“ Logically, I know I’m capable of anything. I can take on the world. In practice, I’m terrified I’ll be found out as a fraud.” — Research Respondent
As part of my research into the impostor phenomenon in women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) I’ve been hearing this comment and variants of it from women all over the world. Women who, on the face of it, are capable, clever, confident and resilient have been telling me stories of the internal struggle they have with their conviction and the overwhelming feeling that they are a fraud; an imposter in their own occupations and a phoney in their workplace.
While the stories differ regarding depth and years spent struggling with an internal turmoil that delivers ongoing anxieties and fear of failure (or of success) the underpinning tale is essentially the same. Dealing with the experience of feeling like an impostor is at best tiring and unfulfilling, and at worst it can be a debilitating barrier to wellbeing, job satisfaction and professional advancement.
The ‘Impostor Phenomenon’ (it’s not a syndrome!) was first identified in 1974 by Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes and it describes the inner fear, guilt and, perhaps, dissatisfaction people feel when contemplating success and achievement.
“The Impostor Phenomenon: An intense feeling of intellectual fraudulence, despite successes.” P.R. Clance, 1985
People who experience imposter feelings often attribute their success to luck, other people or some other external influence. It is not a fishing exercise for praise, but a genuinely held belief that they’ve had little overt control or influence over achievements; this is often despite objective evidence to the contrary. Put simply, they are unable to internalise their own success, however, they often are more likely to take responsibility for failure or lack of success even where it is clearly not of their doing.
“Think of it this way, success slides off like Teflon, and failure sticks like Velcro.”
As part of my global research, I’ve conducted in-depth interviews with over 30 women, and nearly 1000 women have taken the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale questionnaire. These women come from a wide range of occupations, ages and workplace experiences but there are common themes running through their stories.
There is often outward confidence or self-assurance that they project to the world, but their reports indicate that internally, they may well be seething with insecurities and fear of not being good enough or of not being able to live up to the expectations of those around them. These women spoke of being crippled with doubt about their own capacity to achieve, despite compelling evidence to suggest that past challenges have been overcome with ease.
Interviewees often suggest that once they’d taken on a new challenge, role or project they were beset with panic about not being able to deliver, despite the assurances of others that they were perfectly qualified and able to do the work.
Women variously spoke of their work being so easy that “really, anyone could do this so I’m not sure why I should get praise for it” or “I’m surrounded by a good team and it’s they who should get the praise, not me” and “I just got lucky, that’s all”.
All of the above suggests that in the four decades since the original work on the Impostor Phenomenon was completed, an underlying inability to internalise success and recognise one’s own achievements is still rife, particularly in women.
In conversation with research participants and those who I talk to at my workshops, there is an agreement that the ‘Impostor Cycle’ as identified in Clance’s book typifies the repeating suite of behaviours and thoughts that characterise the impostor phenomenon experiences as distinct from normal self-doubt.
The Impostor Cycle Explained
The cycle of impostor feelings may begin with an invitation or an opportunity to do something new, a new job/ promotion or a new project.
At first, there may be a reticence to take on the challenge and the opportunity is dismissed. For some, that’s where it stops and of course, talented, capable and qualified people miss out on advancements, career progression or the enjoyment of doing something new.
Then on acceptance, there is a moment of joy of being given the new job, promotion or new project but that soon gives way to worry, fear and perhaps panic that this is the point at which they’ll be found out for being not good enough.
“I think, I’ve got away with it until now, but this time, I’m really going to be found out for the faker I am.”
Effort and work:
To prevent being ‘found out’, people experiencing IP will often work doubly hard and fail to delegate for fear of loss of control. They may procrastinate to put off the inevitability of being found out and then go into periods of overwork to make sure the project is completed to a standard often well over and above what’s expected.
They may experience stress, burnout and loss of sleep, and as part of a team, they may demand more of others around them, or take on the work themselves. Perfectionism drives a need to rework and ‘polish’ the task until the deadline looms.
“I remember taking work off my colleagues and redoing it to my standards before presenting it. It had to be perfect, but perfect in my terms and that was way above what was needed. I lost the trust and respect of my team because I never felt that my, or their, work was ever good enough.”
Once the work is done or the new job is well underway, there’s a sense of relief that the work is over. However, there’s a sense of worry about quality, accuracy or that specifications have been met. Minor mistakes will be amplified and the fear of failure, rejection or of ‘being found out’ becomes a recurring thought. Feelings of IP can lead to stress, anxiety, worry and in some cases depression.
