The imposter phenomenon affects men and women alike and is not restricted to high achievers. Rob Yeung explains how building a support network can help
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This article was first published in the September 2018 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
Do you feel that you deserve your career success? Or do you ever think of yourself as a fraud who somehow survives in spite of your weaknesses and inadequacies?
In the late 1970s, two psychotherapists reported seeing a number of women patients who were highly educated and objectively successful but deeply fearful of failure. They wrote: ‘Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.’
Subsequent research has found that such feelings affect women and men equally. Sonja Rohrmann of Goethe University, Frankfurt, recently surveyed 242 women and men with an average of 10.7 years’ experience in leadership roles. Some tended to believe that at times their success was due to luck, and often thought their colleagues more intelligent than them. Managers with stronger feelings of imposterism also tended to report more work-related stress and strain, and higher levels of unhappiness and anxiety, and feared losing the respect of their colleagues.
However, the researchers found no association between imposter phenomenon and gender. In other words, modern studies of managers contradict both the first observations in the 1970s and the popular misconception that women are more affected by imposterism than men.
Another misconception is that imposterism affects only high achievers. Other studies have found that even students can report such feelings. In addition, researchers and most psychologists prefer the terms imposter phenomenon and imposterism rather than imposter syndrome, as syndrome implies that people either have it or not, whereas the reality is that such thoughts and feelings of imposterism tend to affect people on a spectrum.
Coping with imposterism
You may find it very difficult to cope effectively with feelings of imposterism. After all, some of your doubts may indeed be warranted – perhaps you do have weaknesses in terms of skillset or behaviour. However, it is likely that some or even many of the issues are caused by irrational beliefs that exist only in your mind; you may have strengths that you are downplaying or failing to recognise.
For these reasons, many individuals seek the support of other people. University of Houston researchers Holly Hutchins and Hilary Rainbolt found that people who experienced feelings of imposterism often drew upon social support in two ways. One method involved asking for what’s known as instrumental – or practical – support. Individuals sought advice and feedback from knowledgeable colleagues to identify changes they could make to their skills, qualifications or behaviour so that they could be more effective at work. Another strategy involved relying on others for emotional support. Sometimes, people experiencing imposterism feared they were inadequate – even though they were objectively as strong as their peers. In these situations, talking through their worries with sympathetic friends helped to reassure them.
Another tactic involved correcting cognitive distortions – their unfounded beliefs that their work was not good enough. For example, some people found it useful to write out lists of their own accomplishments to remind themselves of successes.
Hutchins and Rainbolt and other researchers have discovered that some individuals use what are known as avoidant coping methods. Some try to ignore thoughts and feelings that they are not good enough; others attempt to convince themselves – and others – that their work no longer matters to them, or try to escape their worries by engaging in distracting behaviour such as watching TV, exercising, shopping or drinking alcohol. Clearly, such behaviour can become dysfunctional and psychologically harmful in excess.
The truth is that both men and women can experience the self-doubt and worries of inadequacy that constitute the imposter phenomenon. If you feel that any of this applies to you, a good start is to understand that there are strategies and methods that can help to keep imposterism in check.
Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace.
CPD technical article
"Some believe that at times their success is due to some kind of luck, and often think their colleagues more intelligent than them"