Imposter Syndrome: Equal Opportunity For All

10/19/2016 11:08 pm ET | Updated Oct 21, 2016

I stumbled on this blogpost about Imposter Syndrome by Melinda Briana Epler, CEO and Founder of Change Catalyst. It caught my eye not only because it is an excellent, heartfelt post on the subject, but because Imposter Syndrome is something I’ve been struggling with for years, and surprisingly I can count on one hand the number of people who shake their heads in recognition when I bring it up. I’m not an expert on the subject, but I'm an expert on the past 53 years of being me.

Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome) is a term coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes referring to high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a "fraud". They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.

Epler mentions a few famous people who also grapple with Imposter Syndrome. She mentions Maya Angelou, Jodie Foster, Tina Fey, Don Cheadle, Sheryl Sandberg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Albert Einstein. In fact, she quotes Einstein:

“The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” — Albert Einstein

When I do bring it up, I’m so surprised when I’m not met with an “OMG, yes! I get it!” Because I KNOW, my high achieving friends or coworkers are met with self-doubt more often than not. I see it in their behaviors. However, here’s the thing, most people don't talk about it. Part of the experience is that they're afraid they're going to be found out, and if you talk about it you are outing yourself.

When Clance and Imes first described the impostor syndrome, they thought it was unique to women. Since then, a variety of research on the topic has revealed that men, too, can have the unenviable experience of feeling like frauds.

Imes concluded that many people who feel like impostors grew up in families that placed a big emphasis on achievement. In particular, parents who send mixed messages — alternating between over-praise and criticism — can increase the risk of future fraudulent feelings. I would venture to guess the “everyone gets a trophy” generation will grow up with its own brand of Imposter Syndrome. How can it be that everyone is wonderful on the soccer field, gets equal playing time, all the time, but suddenly when turning 15 means learning the meaning of Pine-Time. No wonder these kids are Nervous Nellies always waiting for the other foot to drop.

I didn’t see a mention of work environment being a contributing factor, but I think there’s something to look into there. Passive aggressive comments made by “well-meaning” co-workers can needle their way into your head.

Some minority groups may be especially susceptible. A 2013 study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin surveyed ethnic-minority college students and found that Asian-Americans were more likely than African-Americans or Latino-Americans to experience impostor feelings. Most people experience some self-doubt when facing new challenges, but this is different. Even if they experience outward signs of success — getting into a selective graduate program, say, or acing test after test — they have trouble believing that they're worthy. Instead, they may chalk their success up to good luck.

I think it’s easier to understand if you think of an “imposter” as polar opposite of a narcissist. Where a narcissist would always attribute success to herself (whether earned or not), the imposter would attribute it to luck or timing.

What does it look like inside the mind of an Imposter? Take the following examples:

1. You lead a project at work to a successful completion. Your boss says to a large group, “Thank you to __insert your name __ for sort of taking this project and running with it.” (What’s “really” happening here? You’re a fraud, Girl! You didn’t really lead the project. You just sort of did it.)

2. Your work overtime, through the weekend, to get a job done. Your boss is aware of this. You make sure your boss has it first thing Monday morning. You know it’s done to perfection. No response from your boss. (“Reality” check: Not done to perfection, but he doesn’t want to tell you. In fact he’s probably handed it off to someone else to redo it. Fraud, Fraud, That’s you!)

3. It’s time for your yearly evaluation, and your boss gives you an outstanding rating on the standard measurement instrument everyone uses. He hands it to you to sign and says, “Good job this year.” That’s all he says. (What’s “really” happening here? He’s not giving you any feedback because you aren’t really so outstanding. Why would you think that anyway? You are a fraud, dear!)

4. Your friends tell you you’re being ridiculous and list all the reasons why you deserve your success. Some of them know you at work. (In your head: They are your friends, so of course they are going to tell you what you want to hear. Listen here, Fraud, they don’t really know all the ins and outs of what you do at work, so they don’t know how much of a fraud you really are. Keep telling them. Fraud!)

5. You’re nominated for an award. It requires you to write a brief essay explaining how you use technology in innovative ways for standards-based instruction. You think about all the amazing projects you’ve done with your students over the years and you start to write. Then you sit there staring at a blank screen. (You’re thinking: What I do isn’t really so special. Even with some lessons that were awesome, they just started out as small tweaks from lessons that were provided to us. In fact, someone will see that I didn’t create them from scratch. Thinking about one lesson in particular, even if I did add in a video conference with a scientist from another state, and a science experiment with digital probes, and every student blogged their science journals…I don’t know that anyone will really think those pieces are so special. FRAUD!) So you don’t apply for the award.

So, what to do? Epler recommends learning to outsmart your fears, really listening to those who tell you how you’ve changed their lives, meditation, and keeping at your work. I recommend reading her full post here. The American Psychology Association (APA) recommends talking to your mentors, recognizing your expertise, remembering what you do well, realizing no one is perfect, changing your thinking, and talking to someone who can help. Read more here.

I find, the older I get, the less this is an issue for me. I’ve learned to recognize where my strengths are, and where they are not. Let’s face it, I will never be a mathematician and I will always need help with Excel formulas. Thank goodness for Google.

I also acknowledge that just because something is not a strength of mine, does not make it a weakness.

I’ve made choices lately in my personal and professional life that I’m extremely proud of. If I were a true fraud, I would not have been able to successfully see those choices through. I know that now.

After reading a lot this summer, I also have come to realize that all who rise to leadership are not in a position to judge your worthiness. They may hold certain cards in your career deck, but that doesn’t mean you give them all your cards. I’ve learned that leadership comes in many forms and you don’t have to let someone else’s words resonate in your head if they don’t have value. The choice is always yours.

Do you struggle with Imposter Syndrome? Share your story in the comments.


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