The Imposter Phenomenon

About halfway through my doctoral program, I was accepted into an elite club, where distinguished graduate students, decorated faculty, and wealthy and notable Canadians gathered for intellectual conversation, often over expensive wine and exotic meats, followed by port, cheese, and the most delicious chocolate truffles one could imagine. While I had always thought of myself as a good student  — a key component to gaining admission into the club — finding objective proof in my school grades, standardized tests, and published papers reviewed by scholarly editorial boards, I felt, while conversing amongst my now-peers, like a fraud; not nearly intellectual enough to be amongst such lofty individuals. My thoughts began to be consumed with ideas of being “found out” for, in fact, not being intelligent or capable enough to belong to such an establishment, and I would often tell myself that my application surely must have somehow slipped into the “accepted” pile, a mere feat of luck, and it was only a matter of time before someone would take notice.

What was interesting to me was that my experience of feeling as if I was accepted on chance alone actually created behavioural consequences. For instance, I was much more quiet than my ‘extroverted’ personality would generally indicate, much less opinionated, and would often keep my true thoughts, including that of feeling like a fraud, to myself. It became harder and harder to attend club events without feeling as though I would no longer be able to hold my own at the next event. It wasn’t until leaving the club one particular night, with a fellow doctoral candidate whom I had admired for her rigorous research capabilities, that I realized I was not alone: As we walked towards the nearby subway station to head home, she turned to me, seemingly defeated, and said, “you know, I really have no idea how they accepted me.” Therein lied the proverbial “aha!” moment.

Particularly common for high-achievers, the Impostor Phenomenon describes an internal feeling of being a phony, while simultaneously being unable to internalize and receive success. As noted in the seminal 1978 paper describing the phenomenon, Dr. Suzanne Imes and Dr. Pauline Rose Clance found that people “who experience the impostor phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.

Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample objective evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief.” It turns out, even the most accomplished amongst us can feel this way: In Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook says, “there are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.’’ Only after hearing a speech by a psychologist on the subject did she gain ample insight: “She explained that many people, but especially women, feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments. Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made. Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are- impostors with limited skills or abilities.”

While at first, Imes and Clance describe the Impostor Phenomenon as being unique to women, countless articles and research projects have revealed that it can be quite a common problem for both sexes, and the profession one finds oneself in makes little difference: Take Oscar-winning actress Kate Winslett, for instance, who has said, “Sometimes I wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and I think, I can’t do this. I’m a fraud.” Famed author Maya Angelou has also noted, “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’” Even the Chief of the World Health Organization, Dr. Chan, remarked, “There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.”

The problem with the Impostor Phenomenon is that most will inevitably suffer in silence, for being vocal about feeling like a fraud can mean can even further chance of being exposed.

How does feeling like an impostor come about? According to Imes and Clance, being raised in a home where one’s sibling was designated the “bright” one and he or she, the “social” one. Despite gaining achievements throughout life, one may attribute his or her success to simply being social, not worthy. Even the child praised early on by his or her parents for being “bright”, may feel as though perfection should come with ease and any effort that renders an achievement may lead to feelings of guilt for having to work for his or her brightness, thereby producing feelings of being a fraud. Growing up in a home that places high emphasis on achievement, where parents often oscillate between providing praise for their children and also harshly critiquing them can create confusion, where the child’s self-worth becomes reliant on achieving. Visible minorities are also prone to being victims of the phenomenon, attributing their success to affirmative action policies over their own abilities.

Even after recognizing the impostor phenomenon, however, these feelings tend to maintain over time, as Imes and Clance found, due to certain unique behaviors. For instance, telling others who are superior what they wish to hear instead of one’s own ideas causes ‘intellectual flattery’ for the receiving party, but inadequacy in one’s beliefs in his or her own ideas. Further, using charm to win over superiors and gain their approval also adds to feelings of fraud. As Imes and Clance note:

“Typically, [someone experiencing the Impostor Phenomenon] believes, “I am stupid,” but at another level she believes she is brilliant, creative, and special if only the right person would discover her genius and thereby help her believe in her intellect. She first finds a candidate she respects and then proceeds to impress that person. She studies the person carefully and perceives very accurately what that person will be responsive to. She uses her friendliness, charm, looks, humor, sexuality, and perceptiveness to win the person over… This process of seeking (and usually gaining) approval from an admired authority figure is unsuccessful in changing the impostor system for two reasons. First, even when the mentor does acclaim her as intellectually superior, creative, and special, she does not believe him/her because she believes the mentor has based his/her opinion primarily on her other attributes. The current candidate is discounted as unable to judge her accurately. She begins a search for another mentor and will repeat the same self-defeating process. Second, the woman continues to believe that if she were really bright she would not need outside approval. She should have internally-based confidence in her own ability. Thus, efforts to gain approval give proof that she is intellectually phony. After all, people who are geniuses or innovators in their fields manage to be productive and creative despite lack of support from others; they certainly would not resort to adaptive or placating behaviors to gain validation.”

Often, those who experience Impostor Phenomenon have anxiety, stress, low self-worth, depression, shame and self-doubt, dwelling on failures and any negative feedback received. Luckily, however, there are a number of options to manage these feelings of phoniness, and with effort and guidance, change is possible.

1. Find a Mentor

Find a mentor within your field, who you admire, yet who you can also be open with. As nearly 70% of the worldwide population experiences the Imposter Phenomenon, chances are your mentor will be able to enlighten you on his or her own experiences, or reassure you that you are worthy of your success. Not only will this help you realize that no one, in fact, is perfect, but that you are not alone.

2. Take Time to Reflect

Find some time to reflect on your own experiences in your own feelings. Try making a list of your accomplishments, any positive feedback given, and reflecting on a time where you did experience success and identifying the factories around your success will help you to realize that inevitably, at least some portion of your success is derived from your own skills and abilities, beyond any other factors. Recognizing your own expertise will help to internalize it and reframe your own worthiness for success.

3. Keep a Journal.

Writing therapy, otherwise known as experiential disclosure therapy, has been proven to help alleviate a number of different psychological issues, including anxiety and depression.

4. Speak to a professional.

Executive coaches, therapists, or psychiatrists are often well equipped with the tools to help you break your negative thinking patterns to march on, fraud-free. 

Written By: Mariana Bockarova

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