The psychotherapist quietly takes notes as her patient pours out his troubles, wondering why the poor fellow thinks that she can possibly be of any help. A trial lawyer with a winning record lives in constant fear that he will make a terrible mistake because he is not familiar with some obscure point of law. A talented computer programmer dreads the day when his boss will give him the Big One to do. The Big One is an assignment that encompasses all of the intricate programming tasks that he has never learned and will reveal him, once and for all, as the mediocre hack that he knows he really is.
All of these people are professionals who secretly believe that they have been overestimated, and that at any moment the truth about them will out. According to two new books, their private feelings of fraudulence are shared by an estimated 70% of all successful individuals. In The Impostor Phenomenon (Peachtree Publishers, Ltd.; $14.95), Dr. Pauline Rose Clance, a professor of psychology at Georgia State University who first identified the syndrome, explains that many such impostors are perfectionists who can never meet their own standards.
Writing about the same fears in If I'm So Successful, Why Do I Feel Like a Fake? (St. Martin's Press; $14.95), Joan C. Harvey, a Philadelphia clinical psychologist, claims that the more these sufferers succeed the more terrified of failure they become. From boardroom to operating room, she says, many people who are seen as star performers in their fields agonize that they may be unmasked.
Clance isolated the impostor phenomenon in 1978, after discovering that others harbored the same insecurities that she had had as a graduate student at the University of Kentucky 16 years earlier. Says Clance, who was near the top of her class: "I was always afraid that I would blow it with the next exam." At first, Clance thought that she had uncovered a problem peculiar to women. But shortly after she began to write about it in technical journals, she began to hear from successful men burdened with the same misgivings.
Subsequent studies showed that IP was common to both sexes. Harvey, who first read Clance's work in 1978 and discovered a description of the fears that haunted her, went a step further and calibrated the syndrome. She devised the Harvey IP scale, a series of 14 self-evaluating statements now used by psychologists to measure a subject's feelings of fraudulence. Examples: "In general, people tend to believe I am more competent than I really am." And, "At times I have felt I am in my present position through some kind of mistake."
In some ways the impostor phenomenon resembles the better-known fear-of-success syndrome but differs in its underlying causes. For instance, while many people fear success because they believe that friends or relatives will think less of them, impostors tend to fear it because they do not believe they have earned it. Impostors also fear failure because they believe it is inevitable.