Responding to the Imposter Syndrome

First described by Pauline Clance, ‘imposterism’ refers to people who believe their achievements are not deserved (Clance, 1985) and others will see them as a fraud (Sakulku & Alexander, 2011).

Feeling like a fraud may be especially noticeable with ‘achievement tasks’, or activities where performance and results are visible to others (Harvey & Katz, 1985). Despite this, many people with imposterism can appear confident to the outside world (Leary et al., 2000). The bottom line is that imposterism combines discounting your own abilities with the belief that you’re a phony about to be exposed.

 

In more detail….

Psychologists refer to a reluctance to take credit for your own successes as failure to ‘internalise’ achievements. This is an inability to believe success is due to your individual skills and abilities. When successful, people with imposterism tend to reject positive feedback from others, and instead figure success was due to extreme hard work or pure luck. A person with imposterism tends to set high expectations for task performance, then under-rates how well they did afterwards. This creates a distorted gap between actual and expected performance that cannot be closed (Clance, 1985). 

 

Effects on your behaviour

Experiencing imposterism first-hand can be unpleasant, if not highly distressing. But it also influences your behaviour in unhelpful ways. For example, you might procrastinate around important tasks, or put far more effort into a task than what is practically required (leading to other problems, such as poor time management). These strategies are also commonly used by those who tend to experience perfectionism, which often occurs alongside imposterism (Weir, 2013).

 

Causes and effects

There are likely to be many causes of imposterism. Upbringing and family environment appear to be important, along with a person’s underlying personality (Sakulku & Alexander, 2011). The key point here is imposterism usually cannot be reduced to a single cause. As far as consequences go, there is some evidence that imopsterism is related to several mental health issues. These range from negative emotions about self (e.g., guilt and shame), through to anxiety, low mood and overall dissatisfaction with life (Sakulku & Alexander, 2011).  

 

What you can do

Given the negative effects of imposterism, there is value in spending some time trying to reduce its influence. Here are some suggestions:

Try to reduce procrastination. If you are having problems following your list of scheduled activities, start a small part of a task, or work on a task for a specified short period of time. This often helps people get off the mark by focusing on a chunk of a task that feels manageable.

Consider standards of performance. Think about two standards of performance for a task; a ‘good enough’ standard and your ‘ideal’ (or even perfect standard). How far apart are the two? If a long way apart, is there middle ground you can work towards as an experiment? Start with relatively less important tasks to help make this process feel more tolerable. What do you expect to happen by lowering the bar a little? After the task, evaluate what actually happened. Did anything horrendous occur? If not, were there any positives associated with this different approach (e.g., freed up some time for another task)?  

Think about time management. Before you start a task, think about what is a sensible period of time to allocate for its completion…then stick to this limit. If unsure, get the opinion of some who is trustworthy and sensible (don’t ask a fellow perfectionist!). This can help identify situations where you are planning to spend way too much time on a task.

Be prepared. Self-doubt and imposterism are very common experiences. Imposterism is particularly likely in new situations (e.g., a new job, doing a task for the first time). This can help you identify situations where imposterism might hit you hardest. This provides an early warning to do some planning (such as using some of the suggestions in this section). 

Be a positive coach to yourself. One way to combat imposterism is to prepare some positive thoughts/statements to use when feeling the imposterism wobbles. Examples include “I have got through this fine before, so I can do it again”, “Just because I feel like an imposter, this does not prove it to be true”.

Document success. Keep a diary of successes and positive feedback from others. This helps you build a ‘database’ of positive performance, and can be used to evaluate the accuracy of negative self-talk, such as “I am no good at this”. What would this diary look like for a person who was actually rubbish at the tasks involved? If there is a difference between the two? Why might that be the case?

Reduce the stigma. A factor that maintains imposterism is an unwillingness to talk about our insecurities and self-doubts. This reluctance makes total sense, but consider talking about this topic with people you trust (e.g., those who have been supportive in the past). Discussing imposterism may help you to feel that it is a normal experience. This can also reduce how intimidating imposterism feels thereby increasing your confidence to confront it.

 

References

Clance, P. R. (1985). The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the fear that haunts your success. Atlanta,

                GA: Peachtree.

Harvey, J. C., & Katz, C. (1985). If I’m so successful, why do I feel like a fake. New York: Random House.

Leary, M. R., Patton, K., Orlando, A., & Funk, W. W. (2000). The impostor phenomenon: Self-perceptions,

                reflected appraisals, and interpersonal strategies. Journal of Personality, 68, 725-756.

Sakulku, J., & Alexander, J. (2011). The imposter phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioral

                Science, 6(1), 73-92.

Weir, K. (2013). Feel like a fraud? gradPSYCH, 11(4). Accessed from

                http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/index.aspx on June 29th, 2017.

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