The Secret is Out: Exposing the Imposter Phenomenon

A concept image of a magnifying glass with a wooden handle on a textured white surface showing the word authentic but magnifying the word fake resembling counterfeittingImagine this: after months and months of hard work, you have been accepted into the incredibly competitive graduate program you’ve applied to. Or, after countless applications and draining interviews, you’ve landed your absolute dream job with a prominent and influential company. You’re thrilled – what a relief! You can’t wait to get started. All’s well that ends well, right?

But before long, a troubling suspicion starts to enter your mind: “I don’t really deserve this”. Or, “There has to have been a mistake – this is just a fluke”. You start to feel less relief, and instead more anxiety. And when you actually start your new position, you are convinced that you don’t belong there, and that everyone around you is smarter, more accomplished, more successful, and soon enough, they will all realize: you’re not one of them.

This feeling has a name: the imposter phenomenon. And while it is experienced by many people, it is unfortunately not often talked about. Imposter phenomenon (sometimes called imposter syndrome) was first introduced in the late 1970s by two psychologists, Dr. Suzanne Imes and Dr. Pauline R. Clance. Impostorism is characterized by difficulty in internalizing and accepting success, feelings of being undeserving of praise or accolades, attributing accomplishments to chance or luck rather than genuine competence, and the belief that others are overestimating their skills or abilities. There is a persistent fear that those around them will discover their true inadequacy; that they will be found out for being “frauds” (Clance & Imes, 1978; Sakulku & Alexander, 2011).

Imposter phenomenon commonly occurs among high-achievers, those typically regarded as successful individuals. While early research focused on its effect on women, further research has shown that men experience impostorism as well (e.g., Bussotti, 1990; Langford, 1990). It’s unclear exactly how pervasive the imposter phenomenon is; however one estimate suggests that 70% of people will have at least one experience with impostorism in their lifetime (Gravois 2007, as cited by Sakulku & Alexander, 2011). Imposter phenomenon is not listed as a diagnosis in the DSM (the standard handbook for mental health professionals), however it is widely acknowledged to be a “very real and specific form of intellectual self-doubt”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is very often associated with perfectionism, anxiety, and depression.

imposter phenomenon

So what can you do if you’re someone who experiences the imposter phenomenon? Often, there can be underlying contributing factors (e.g. low self-esteem or self-worth, heightened worry about achieving, strained relationships with family or loved ones, etc.) that may be helpful to work through with a psychologist. There are also ways to manage impostorism on your own – some strategies and suggestions are listed below:

  • Let it out: Talking to classmates, colleagues, or close friends about how you’re feeling will likely reassure you that you’re not alone. Central to the imposter phenomenon is feeling the need to blend in and to conceal your concerns so as to not be discovered as a “fraud”; but sometimes, all it takes is one brave soul to say “I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing sometimes – do you ever feel like that?” to realize that there are many of you are in the same boat. At the very least, knowing others feel this way can help shake the perception that you’re struggling while everyone else is thriving. It may also help to create a supportive environment that can make these feelings more manageable in the long run.
  • Pay equal attention to the positives: In many cases, and particularly in new positions, you may believe your colleagues or superiors are evaluating you (and sometimes, they are!). You may even feel the need to prove yourself so that others think you are deserving of your position. Given that we all have limited time, attention, and focus, it could be considered an inefficient use of our cognitive resources to concentrate on the things that we have already mastered or that don’t need any work – instead, we may choose to focus on the areas that could be improved and benefit from extra attention. And this is all well and good; except that over time, you may begin to develop a distorted perception of the good versus the bad; the weakness to strength ratio seems bigger than it actually is, due to the mental emphasis you’re putting on your weaknesses.

To change this misleading representation, you may need to put some extra effort into affirming your positives and strengths. Doing this in a deliberate way, like keeping a journal of things you’re proud of, or listing and keeping track of day to day examples of your strengths and positive qualities can be helpful in balancing the scales (check out the Centre for Clinical Interventions’ ‘Positive You’ Journal as an example).

