Are Women the Only Impostors?

07/18/2011 08:20 am ET | Updated Sep 17, 2011

In last week's article about the impostor phenomenon, we took a look at the all-too-frequent experience in life where people wind up in roles for which they are ill suited, or at least appear to have achieved a pay grade in excess of their ability to perform.

While the impostor phenomenon has been around seemingly forever, it was probably first coined as a term in an article by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes in 1978. Their article focused on the phenomenon as applied to high achieving women who refuse to accept their intellectual abilities and demonstrated success, instead preferring to assign themselves the role of the impostor. Self deprecating adjectives such as "stupid" or "phony" accompany this version of the impostor phenomenon.

However, this begs a larger question about the role of the impostor and how prevalent impostors are in our everyday life.

Are Women the Only Impostors?

Surely you have met women who demonstrate some of these kinds of self doubt that Clance and Imes write about and I'll bet you have also met an equal number of men who suffer the same self deprecation.

In last week's article, I focused more on the aspect of the impostor who has risen above his or her capability, not the truly capable person who carries the self doubt gene. The classic example which can be found in businesses everywhere is that of the skilled and technically competent performer, the person who can execute the task with great effect. Sooner or later, this great performer is noticed by someone in management and winds up being promoted to manager of other performers. For many, this is a recipe for disaster -- competence at performing a task does not necessarily translate into competence and managing people.

This week, I'd like to begin asking "what do you do if you are offered the chance to step up in your career and yet hold doubts about your ability to succeed at the next level?"

What If You Suspect You Are the Impostor?

One reader put it this way in an email to me last week:

I just wanted to tell you that I completely agree with your article. I am chronically under-employed and I'm at the point where I don't believe this will change. I'm turning 50 this year and believe what I am currently doing is probably what I will retire doing. I am an administrative assistant working for a corporate attorney. I have my BA, and had intended to go on to graduate school so I could become a college professor. I was unable to complete my educational goals due to personal circumstances, and at some point I gave up. I spend my time alternating between not wanting additional responsibility because I am afraid I will fail, or afraid people will see I'm not worthy of it, and being angry because I see people around me with less education, and knowledge getting promoted ahead of me. I know I do things to sabotage myself because even though I can be jealous and resentful that I am not taken as seriously as I would like to be, I am also terrified of becoming that person everyone depends on. I watch other Admin Assistants that are promoted to the executive support staff, and none of them have the educational background I do -- they just seem to have a self confidence about them that inspires confidence in others. I often think I just couldn't stand being Executive Assistant to the boss because I would be called upon for answers that I probably wouldn't have. I wish I'd addressed this earlier in my career. Now I just try to go through each day and keep a good attitude and hope I don't fall victim to downsizing.

If I were working with this reader, I would advise him to tackle his self-doubt in an entirely different and counter-intuitive way: Address the issue directly. If the boss asks you something that you don't know, there's no need to fake an answer or recoil in fear; instead, tackle the apparent vulnerability head on saying something like, "I'm not sure but I can find out." And then go about finding out.

Most senior executives will find this kind of approach not only refreshing but extremely valuable. If you are willing to seek real answers rather than "fake it until you make it," you may soon find yourself part of a small but trusted circle of reliable staff.

Of course, it is also true that every time you find an answer to a new question, you will not only build your own knowledge bank, but you will also build greater confidence in your ability to resolve issues. This is an example of using your own fear or self-doubt to your advantage - rather than masking the fear of not knowing, just step into it and learn.

Borrowing from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and somewhat out of context: "For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward..."

Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, put it this way in his commencement address on The Courage to Be Unreasonable to the class of 2009 at the University of Pennsylvania:

So what should you do, right now then? Well you should start by listening to George Bernard Shaw who said that, "all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

Graduation gives you the courage to be unreasonable. Don't bother to have a plan. Instead let's have some luck. Success is really about being ready for the good opportunities that come before you. It's not to have a detailed plan about everything you're going to do, you can't plan innovation or inspiration, but you can be ready for it. And when you see it, you can jump on it and you can make a difference, as many of the people here today have already done.

The important point here is, if you forego your plan you also then have to forego fear. In many ways in the last four years and maybe in high school as well, you've been penalized for making mistakes. From now on, the rewards will gravitate to those who make mistakes and learn from them...

What about you? Are you letting fear and uncertainty overtake your ability to live life? How could you become a bit more unreasonable and tackle life in a more creative manner?

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)