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The Impostor Syndrome [Part One]

I recently overheard a couple of women talking about something they called the "Impostor Syndrome." Being an owl, I didn't understand what they meant, so I looked up the two words and found these definitions:

  • Impostor: A person who deceives or cheats others, especially by pretending to be someone or something that he or she is not.

  • Syndrome: A group of symptoms that collectively indicate or characterize a disease, disorder, or other condition considered abnormal.

I found this definition in a 2008 Harvard Business Review Article "Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. 'Imposters' suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence."

When I asked Anne Miner if she knew about the "Impostor Syndrome." She said that not only does she know about it, but that she and many of her colleagues have experienced it!

Anne started our conversation by placing the Impostor Syndrome in context.

She told me that the Impostor Syndrome, or Impostor Phenomenon as it was originally tagged, was identified more than 40 years ago, by Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes[1], both Clinical Psychologists. Their observations of high achieving women, during therapeutic sessions, led Clance and Imes to describe the condition as "… an internal experience of intellectual phoniness …"

Initially, Impostor Syndrome was believed to be a condition that affected mainly or perhaps only women. According to Clance and Imes, these high achieving women with Impostor Syndrome suffered from anxiety, fear of failure, and fear of being recognized and exposed as impostors.

Not knowing about this research or the name of the condition, Anne told me that she thought she was the only one living with this fear, which she described this way:

"I was afraid that I didn't know what I was doing, and someone was going to find out and expose me as a fraud."

As a young entrepreneur, Anne started her first company at the age of 24 years. Afraid that someone would find out she didn't have a University Degree, she completed her undergraduate degree in social sciences at night school while running the company by day. Afraid that someone would find out that she didn't know anything about running a company, Anne took courses on how to read financial statements, and she hired a business coach. Afraid that she would not be taken seriously because of her youth, she dressed conservatively. And on it went. Anne was always over-delivering, over-compensating, and living with feelings of dread.

During its short life, Anne's first company enjoyed rapid growth (6 full-time and 60 part-time employees), and profitability, before it crashed along with the economy of Alberta in 1982. Convinced that her success was due to the booming economy of the times, that she lacked vision and foresight and that she was incompetent, Anne closed her fledgling company and retreated to the shelter of her parents' house.

Despite her self-doubt, Anne quickly found work leading the Toronto branch of a Montreal based company where she applied herself to the task of turning the office around. With quick, decisive action, she brought the money-losing operation to a position of profit within 3 months, but her fears continued.

When Dr. Pauline Clance's book, "The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming The Fear That Haunts Your Success" was published in 1985, [2] Anne discovered that she was not alone in her fear of being exposed

Further research by Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Gail Matthews, in 1985, established that seven out of ten people (70%), both men and women, will experience at least one episode of the Impostor Syndrome during their adult life.[3] However, many people continue to believe that Impostor Syndrome affects only high achieving women.

Anne believes that Impostor Syndrome plays a powerful role in women holding themselves back in their careers, something that needs further discussion.

I am sure you can now see why I titled this issue of Thursdays with Anne "Part One." The story continues in Part Two next Thursday ~ see you then!

[1] Psychotherapy Theory Research and Practice Volume 15 #3 Fall 1978

[2] Peachtree Pub Ltd (April 1, 1985)

[3] Matthews, G., & Clance, P. R. (1985). Treatment of the impostor phenomenon in psychotherapy clients. Psychotherapy in Private Practice, 3, 71–81.


Unknown member
Sep 10, 2020

Great article, sounds like me in my younger years.


Sherin Hamza
Sherin Hamza
Sep 10, 2020

Great article, sad but true.


Janette Wittwer
Janette Wittwer
Sep 10, 2020

Thanks for the article, that was great. We will also want to add that there are those like me who have a habit of underselling and undervaluing ourselves. Not sure if that is to avoid becoming an impostor although we know we are not.

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