Do you feel like an impostor?

Dear colleagues,

Quite a few successful people feel like impostors. Despite their achievements, they think they aren't as talented as others think they are. They feel like fakes.

In the 1970s, two US therapists labelled this experience the impostor phenomenon.

"Impostors believe they are intellectual frauds who have attained success because they were at the right place at the right time, knew someone in power, or simply were hard workers - never because they were talented or intelligent or deserved their positions." (Clance, p. 5).

Scholars are prime candidates for feeling like impostors. Intellectual culture can be ruthless, with critique coming from examiners, referees and fellow scholars. Giving a lecture or writing a paper often involves giving the pretence of full knowledge of the area, hiding inadequacies. Only the brave and confident freely admit how much they don't know in their own field and research speciality.

It's possible to feel like an impostor in different facets of one's life, including in intimate relationships. Some situations are more likely to bring out impostor feelings, especially taking on a new role, for example starting a degree or an academic job.

There are three signs of the impostor phenomenon.

"1. The sense of having fooled other people into overestimating your ability.

2. The attribution of your success to some factor other than intelligence or ability in your role.

3. The fear of being exposed as a fraud." (Harvey, p. 8)

Many of those suffering impostor feelings are perfectionists. Some feel obliged to be better than anyone else, and may stop doing an activity because it's difficult or because someone else does it better.

Impostor feelings can develop in childhood. Well-meaning parents tell their children how smart they are. The child assumes being smart means doing well without trying, and when they struggle with something they then think they aren't smart.

According to Pauline Rose Clance, there are four common features of the families of impostor phenomenon victims:

1. The family gives the child feedback conflicting with feedback from others.

2. The child is expected to be smart and to pick up things quickly.

3. The child feels their own abilities don't fit family priorities.

4. There is little open acknowledgement or praise for the child.

For example, a woman "used to hide her studying in childhood. When her mother came to her bedroom door, she pretended to be playing. She wanted to comply with the notion that she was a genius, and 'geniuses don't have to study'." (Harvey, p. 138)

The "impostor cycle" involves fear and worry about an upcoming task, procrastination, then frenzied work followed by success and praise but only temporary relief. The cycle leads to a belief that worry and panic are necessary to do well. This cycle has similarities to the undergraduate student practice of cramming for exams and doing assignments just before they are due.

The main downside of the impostor phenomenon is that life isn't as satisfying as it could be. Sufferers seldom enjoy their successes, but are constantly worrying. They feel ashamed when they don't meet their own unattainable standards. They fear that others will discover they are less than their own ideal.

Sufferers may put excessive effort into minor tasks. They are often hypersensitive to criticism. Some are afraid of success, pulling back from big challenges and sabotaging their own efforts, due to fear of being exposed as a fraud.

What to do? The first thing is to recognise that the phenomenon exists. Knowing that others suffer similarly can be a big relief, especially because few ever tell others about their feelings.

Sufferers can find it useful to examine how they spend their time and try to figure out whether something can be done well enough in less time. The thing to learn is whether super-high standards are really needed for a task.

Another helpful technique is to ask, "what is the worst possible thing that could happen?" Usually it's less than catastrophic. For example, the worst thing that can happen when sending a paper to a journal is rejection with some nasty comments. Rather than not submitting a paper because it is not perfect, a more relaxed approach is to submit the paper when it is good enough, learn from rejections and keep trying.

I've drawn here on two early books, both popularisations based on the more technical work in the area.

Pauline Rose Clance, The impostor phenomenon: overcoming the fear that haunts your success (Atlanta, GA: Peachtree Publishers, 1985).

Joan C. Harvey with Cynthia Katz, If I'm so successful, why do I feel like a fake? The impostor phenomenon (NY: St. Martin's Press, 1985).

There's also material on the web, for example

Dr. Pauline Rose Clance, The impostor phenomenon,

Dr Valerie Young, Overcoming the impostor syndrome,

However, there is one feature of these studies I question. Many people apparently believe they are impostors because they succeed due to hard work and perseverance rather than natural talent or intelligence.   Clance (p. 52) says victims discount their abilities by attributing them to hard work: "After all, they theorize, if they had to work so hard to accomplish something, then they must not be very bright. Truly intelligent people accomplish everything with ease, they believe." Harvey (p. 38) quotes a speech therapist saying "But I sometimes think, 'Well, if I were really bright, then I wouldn't have to work this hard'."

However, the evidence from research on expert performance is that natural talent is overrated: every high achiever has to work hard. So perhaps a resolution of the impostor syndrome is to accept the need for hard work. This relates to psychologist Carol Dweck's idea of fixed and growth mindsets (see her book Mindset). The people who feel like they're impostors have a fixed mindset: they believe in natural talent.

If you feel you're faking it as a scholar, you're not alone. It's worth reading about the impostor phenomenon and developing ways to continue to achieve but with less worry and stress.

8 December 2010

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