Given that IP drives a fascination with perfectionism and meeting high standards, it’s normally the case that the failure expected does not come to pass. Often, there is praise or good feedback for a job well done or congratulations on a promotion or similar. While there is a sense of relief, there is also the discounting and ‘externalising’ of success.
“It wasn’t me… it was my team”, “Did you notice that glaring fault… I should have fixed that, sorry”, “Oh, anyone could have done that, no, really”, “I must have been the least worst applicant for the job!”
The tragic thing about IP is that this experience will happen time and time again. The next time that a promotion, new project or even, for one woman I spoke to, a new day at work, comes around, the cycle begins again and the frenzied work, stress, anxiety, fear of failure and dismissal of praise/success happens again. It becomes a normal response – a habit that people can’t seem to break out of, but tragically, they know they’re doing it.
“I know I’m doing this. I know that it makes no sense, but I can’t seem to stop it. I feel like I’m going mad.”
After attending my introductory workshops about the impostor phenomenon, or after keynotes or interviews, people often request more information on what can be done about the incapacity to internalise one’s own achievements.
So, I’ve put together a brief list of actions to address impostor feelings/experiences. It’s not an exhaustive list, nor is it intended to replace a well-considered response to imposter experiences, but it’s a catalyst for thought and a prompt for some critical self-examination of where these feelings and thoughts might be coming from and how they might be diminished.
What’s your story?
The most fundamental and important process in getting to grips with your ‘impostor’ experiences is having a good hard think about what ‘stories’ or self-limiting beliefs you’ve dragged with you into adulthood. It’s unlikely that without a good deal of honest reflection, the experience of the imposter phenomenon will never go away completely. But, spoiler alert - this can be difficult, emotional and it’s likely to take more than five minutes. You may even want to get some assistance from a coach who can walk you through the process.
Once you’ve started to unravel your inner narratives, you’re likely to be much more aware of the habitual responses, thoughts and behaviours that are connected to the learning you set down in the past.
“When I started thinking about it, really thinking and remembering, it was obvious. My report cards were never good enough for my parents. I was never allowed to just do well, I always felt that I had to get an A. When I got a B+ that was a catastrophe, so perfection and doing more and more and more… it just became a habit. That was the catalyst and now I’m thinking of all the other times I wasn’t allowed to be good enough, I had to be better than perfect.”
“My father was an engineer and at the top of his game for many, many years. Both my sister and I became professionals despite never feeling that we were doing the ‘right’ things at school and never really getting the interest of my dad. My sister is now a psychologist and I’m a surveyor, and it’s only just occurred to me that this is all connected to a speech he gave not long ago at his retirement where he told a group of his peers, the great and the good… that his greatest regret was that his two daughters failed to follow him into engineering. No wonder I can’t shake the feeling that I’m a bit of a failure.”
Once you've had a good hard look at your 'stories', you can start to write new ones. Narratives that serve you and that better reflect the person you are now with all the successes and capabilities you've developed over time.
What’s the story?
What underpinning narrative are you making true by diminishing your own success, achievements or externalising your accomplishments?
- Is this 'story' true?
- Was it ever?
- Does holding onto this 'story' serve me now?
- Do the people who created this 'story' still have an influence on my life?
Again, this is likely to be an ongoing process for some people so take your time and be gentle with yourself.
Find someone who is able to provide honest, direct and more importantly, evidence-based feedback. Discussions with research participants have revealed that people providing appraisals of achievements must be thought of as competent to give well-informed commentary on achievement.
“My manager provides me with glowing reports on my work, but frankly, he’d not have a clue as to what I do or whether it’s good enough. Even if he’s telling me the work is great, he might be making it up.”
Feedback from people who are thought of as being unqualified to give praise or honest reports on work is thought of as worthless and is not taken seriously even if it is complimentary. In fact, interviewees have suggested that feedback given by managers who have no technical competence to appraise outcomes actually contributes to impostor feelings, as it is often thought of as false, misleading or just plain wrong.
Look for someone who has the capacity to provide informed feedback and ask them for logical, factual and evidence-based feedback or appraisals of work. Someone with no vested interest (not a friend or close colleague, for example) is more likely to be dispassionate and therefore will be better placed to lay the facts on the table.
Next, accept their reports as honest. It’s common knowledge that people will diminish their achievements and attribute it to luck, other people or will suggest that it was something that anyone could have done. If someone is giving you clear, honest feedback, learn to accept it and internalise the achievement.
