Are You Living Life As An Impostor?

07/11/2011 12:51 am ET | Updated Sep 10, 2011

Are you more afraid of failure or success? Which one is holding you back? Perhaps the answer is neither! Could it be that you are more afraid of being found out? Three weeks ago, we looked into the fear of failure followed the next week by the fear of success.

While both fear of success and fear of failure are important to consider, I think there is actually an even deeper level of fear that could be preventing you, your team or your company from succeeding. I call this deeper fear, The Impostor Phenomenon.

Several readers responded to the fear of success article commenting in particular about the fear of being relied upon. The basic tenet -- the more successful I become, the more people will rely on me; the more they rely on me, the more likely it is that I will let them down. I'd rather not succeed than risk letting someone down.

While I certainly understand that circular reasoning and the burden that can be associated with having others become dependent, my experience coaching hundreds of up and coming executives suggests that many people harbor an even more debilitating fear. What if they (my boss, my co-workers, my friends) discover that I'm not as good as I've been pretending?

The Better You Get, the Better You Better Get

In the fear of success article, I asked you to consider the downsides of success. What would happen if you became more successful, got the dream job, the promotion, the bump in income, or whatever it is that you call success. My friend and former business partner, David Allen of GTD fame, has a wonderful little aphorism that addresses the problem quite succinctly: "the better you get, the better you better get."

What that basically says is that with rising performance comes rising expectations, both from within your own self as well as from others. But what if your rising performance had more to do with "the blind squirrel phenomenon" (even a blind squirrel finds the occasional nut) than it had to do with your own skill and capability? You then run the risk of being found to be The Impostor -- the just-barely-average-Jane masquerading as Super Woman.

In the old days, this problem was known as "the peter principle." As noted psychologist Dr. Laurence Peter explained in his book, "The Peter Principle": "In a hierarchically structured administration, people tend to be promoted up to their level of incompetence." He later said it this way "The cream rises until it sours." Yummy image, isn't it?

Have you ever worked with or for someone who wound up being promoted beyond his or her level of competence? Perhaps you are the one who has risen beyond your own level of capability. A common scenario: you demonstrate skill at cranking widgets, a higher-up notices, and you wind up being promoted, becoming a manager of widget crankers. The challenge, of course, is that the skill of making something doesn't necessarily translate into the skill of managing people, processes or projects.

The Impostor may try to keep people at a distance, to avoid being found out, to avoid being discovered as another one of those blind squirrels. Strategies can range from hiding behind closed doors, creating draconian rules and command structures, or simply micro managing widget crankers.

For the Imposter, success can also become personally destructive as the fear of being found out becomes debilitating; for others, the impostor phenomenon leads the team or organization into dire circumstances. Obviously, neither outcome is particularly good.

However, there's another side effect of the impostor phenomenon. What if you actually are pretty good, but your own self doubt leads you to underperform? What if you are so afraid of the demands of success that you actually undermine your own capability and adopt the imposter phenomenon as a different kind of cloaking device, one that avoids the responsibility often associated with "to whom much is given, much is expected?" What if you really could succeed at the next level and all you need is support, training or coaching?

Here's how one reader who prefers to remain anonymous put it in an email to me:

I am a "successful" sales consultant for a major biotech company. Prior to that, I had a very successful six years as an officer and pilot in the military. I have succeeded in everything I've set out to do, which sounds great, doesn't it? The catch is that as I've grown older I've only attempted things I was sure I could do, or was naive enough to believe would be easy. Despite prior success, I am absolutely convinced that I am one of those people you describe as being afraid of success.

One thing I think plays a huge part in the psychology of fearing success is the fear of becoming relied upon by others. I know that in every success I've ever had, the number of people who became reliant upon me, as well as the sheer volume of things that also fell under my purview, increased immensely. That scares the hell out of me and I desire it less and less with each passing year. I believe it is the biggest factor in my choosing to avoid promotions and special assignments in work. I simply do not want people to continually rely on me (possibly for fear of letting them down, even just once? Don't know for sure).

I have the skills, the track record of success, and the experience necessary to take on much more, but I avoid potentially successful opportunities like the plagues of Egypt. I could tell you how badly this has affected me, but I would only do so anonymously, so I won't include it here.

What if you hold that fear of success, that fear of being relied upon? What if you are afraid of letting others down? What if you afraid of being found out? Here's an odd twist on things: What if that very fear could become your source of strength?

As you can probably sense, there's a lot more to this and we have only begun exploring how fear might be in your way. Next week, we'll go a bit deeper, looking at several other pieces to the puzzle.

In the meantime, keep asking yourself what you want out of life and why you want it? What have you told yourself about taking the risks necessary to create what you want? What have you found useful in overcoming obstacles, in creating your own version of success in life?

I'd love to hear from you so please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)

If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your own life, how you can take a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your own life, please download a free chapter from my new book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)