Overcoming the Imposter Phenomenon

Did you know up to 70% of people will experience impostor fears at some stage in their life (Gravois, 2007), and it actually occurs at similar rates amongst men and women?  Phoebe Cook is a Consulting Psychologist at Within Consulting and the author of this fascinating article, outlining an experience that may be sabotaging your career success.

When I did my first class presentation in my postgraduate course, I totally choked. I went bright red, tears welled in my eyes, I could hardly remember any of the speech that I had learned back to front. I was SO scared. Scared that people would think I was stupid, or that I didn't know what I was talking about. They would wonder, “How did she get accepted into this course?” I spoke so quietly. I think I subconsciously hoped that if no one could hear me, then no one would realise how silly I was. Of course, I performed really badly. I got terrible marks. And it was a shame because for that subject, for every other written (and therefore, not publicly evaluated) assignment, I got a High Distinction. I did know what I was talking about, but I didn't believe it. I thought that I had some how fluked my way into post-grad and that actually, I didn't really belong. I felt like a phony.  

When it came time to picking my thesis topic, I stumbled across the imposter phenomenon; the inability for objectively successful people to internalise their accomplishments. The term was coined by Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes, who described the pattern of thoughts, behaviours and emotions experienced by women they saw in clinical settings who were all  successful by external standards but who described feeling a sense of “intellectual phoniness”. They expressed fears of being 'found out', that someone would realise that they had actually failed an assignment early in their careers and they would be uncovered as the imposter that they thought they were.  When given positive feedback, they would deny their competence and found it uncomfortable to accept praise.

As I read more and more about it, I found this phenomenon really interesting. Something about it resonated with me. However, so strong were my 'imposter' thoughts that I remember telling myself – “Wow I think like this too...but I am an actual imposter. I'm not one of those successful people”.

It is not a clinical disorder; some people call it a syndrome and Clance has conceded that she wishes she had called it an experience. Whatever the label for this group of thoughts and behaviours, it is undoubtedly associated with significant psychological distress. The imposter phenomenon has been found to be associated with depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. In some ways it can  negatively impact on an individual's ability to fulfil his or her potential as impostors typically undervalue their skills, knowledge and ability. This means that they can be reluctant to go for promotions, or apply for new jobs – they do not want to be put in a position where they might fail, so they stay safe.  However, imposters (by their definition) are actually high performers. So while they might not reach the career levels their competence could allow them were they more confident, they provide a consistently high quality of work. This might be because their drive to avoid failure and be uncovered as an imposter motivates them to put in the extra hours and work on something until it is perfect.   

Unfortunately for the imposter, success does not result in satisfaction. Instead, success can create more fear; fear that they have created unrealistic future standards. To this point, an interesting characteristic of the phenomenon is the 'imposter cycle'. This cycle explains how the imposter's self-sabotaging behaviours can perpetuate their fears. First, when an imposter is confronted with a task or project, particularly one that is going to be evaluated (e.g. a sales pitch, a university assignment), they experience a sense of anxiety. The 'imposter' will then either overwork – planning, writing, rewriting, endlessly perfecting their work. Or they will procrastinate and then furiously work in the lead up to the deadline. When they do well, the imposter will then say to themselves either “I did well only because I worked much harder than everyone else” or, if they procrastinated, they will say “I only went well because I was lucky.”

Through researching the imposter phenomenon, I found out that the feeling of not belonging, the constant self-doubt, the belief that you don't deserve your own accomplishments, the reluctance to accept promotions or go for jobs well within your capabilities was actually very common. In fact, one study has estimated that up to 70% of people will experience imposter fears at some stage in their life (Gravois, 2007). And it actually occurs at similar rates amongst men and women. It has been observed amongst postgraduate students, entrepreneurs, academics, people in creative fields, medical residents, and CEOs. People can experience it when transitioning into university, a new organisation or when they first start a new role, particularly if they have been promoted quickly, have experienced rapid success or are younger than their peers.

Signs of imposterism:
–    You feel like you don't deserve praise, positive feedback or to be in the position you are in
–    You feel like you don't belong
–    When you do something well, you fear you will not be able to repeat that success again
–    Only perfection is good enough
–    Negative feedback, mistakes or work that is not 100% makes you feel like a 'failure'
–    You fear being evaluated e.g. performance reviews, examinations
–    You attribute success to external factors (e.g. luck) rather than internal (e.g. competence)
–    You self-sabotage your own work; this protects you if you fail, you can say “I didn't even try”

Overcoming the imposter phenomenon...
The research that I conducted found that the imposter phenomenon was associated with burnout amongst academics as well as a range of other professionals. We also found that the extent to which we underestimate our own abilities relative to others (or overestimate others abilities in comparison to ourselves) contributed to more severe thoughts of being an imposter (which makes you think about the impact of social media on our self-perceptions!).

By the time I finished my thesis, I finally admitted that I was experiencing the imposter phenomenon. Being able to label the experience and knowing that I wasn't alone in having these thoughts, was somewhat comforting. I guess it made me realise that even though so many people doubt themselves, they are able to 'suck it up' and move forward rather than letting it hold them back.

But what else helped?

For me, it was being forced to continuously send my work to my supervisor, for it to be torn to shreds (in a very helpful way!) and realising that it was OK; that my work was never going to be perfect first time around. It was learning not to be scared of feedback and to be genuinely curious about suggestions for improvement, rather than defensive.

However, the event that ultimately helped me was becoming a mother. At first, the self-doubt was relentless, but over time and with the support of other mothers, I realised that no one always knows what they're doing, that we all learn as we go and that we will not get things perfect first time around (unfortunately for my son!). Motherhood also helped me to realise that my worth as a person is not reliant on the marks I get in an assignment. Finally, it has shown me that being kind to yourself will improve your own life satisfaction and the quality of your interactions with others; now when I talk to someone I have just met, I am present in the conversation instead of wasting my time worrying what that person thinks of me.

You don't need to become a parent to overcome self-doubt. Keeping a journal of positive feedback, re-framing how you accept feedback, having a mentor and practicing mindfulness are other useful strategies.

To me, I think it just takes time and experience (especially experience that forces you to push yourself) to own our successes unashamedly, and to feel that we deserve to be where we are. In the meantime, it definitely helps to talk with someone. At Within Consulting, our coaches are trained in helping people overcome issues with self-doubt, fear of failure and any other belief, attitude or behaviour that is holding you back from reaching your career potential and feeling satisfied with your work.

This article is written by Phoebe Cook, Consulting Psychologist at Within Consulting. Within Consulting offer a range of coaching, consulting, leadership and team workshop services. For more information, contact Tamara Baker at tamara@withinconsulting.com.au or info@withinconsulting.com.au.