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Have you ever doubted yourself and felt like you don't deserve your job or that college acceptance letter? Well, you're not alone!

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At some point, you've probably doubted yourself, like if you had a hard exam or important presentation coming up.

And that's normal! But, sometimes, self-doubt can get so intense that it's actually harmful.

You convince yourself that you're not really good at anything and have just been fooling everyone this entire time. And this behavior has a name: It's called the impostor phenomenon, or impostor syndrome. It was first described in the late 1970s by two clinical psychologists, Dr.

Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes. They noticed a pattern in over 150 highly successful women they interacted with, from college students and faculty, to working professionals.

These women often described feeling like a fraud, and attributed their success to things like luck or a mistake. Clance and Imes wrote a paper to document this psychological pattern, naming it the impostor phenomenon. And in the mid-1980s, Clance broke down some of its key characteristics.

For instance, a person dealing with this phenomenon will experience what's called the impostor cycle when they work on a project. First, they'll become anxious, which can make them spend too much time on the task, or procrastinate and then rush to finish it. Once the project is done, they'll feel relieved and accomplished.

Which is good! We all deserve a pat on the back sometimes. But then, that person won't accept positive feedback.

They'll ignore the fact that they could actually be smart or talented — insisting that they got lucky, or just worked a lot without having real skills. They don't think they deserve success, which creates more anxiety, so the cycle repeats itself. Basically, the impostor phenomenon takes regular old self-doubt and amps it way up.

In healthy doses, self-doubt can be a way your brain protects you — like, making sure you study or stopping you from wiping out on that difficult ski jump. But your mind can take that one step too far. Instead of just worrying about passing a test, you might believe you're not qualified to be a college student at all.

You won't find the impostor phenomenon in the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which helps psychologists and psychiatrists diagnose patients. But it's still recognized as a specific and powerful form of self-doubt, and it may be coupled with clinical anxiety and depression. Usually, it can be treated by meeting with a counselor.

Now, it's hard to tell exactly how many people deal with the impostor phenomenon. After all, they're not likely to talk about it. To test for it in research studies, psychologists like Clance have created detailed surveys.

The Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale, for example, asks you to rank how true 20 statements are on a scale of one to five. Things like: “I rarely do a project or task as well as I'd like to do it.” A higher overall score indicates more frequent and intense impostor feelings. Now, because Imes and Clance did their original research on women, a lot of people assume the impostor phenomenon usually doesn't affect men — but that's a myth.

Many review papers over the last 30 years have found it can affect all genders — and ethnicities, for that matter — in about any profession. One 2007 study from the Chronicle of Higher Education estimated that up to 70% of people might experience it at least once in their lives. Another paper in the journal Medical Education studied nearly 500 successful med students and other health professionals, to look for patterns in how the impostor phenomenon affected high-achieving people.

They found that it often develops in maladaptive perfectionists: people who set impossible goals for themselves, and can be extremely self-critical. This is different than adaptive perfectionism, where high standards can be positive and motivating instead of crushing. Since maladaptive perfectionists won't accept anything less than perfect, they're more prone to feeling like they've just tricked people into congratulating them.

Some surveys have also shown the impostor phenomenon might be caused by growing up in a family that gives you mixed messages — giving you a lot of praise when you do well and a lot of criticism when you fail. But there's only some correlation there, and it'd be hard for researchers to design a long-term study to test causation. For now, psychologists think family pressure is only one piece of a bigger puzzle.

The impostor phenomenon is probably caused by a lot of things. Your mind is a complicated thing, and your brain doesn't always know where to draw the line between helpful and unhealthy. But psychologists are sorting it out one phenomenon at a time.

And as they do, we'll keep explaining it here on SciShow Psych. Thanks for watching, and special thanks to our patrons on Patreon for making this whole channel possible. If you'd like to help is keep making episodes like this, go to

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