Unpacking the Imposter Phenomenon – Are You An Imposter?

Feb 4, 2012 | 2012 Articles, Mental Health

by Emily Durbin
& Sherry Walling

The broader umbrella of a self-defeating or self-sabotaging pattern includes a fear of success, a fear of failure, a fear of disappointing others and the relatively new construct called the “Imposter Phenomenon”.

A term first coined by researchers Clance and Imes in 1978, the Imposter Phenomenon (or IP), is characterized by a deeply held belief that one’s success is because of luck and not ability; and that at any moment someone will find you out to be a fraud. This pervasive belief often negatively impacts a sufferer’s work performance and personal relationships by contributing to unmet potential.

Believing that you should have never been given that amount or type of authority, whether in your professional or home life, may have begun as a defense mechanism to save the ego from probable failure in a particular instance, but if left unchecked, and if this belief begins to creep in to the running commentary of everyday life, greater issues can form. From time to time we all say to ourselves “how did I get here?” or “why should anyone follow me?”, but those who deal with the constant belief that they’re playing a part above their own abilities often also suffer from higher rates of anxiety and depression. Believing that even the tiniest mistake will cause those around them to see through the mask, sufferers are forced to constantly police their own behavior ensuring that every ‘T’ is crossed and they are totally above reproach.

Though the imposter phenomenon has been observed across genders and cultures, among adults and increasingly in adolescents, there are a few groups in society that seem to be especially vulnerable. Those stepping in to a new role or promotion, overcoming the odds, or being given authority under controversy or debate often see higher rates of phony feelings. There is a period of adjustment for all of us when starting something new, but for some this never ends.

What does the Imposter Phenomenon Look Like?

To the outside observer, someone dealing with these deep feelings of phoniness may look like they enjoy being the underdog—someone who tears himself down in order to overcome grave expectations and be the hero. But there is a big difference between someone who has a ready excuse and someone who is self-destructive.

Typically, someone dealing with IP feelings has adopted a maladaptive coping style to protect the self from the grief of failure and the responsibility of success. They are not only less confident about their abilities, but the anxiety they feel is paralyzing. In small amounts, fear motivates us to keep moving, but when a fear of failure and a fear of success combine, the uncertainties are compounded. These individuals take no pleasure or pride in their legitimate success and go to great lengths to hide or overcompensate for their perceived lack of ability. They believe that they are highly overvalued by others and therefore take foolish risks to continually prove their worth or even set themselves up to fail in order to confirm their false belief that they are not good enough.

Also, these individuals tend to attribute all their success to external factors (such as luck) and their failings to internal factors (such as a personal lacking). This disconnection between action and success further contributes to the individual’s total lack of understanding their own worth.

These behaviors often limit the individual’s effectiveness at work and home, impair their capacity for satisfaction, and waste time that could be better spent improving skills, building confidence or in more pleasurable activities such as spending time with family, with hobbies, or in recharging their batteries.

There is truth behind the theory that if you don’t try, you can’t fail so many sufferers see their maladaptive strategies working in the now, but the long-term negative psychological costs are paid in order to experience the short-term benefits of anxiety reduction and preserved egotism. Prolonged Imposter feelings break down the self and, without intervention, marked changes in personality and the development of a mood or anxiety disorder may be seen.

How can you fight these feelings?

Typically IP sufferers spend a significant part of their day trying to keep their different personas straight, only revealing certain characteristics in certain environments. It is essential to reconcile the ideal self, perceived self and actual self in order to begin to heal IP feelings of fraudulence.

There are three steps in this healing process:

1. Gaining Insight—Power can be found in recognizing the irrationality of your fraudulent feelings and paralyzing fears through understanding how IP thoughts play out in your life. This can be done with the help of a therapist or even through extensive journaling. Keeping a record of behavior patterns and thought cycles can give you great insight to change future actions.
2. Fostering Healthy Growth—Acknowledging past internal barriers to success and committing to new action outside of a need for external validation can be liberating. Beyond just recognizing bad patterns, you need to be willing to change them even in the face of ridicule if it means you can get better.
3. Accepting Support—Positions of leadership conjure fear in anyone. Learning to respect your own limits instead of seeing them as universal failings can open you up to the joys of success. Viewing a position of authority more as the head of a team rather than a solitary leader will allow for an easier exchange of ideas and solutions.

Albert Bandura’s theory of social efficacy calls us all to see life’s new experiences as opportunities and not mere chances to fail. Occasional feelings of insecurity and self-doubt can result from inevitable disappointments, but a single failure never predicts an ultimate breakdown. A fear of success forces us to settle for mediocrity and a fear of failure rests on misunderstanding the implications of our limits.

Freedom from Imposter feelings fosters the joy of achievement and the new belief that we are all in control of future thoughts, feelings, and actions furthers healthy growth.

Check out KRL’s Mental Health section for more related articles. Also check out the International Bipolar Foundation page here at KRL.

Emily Durbin is a senior at Fresno Pacific University, a psychology major,
and the president of the psychology club.

Sherry Walling holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology & an M.A. in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. She completed a predoctoral fellowship in clinical-community psychology at Yale University School of Medicine & a postdoctoral fellowship in clinical research at the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Boston University School of Medicine. She is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Fresno Pacific University, an Adjunct Professor in the Marriage, Family & Child Counseling Program at Fresno Pacific & a licensed clinical psychologist on staff at House Psychiatric Clinic.


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