  • Don’t dismiss compliments: Accepting praise can difficult for a lot of people, and particularly challenging for those with impostorism. Given that you may not believe you are “good enough” to be in your position, the notion that you in fact deserve a compliment or accolade may feel downright laughable! You may become very good at dismissing kind words from other people: “She only said that to be nice”; “He is looking for a favour from me, no wonder he said he liked my presentation”; “He’s just looking to see how I’ll react when he compliments me, he doesn’t actually mean it”. You would be surprised at how creative our explanations can become when we are trying to reconcile what we believe (“I’m inadequate”) with what we are observing (“They think I’m good at this”).

If you notice yourself doing this, next time you receive a compliment, do your absolute best to smile and say a simple “thank you” and not launch into a million reasons why they’re wrong (either verbally OR in your head). Also, try to avoid responding with “Really? Do you really mean that?” Incredulity and doubt will reinforce the feeling that you don’t deserve the praise, so again, try to stick to an appreciative acknowledgement of the comment, and leave it at that. It may also be helpful to keep a file or a box of all the positive things colleagues, classmates, superiors, professors, friends, etc. have said to you. That way, when you’re feeling particularly down on yourself, you have real examples of sincere praise to look through. Writing down a compliment may feel silly at the time, but do your best to move past that and do it anyway (although of course you can wait until you have a moment to yourself so you don’t have to write it down in front of others). And as much we’d like to think we can rely on our memories to remember all the nice things people have said, trust me – you’ll want to write them down to ensure you remember it accurately (or at all!).

  • Think about how you’re thinking: With most things, the more we practice, the better we become. For example, think about when you were learning to type; at first, it was difficult, effortful, and required concentration. After a while, it probably became much more mindless, and automatic – your fingers follow a fluid pattern and almost instinctively know where to go. The same logic can be applied to how we think; the more you think a particular way, the more practiced you are, and the more automatic and immediate that way of thinking becomes. So, if you become really practiced in thinking you’re bad at your job, you’re not cut out for your program, everyone around you is more talented, etc., the more often and automatically these thoughts are going to come to you! And importantly, you may not even notice them – they might occur quickly and outside of your awareness. But even if you don’t notice them, they will almost definitely affect your perceptions of situations, moods, and behaviours.

One of the first steps in trying to adjust our automatic thoughts is to notice and observe them – do your best to slow down your thinking and try to catch these thoughts as they go by. By paying attention to how we’re thinking and observing patterns in our thoughts, we’re more likely to be able to challenge these thoughts and hopefully develop more balanced ways of thinking. However, this takes time and effort, so keep at it!

  • Recognize that you are more than your position: After learning someone’s name, what’s the first thing people ask when they meet someone new? Very often, the question is: “And what do you do for a living?” In our culture, so much emphasis is put on the label of a position, and it is very easy for our identities as individuals to become synonymous with how we are making money (or how we are planning on making money if we’re still students). This belief can lead to enormous pressure to succeed in our work, because that may make us feel successful, and maybe even worthy, as people.

Try to be honest with yourself about how much validation you are seeking from external success, and do your best to recognize and internalize that you are a full person beyond what is on your business card. Making time for self-care and engaging in activities that you find fulfilling on an emotional and spiritual level can help in keeping the cliché, but important, work-life balance.

If the imposter phenomenon applies to you (or someone you know), the above suggestions will hopefully help in managing it. Once again, if you are having trouble working through imposter feelings on your own, seek out support from someone who is trained to help.


Online resources

http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/fraud.aspx

https://counseling.caltech.edu/general/InfoandResources/Impostor

https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/planning-courses/tips-teaching-assistants/impostor-phenomenon-and

Academic references

Bussotti, C. (1990). The impostor phenomenon: Family roles and environment. (Doctoral dissertation, Georgia State University). Dissertation Abstracts International, 51, 4041B-4042B.

Clance, P.R. & Imes, S. (1978). The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice. Vol. 15 (3).

Langford, J. (1990). The need to look smart: The impostor phenomenon and motivations for learning. (Doctoral dissertation, Georgia State University). Dissertation Abstracts International, 51, 3604B.

Sakulku, J., & Alexander, J. (2011). The imposter phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioral Science, 6, 73-92.

Katherine Wilson

Katherine Wilson is a Halifax Psychologist (Cand. Reg.) at Cornerstone Psychological Services. She works with adults and young adults (18+) looking to overcome mental health obstacles, such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, and also works with couples who are having difficulties in their relationship. Katherine also has a particular research interest in how mental health can impact social, familial, and romantic relationships.
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