The prolific author Neil Gaiman once said, “The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you.” Surprisingly, Gaiman suffers from impostor syndrome. Someday, when he least expects it, the “fraud police” will knock down his door and reveal him for what he really is: less than. Less than his sixty-seven published novels and comic books. Less than his Newbery and Carnegie medals. Less than his devoted fans and fond critics. If one of the most successful postmodern authors of the century admits to suffering from self-doubt, it begs the question: How many other people feel like a fraud?
The answer may surprise you. About 70 percent of people from all walks of life — men and women — have felt like impostors for at least some part of their careers, across a variety of career paths.
So what exactly is this seemingly ubiquitous affliction? Fraud syndrome is not an empirically defined disorder. You won’t find its description within the pages of the DSM-V. It is essentially an extension of self-doubt. It is the tendency to attribute your accomplishments to good luck, fortuitous timing, or a lack of legitimate competition — anything except your own hard work and innate skills. Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who pioneered research on this topic, define it as an “internal experience of intellectual phoniness.”
In layman’s terms, if you experience fraud syndrome, you may feel like you don’t deserve your success. At any moment, the powers that be will realize you aren’t as talented as they thought. I interviewed Sarah, who recently graduated college with honors and was immediately hired at the job of her choice. She confessed: “I constantly fear that my boss regrets hiring me. Even though we sit down and talk about my progress from time to time, and she always seems happy with me, always gives me praise and constructive feedback, I often have that feeling of, ‘I’m going to be found out.’ When I talk to leadership at work, they tell me I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, I’m where I’m supposed to be, but it’s like I’m always waiting for them to come up to me one day and say, ‘Hey, you’re really not what we thought you were.’”
Ironically, fraud syndrome seems to be limited to successful people. Oliver Burkeman explains in his daily column: “True frauds and idiots rarely seem to experience it.” He goes on to suggest that moving up the ladder of success will only exacerbate feelings of self-doubt — you will be surrounded by a pool of increasingly more talented people: “Enhance your knowledge, and as you expand the perimeter of what you know, you’ll be exposed to more and more of what you don’t.”
Fraud syndrome can manifest in a number of cryptic ways. It could be that you can’t take a compliment. When a coworker says, “Awesome presentation!” You might find yourself thinking, “I wish! I’m sure everybody noticed that major typo.” You might preface a legitimately good idea with a self-deprecating caveat: “This might be really stupid, but I was thinking …” If you suffer from fraud syndrome, you may talk yourself out of asking for that raise or promotion, or avoid taking on the big project you’ve always dreamed of. You might dwell on the negative and ruminate over regrets. As when asked about her college classes, Sarah commented: “Even though I knew how hard I worked, and even though at the time I felt like I was doing the best I could, I still think I could have done better.” Ultimately, fraud syndrome can cripple your confidence, holding you back from being the person you want to be.
Feelings of self-doubt can also activate various parts of the brain. In “The Neuroscience of Self-Esteem, Self-Criticism and Self-Compassion,” Robin Nixon explains: “When our self-esteem is threatened — when we have a setback or come across someone that we perceive to be better than us — the threat-protection system goes into action. We may attack ourselves, put down the other person or ‘flee’ from the knowledge of our own faults.” Self-doubt can put us on high alert, causing us to constantly compare ourselves to others — and our failures to the successes of others — in order to protect us from potential harm.
Numerous studies have profound implications regarding the causes of fraud syndrome. One study by Bussotti investigated the family background of these so-called impostors and found that impostors were likely to perceive a lack of support, lack of communication, and lack of appropriate emotional expression among family members. High levels of family control, expressions of anger, and family conflicts were also present. A subsequent study by Sonnak and Towell concluded that parental over-protection was a factor in their typical fears. In other words, a turbulent childhood, deficient in openness and encouragement, could very likely lead to feelings of self-doubt later in life.