The Imposter Phenomenon
27th January 2017 Kate Atkin MSc
Have you ever wondered when you would be ‘found out’ or felt terrified at making a mistake because it ‘proves’ you are not perfect, and therefore not up to the job? Fascinating insight...
First defined by two American academics, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes (1978), the prevalence of imposter phenomenon, especially among women, was highlighted by Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, which encouraged women to take charge of their careers. However, this phenomenon, often incorrectly referred to as a syndrome, is not confined to women, or to academics, or to those who work for others.
So what is the Imposter Phenomenon?
First, let’s explore what it is not. The imposter phenomenon does not refer to people who really are imposters, for instance those charlatans or fraudsters who we might have the misfortune to meet from time to time. Nor does it refer to those people who ‘fake it until they make it’ which some self-help books like to suggest as a route to fame and fortune. Nor does it refer to those moments self-doubt that we all experience from time to time.
No, the imposter phenomenon is an intense, internal feeling of phoniness; a feeling that we are not really as good as everyone else thinks we are; that we are an imposter who is somehow pulling the wool over other people’s eyes and that we will be found out one day. But it is a feeling – it is not actual phoniness. The internal fraudulent, inadequate or undeserving feeling is completely opposite to the objective evidence. We truly are competent, knowledgeable or skilled, but inside we just don’t believe it.
So if it is just a feeling, where’s the problem?
The issue arises because many of those who experience this feeling are successful, highly capable, intelligent people (men and women), who are holding themselves back from going for that next promotion, speaking up in a meeting, or saying what needs to be said to the Board. In essence, the belief that they are not really as good as everyone else thinks they are prevents them from reaching their full potential.
Surely with the levels of self-confidence needed to reach senior positions or set out as an entrepreneur, those people can’t possibly experience negative feelings like this? Well, recent research, conducted by yours truly, with twelve successful entrepreneurs shows that a surprising number of them do. Like others experiencing the imposter phenomenon, entrepreneurs find themselves going through phases of feeling as if they will be found out.
However, they are usually very good at hiding this feeling from the rest of us. Some of the strategies used by my interviewees ranged from external trappings such as handbags, tailored suits and cars, as well as choosing carefully to only do things they know they are good at, thus avoiding exposing any potential weaknesses. One of my interviewees described it pointedly as “avoiding the ghosts of reality” while others, both male and female, said that they adopted different personas for different situations to avoid being ‘found out’.
One common statement I hear from those who have imposter feelings is that they don't want to become over-confident, or heaven forbid, arrogant. Not acknowledging their skills and successes is one way they see of avoiding crossing over that line.
But, there are those who experience a delusion of their own abilities in the opposite direction, believing they are far more capable than they actually are. (Some X-Factor auditions spring to mind, though maybe this applies to a work colleague too?). This has been termed the Dunning-Kruger effect, after, yes you've guessed it, Dunning & Kruger who described this over-inflated view of skills or importance back in 1999.
However, if you experience imposter-type feelings there is little chance you will reach the extreme of arrogance, even if you start to acknowledge your success, skills and abilities. What will happen is that you will start to come across as more confident, self-assured, in control, and indeed less apologetic and self-deprecating.
When I'm speaking at conferences I'm always surprised by the waves of recognition which ripple through the audience as I start to speak about the imposter phenomenon.
So, what can you do if you find yourself experiencing this phenomenon?
Here are just three ways that can help:
First and most importantly, acknowledge it to yourself, and to someone else. It helps to talk about it. In my role as a coach, I have seen dramatic changes in people who have come to terms with imposter feelings.
Secondly, accept that no-one, not even you, will be perfect, no matter how hard you try. A desire for perfection and over-preparing for meetings, presentations and reediting reports again and again are hallmarks of someone experiencing imposter feelings (this is something I am still working on, as my husband, a fully signed up member of the ‘just good enough’ society, keeps pointing out). Ask yourself if 80% would be good enough. The chances are that what you consider to be 80% good enough will be close to someone else's 100%.
Thirdly, acknowledge the role your skills and abilities have played in your success. Don’t put it all down to luck, timing or hard work. While these will no doubt have played a role, without your skills and abilities no amount of luck, timing or hard work would have enabled you to achieve what you have achieved.
It is likely that if you experience the imposter phenomenon you will have some awards, accreditations or accomplishments under your belt, as well as a plethora of feedback from other people telling you that you are great at your job. So how come you think the awards judges, examiners and your colleagues are all wrong, and that you, just you, are right? Learning to accept positive feedback and, if necessary, asking for clarification on what specifically you did that was good, can also help overcome the internal "not good enough" chatter.
Another key finding in my research?
Entrepreneurs don’t do it alone. Contrary to popular belief, successful entrepreneurs have a network of people who provide business support, skills, advice and emotional support. They build teams around them, and in the case of one of my interviewees, the team rather than the business was what he was most proud of.
Entrepreneurs work with others, not alone, and will ask for help when they need it. So can you – it’s ok, and a sign of strength, not a weakness!
About the Author - Kate Atkin MSc is author of The Confident Manager and The Presentation Workout. For more information, coaching, keynotes or workshops on how to banish the imposter, see www.kateatkin.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Atkin, K. (2015) Entrepreneurship and the imposter phenomenon: A qualitative analysis of the role of self-efficacy MSc thesis awaiting publication
Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241 - 247.
Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(6), 1121.