AB Thinks  →  23rd June 2020

Sufferers of imposter syndrome are least likely to be what they fear

In the 1970s, two clinical psychologists – Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes – studied 150 highly successful women over a five-year period. These were accomplished professionals with PhDs, well respected in their fields, plus students with an excellent academic record. Yet despite their achievements, these women “did not experience an internal sense of success”. Instead, they felt like imposters or phonies who had somehow managed to fool everyone around them.

In 1978 Clance and Imes published a paper, The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women, and in doing so, coined a new term – imposter syndrome.

The psychologists had spotted a staggeringly common problem. This early study focused on women and has led many to link imposter syndrome with women’s inequality in the workplace. However, we must not overlook the many men who also suffer from the phenomenon. Indeed, it is estimated nearly 70 per cent of women and men will experience signs and symptoms of impostor phenomenon at least once in their life.

But let’s be clear, imposter syndrome is not simply feeling scared, nervous or out of your depth. It is feeling like a fraud – that at any moment, you will be found out because your intelligence and abilities have been overestimated by others and your successes merely a fluke.

Back to the beginning
Clance and Imes pointed to many causes of imposter syndrome. For some of us, the problem starts in childhood with parents that praised us for everything. After a while, we began to discount or even distrust praise. For others, close family members were labelled ‘intelligent’ or ‘bright’, while we were ‘spirited’ or ‘sensitive’. Regardless of what we achieve later in life, we never quite manage to dispel the family myth.

Another cause appears to be related to society’s stereotypes of competence. If we do not see people like us around the table, we may fear we should not be there either.

Research shows imposter syndrome is hard to overcome because behaviours and patterns of thought associated with the phenomenon are self-perpetuating. We fear our stupidity or inadequacy will be found out. So we work harder, prepare more and leave nothing to chance. We never wing it. When we succeed, we put this down to sheer hard graft, not any natural talent, which only perpetuates our feeling of inadequacy.

The importance of self-doubt
Writing this blog is a classic – and ironic – example of imposter syndrome. I could simply draw on my experiences and insights over a 30-year career. I could shoot from the hip and rely on what I already know. But instead I do what I have always done – I research, study and fact-check. I deliberate, test assumptions and slowly, carefully form an opinion. And for this reason, I believe imposter syndrome is my friend. It stops me succumbing to the Dunning-Kruger Effect – a cognitive bias where people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific field. We have all met people who lack the self-awareness to accurately assess their skills. In short, they are people who do not appreciate what they do not know.

In 1933, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.” The list of exceptionally talented people who have admitted to imposter syndrome is long. Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou once said: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’ ”

Beware the real imposters
I have met a few real imposters over the years. So-called experts who stood on stage to sprout pedestrian opinions or third-rate ideas. All would have benefited from a little self-doubt. Smart people know their limitations. Those of us battling to push aside the spectre of imposter syndrome are life-long learners. We are acutely aware of what we do not know. And here is the paradox – suffering from imposter syndrome is a sure-fire way to guard against being an imposter.

Michelle Obama has spoken eloquently about this aspect of imposter syndrome. There are some people who really do not belong at the table, but they presume they do. Whereas those of us suffering from imposter syndrome are the very people who need to be at the table. We bring a fresh perspective, an alternative set of opinions. We stop the group think.

How do you manage imposter syndrome? Making it your friend is a great way to diminish its power over you. Normalise the feeling by recognising how prevalent it is in the people around you, especially the smart ones.

Tell yourself a different story
Thinking impacts feeling. What do you think about your accomplishments? Try accepting, celebrating and acknowledging your successes. What stories do we tell about yourself? It wasn’t luck or a happy accident. You did not fool anyone. Your success was deserved. For some suffers this thinking proves difficult, so Clance and Imes asked them to role-play being bright, expressing it openly in the presence of others. The psychologists found this put people in touch with a hidden self-image lurking beneath the self-doubt.

Recording your successes in a journal may also help. Psychologists have found our brains have a negative bias – we are built with a greater sensitivity to bad news or events.

We more readily register negative stimuli and dwell on the unpleasant stuff. This is also known as positive-negative asymmetry. We feel the sting of a rebuke more powerfully than the joy of praise. By reminding ourselves of our successes, we are less likely to forget, overlook or discount them.

While a support social network is valuable, some psychologists believe feelings of imposter syndrome diminish when we seek support from those outside our immediate network – a coach or mentor we admire, but who does not resemble our closest friends. My mentor is a fiercely bright woman who never gives gratuitous praise. As a result, I truly believe and deeply value every compliment I receive from her.

The bad news is that imposter syndrome does not disappear with success. Indeed, the opposite may be true. It is a mark of intelligence to recognise the limits of your ability and knowledge. The answer lies in questioning your ideas, not yourself.