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Are You Your Worst Supporter?

Edited by Lesley Cornelius
I first learned about the Impostor Syndrome in 1983 while in grad school. I was sitting in class one day when another student rose to present the findings of a 1978 study by psychology professor Pauline Clance and psychologist Suzanne Imes called “The Impostor Phenomenon Among High Achieving Women.”

What Clance and Imes had found was that many of their female clients seemed unable to internalize their accomplishments. External proof of intelligence and ability in the form of academic excellence, degrees, recognition, and promotions was routinely dismissed. Instead, success was attributed to somehow “fooling” others into thinking they were smarter and more capable than these women believed themselves to be. Rather than offering assurance, each new achievement and subsequent challenge only served to intensify the ever-present fear that they’d somehow managed to slip through the system undetected and it would be just a matter of time before they’d be FOUND OUT.

“Oh my God,” I remember thinking, “That’s me!” What I would soon discover is that I was hardly alone. In fact, early studies by Dr. Gail Matthews suggest that up to 70% of all people have experienced these feelings at one time or another. It’s also not just women. Subsequent studies have shown that the Impostor Syndrome impacts both genders and all races equally.

People who experience the Impostor Syndrome come from all walks of life. They’re executives, police officers, attorneys, sales reps, artists, engineers, teachers, clergy, doctors, students, therapists, and actors. According to Clance, you’re more prone to Impostor feelings if your success came quickly. The writer who publishes a best-seller right out of the gate, the rookie sales rep who lands the major account, or anyone who’s experienced rapid success are more likely to experience feelings of fraudulence. The thought process here is, “I don’t know how I did it the first time, so how could I possibly repeat that success?”

You may also be at-risk if you are a first generation professional, have high achieving parents, work in a job that is atypical for your gender, work alone, work in a creative field (actor Mike Myers once confessed that, “I still believe that at any time the no-talent police will come and arrest me”), or you are a student. Impostor feelings can be particularly acute if you are the first, or one of the few, women or people of color in your field or job setting, where you’re seen as a representative of your entire group. Not having the luxury to be “average” or to fail as an individual unconnected to your social group can lead to intense feelings of self-doubt and fraudulence

Are You an “Impostor”? To the outside world, you appear confident and competent. Yet inside you secretly worry that others will find out you are not as intelligent and capable as they think you are. Each new challenge promises to be the “big one.” You fear that every new project, presentation, or interview is the time where you will finally be unmasked as an impostor, fake and fraud. See if you can recognize these other warning signs of the Impostor Syndrome:

  • You tend to blame yourself when things go wrong. There’s a famous cartoon where a woman trying to zip up her pants says, “I must be getting fat.” In the next panel a man with the same problem says, “Hey, there must be something wrong with these pants!” Sound familiar? When things go wrong on the job, you fault your supposed lack of intelligence or skill when it could just be an impossible deadline. Worse, you tend to personalize your mistakes and failures. So when your boss says your report was inadequate, what you hear is, “I’m inadequate.”

  • You use hard work to cover up your supposed ineptness. There’s nothing wrong with good old-fashioned hard work. However, you persevere over even routine tasks as a way to protect yourself from being found out. You are driven by the belief that the only reason you got to where you are today is because you had to work harder and longer than everybody else. If you let up for even a minute, you fear the “jig” will be up. After all, you believe if you were really intelligent you wouldn’t have to work so hard.

  • You fear success far more than failure. The thought of actually succeeding can be far more stressful than failing. After all, the higher up you go, the higher the stakes get as well. Expectations will be higher. More people will be counting on you. There is farther to fall.

  • You believe your success is a fluke. Sure you’ve gotten good grades, awards, degrees, a prestigious job… but you can explain all that. In fact, you’ve become quite adept at chalking your successes up to such external factors as luck, timing, charm, computer error, the supposed simplicity of the task (“If I can get a Ph.D. in astrophysics from MIT, anybody can”), or to other people’s efforts, pity or stupidity.

On the one hand, we Impostors need to appreciate the incredible creativity that goes into thinking this stuff up! At the same time,  if you’re constantly explaining away your success, you have a serious problem don’t you? If you are unable to claim your accomplishments on a gut, visceral level, then when you’re confronted with evidence of your abilities, it’s emotionally unclear to you how you got there.

Waste in the Workplace The Imposter Syndrome, although experienced on an individual level, can and does interfere with the job effectiveness, productivity and advancement potential of those encumbered by it. This should be of great concern to managers because it affects a company’s greatest resource – its employees. The syndrome can become an expensive problem when it results in:
  • An untapped labor pool: The men and women who experience “Imposter-ism” are less likely to feel qualified for promotions. Hence, they are less inclined to compete for advanced positions. They are more apt to fall into the “expert trap,” remaining in jobs in which they are comfortable and knowledgeable, but have clearly outgrown.

  • Employees reluctant to take risks: Imposters are more reluctant to pursue new ideas and to take business risks which could benefit their companies, and more reserved  about offering potentially valuable insights, ideas, opinions and solutions to problems because they fear being wrong or exposing their “ignorance.”

  • Procrastination: Imposters are also more prone to production-delaying procrastination; “putting off” is a coping mechanism which allows them to postpone the moment of awful “truth,” finding out that they can’t complete a project satisfactorily.

  • Employee stress: The anxiety of expecting to be “unmasked” can cause stress-related problems. Billions of dollars are wasted on its symptoms: low productivity, absenteeism, haphazard communication, below-par performance and sickness (studies show that people under stress are more vulnerable to disease).

In addition, employees caught in the Imposter Syndrome are more likely to see constructive criticism as proof of their ineptitude, rather than use it to improve their skills or increase their knowledge. In turn, they are not as motivated by praise and positive feedback because they dismiss compliments, crediting their accomplishments to luck, personality, or outside help.

How do we combat The Impostor Syndrome? Fake it ‘til you make it. Now and then we all have to fly by the seat of our pants. Instead of considering “winging it” as proof of your ineptness, learn to do what many high achievers do, and view it as a skill. Don’t wait until you feel confident to start putting yourself out there. Courage comes from taking risks. Change your behavior first and allow your new found confidence to follow.

Valerie Young Ed.D.

Dr. Valerie Young is an internationally recognized speaker and award winning author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women. She has addressed over 60,000 people at such diverse organizations as IBM, Chrysler, Boeing, Merck, American Women in Radio and Television, Society of Women Engineers, Harvard, and Stanford. Valerie and her career tips have been featured in The Wall Street Journal, O magazine, The Chicago Tribune, More, Glamour (UK), and Huffington Post among others. Valerie is also the Dreamer in Residence at ChangingCourse.com, an online resource for people who want to find their life mission and live it. To learn more about the impostor syndrome visit www.ImpostorSyndrome.com.