For many, this will be uncomfortable and their first reaction will be to dismiss it or try to escape the situation, but the more this discomfort is faced, the easier it will get over time.
“I always get that flight or fight response in the pit of my stomach when someone says something good about my work. I just want to run away.”
Make friends with your strengths:
One of the most commonly cited responses to the impostor phenomenon is to take stock of your achievements, but this misses one key point. People who experience the impostor phenomenon often genuinely don’t recognise their achievements, successes and strengths. They honestly believe that there has been some other reason for achievements like luck, other people’s efforts or being in the right place at the right time.
However, in their quiet moments, when they allow ourselves to really, critically look at their capacities, they find little gems, sparks of pride, satisfaction or joy in their capabilities and past successes. These sparks don’t come to the surface very often because our ‘stories’ are weighing them down. So, this exercise is not only one that asks you to uncover and recognise your strengths and capabilities in the light, but to make friends with them, allow them to sit alongside you at work and to come with you to meetings or the shops. The idea is to become as comfortable with them as you are when watching the telly and having dinner with the kids.
This might sound daft, but once you’ve recognised these things as your friends, you’ll find it difficult to dismiss them when you need them and when other people recognise them.
It’s important to really, honestly think about all your strengths and past achievements, write them down, make them explicit, show them to others, give them names if you like and make them your priority. This might make your ‘toes curl’ and give you a flight or fight response in your core, but the only way of getting comfortable with achievement and to break the impostor cycle is to sit with that discomfort and allow it to be diminished over time.
Allow yourself ‘worry’ time:
Clance’s impostor cycle identifies that worrying about not being good enough or feeling inadequate is a key part of the habitual response during the cycle. She suggests allowing a ‘worry allotment’ whereby it is accepted that there will be some anxiety about a new project or new job for example. Where worry ceases to be useful is where that worry should stop. Put a time limit on it and then try to dismiss it in a conscious manner.
Reassess your need to be the best:
People who experience impostor feelings are also likely to be disappointed if they’re not seen to be the very best, or very special in comparison to others. The paradox of this is that they very often want to remain under the radar too. One research participant suggested, “I’d rather be an invisible first, than a visible second.” And another “If I don’t think I can win, I won’t play. And then I get angry at the success of others because I know, deep down, I’m better than they are.”
The need for perfection and exemplary performance can drive a sense of disappointment when it does not happen even though performance is still of a high standard and often above that of others. It's important to review the sense of failure and critically appraise the need to be perfect. Be realistic and review the criteria for success in an objective manner (call on your mentor!).
Get uncomfortable and accept praise:
One of the most common manifestations of the impostor phenomenon is the incapacity to accept praise for achievements. Instead, any complimentary feedback is shrugged off and praise is passed off to other people or ‘luck’. This is not simply a means of being modest. It is more often an honest dismissal and incapacity to internalise accomplishment and achievement.
When asked how well she accepted praise for a job well done, one of my interviewees responded, “my toes are curling at the very thought of it now. I find it very, very uncomfortable. I’d much rather not talk about it.”
Indeed, it can be highly uncomfortable but once the learned and habitual response is noted, it can be addressed by consciously responding in a different manner. For example, stopping the immediate learned response of “oh, it was nothing” or “it was my team”, or “I just got lucky” and instead just saying “thank you for your feedback” or similar. Over time, the conscious response will override the need to externalise praise for achievement.
Learn more about the Impostor Phenomenon:
People often tell me of their surprise that this is a recognised phenomenon. Women have literally cried with relief to know that this is something that others also experience and that it has been investigated for decades. “Oh, I’m so glad this is a thing!” It is, indeed, a “thing”.
Once it can be put into context and ‘named up’, then it can be dealt with and diminished.
“Hi, my name is Terri and I feel like a fraud”.
Once people have come to grips with their own responses to feelings of being an impostor, then it’s easier to identify the behaviours and responses in others.
Call it out, gently, support others in being clear about where praise is deserved and where anxiety about future performance should be diminished, insist on giving honest appraisals and provide evidence of achievements and where commendation should be levelled.
As a researcher and a self-confessed ‘impostor’ myself, I find the phenomenon fascinating and frightening in equal measure.
This blog was written by Dr Terri Simpkin, a leading expert in the ‘Impostor Phenomenon’. You can find her original blog, as well as many more resources surrounding the subject here. We are also hosting a series of FREE events surrounding the Impostor Phenomenon, you can sign up here, or via our events section.
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