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Commentary: Stop calling it the imposter ‘syndrome’. They’re normal feelings of inadequacy

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Nonetheless, in the years that followed, “imposter syndrome” became the default way to describe paranoid feelings of inadequacy – probably because this was easier to conceive of and categorise than some kind of internal “phenomenon”, as Clance has suggested.

This misnomer is part of a wider trend that too often pathologises what are very normal human feelings. As Clance told social psychologist Amy Cuddy during the latter’s book research: “If I could do it all over again, I would call it the imposter experience, because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness, it’s something almost everyone experiences.”

A FUEL FOR SUCCESS

Furthermore, new research suggests that, while feeling like an imposter might be stressful and downright unpleasant, it also carries benefits.

An upcoming paper by MIT Sloan School of Management professor Basima Tewfik suggests that those who have “imposter workplace thoughts”, as she puts it, have an advantage over their colleagues when it comes to social skills, teamwork and the support of others.

This is because they feel they have to make up for the gap they perceive between their ability and how other people view them. “Those who have imposter thoughts essentially compensate for their perceived lack of competence . . . by turning their attention to the interpersonal domain,” Tewfik tells me.

This has no downside – it is not the case, according to her studies, that a greater focus on these “softer” skills negatively affects performance in other areas.


Nonetheless, in the years that followed, “imposter syndrome” became the default way to describe paranoid feelings of inadequacy – probably because this was easier to conceive of and categorise than some kind of internal “phenomenon”, as Clance has suggested.

This misnomer is part of a wider trend that too often pathologises what are very normal human feelings. As Clance told social psychologist Amy Cuddy during the latter’s book research: “If I could do it all over again, I would call it the imposter experience, because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness, it’s something almost everyone experiences.”

A FUEL FOR SUCCESS

Furthermore, new research suggests that, while feeling like an imposter might be stressful and downright unpleasant, it also carries benefits.

An upcoming paper by MIT Sloan School of Management professor Basima Tewfik suggests that those who have “imposter workplace thoughts”, as she puts it, have an advantage over their colleagues when it comes to social skills, teamwork and the support of others.

This is because they feel they have to make up for the gap they perceive between their ability and how other people view them. “Those who have imposter thoughts essentially compensate for their perceived lack of competence . . . by turning their attention to the interpersonal domain,” Tewfik tells me.

This has no downside – it is not the case, according to her studies, that a greater focus on these “softer” skills negatively affects performance in other areas.

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