocking that you get with successful men.”

 “Women don’t talk about themselves in glowing terms as easily as men.” 

Riaz adds that cultural factors may make it harder to notice imposter syndrome in men. “My experience it’s not natural for men to admit feelings of discomfort and vulnerability. So you have to dig deeper and work a lot harder to get under their skin,” she says.

She believes imposter syndrome isn’t a distinct, permanent condition, but a complicated state that many people experience when they’re feeling stretched (and some people are more likely to experience than others.)

There’s no need to aspire to feel like an imposter

Although imposter syndrome has some benefits, such as driving people to work harder, it can also lead to burnout and should not be considered a desirable condition, points out Collet. “It has really negative effects. I don’t think anybody should wish that I have that and I wish every day I felt like putting on a show.”

In truth, those who suffer from imposter syndrome probably don’t need to worry that they’re a fraud. But there’s no reason to fear showing comfort and confidence in your abilities, either. While imposter syndrome might be a predictor of high achievement, it’s not a necessary condition for success.

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