It’s Probably an Appropriate Time to Learn About the Imposter Phenomenon

If you can measure Imposter phenomenon, how does one get rid of it? (Asking for a friend.)
Ashwin Rodrigues
Brooklyn, US
December 11, 2016, 7:00pm
Image: c.paras/Flickr

The feeling that you don't belong somewhere is common. It can be fleeting, like accidentally boarding a train headed the wrong way. Sometimes, it's less temporary.

Perhaps you're the only person of color in your office. You worry that others might have better experience, you figure they must be smarter, they must have a more decorated resume.

Maybe you're an engineering graduate student. Despite high standing in class and multiple awards, as one of the few women in the department, you get the feeling you don't belong there. You figure the success you've enjoyed can all be attributed to a perfect combination of dumb luck and hard work compensating for your perceived lack of intelligence.

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Maybe you half-seriously run for president and end up getting elected. In your gut, you feel this is a consequence of external factors, none that you can truly take credit for. After all, you never thought you won. Maybe you make a series of insane cabinet appointments and go on multiple Twitter tirades to see if they'll fire you. You even put the word "real" in your Twitter handle, to assure yourself you're not an imposter.

These feelings are described as the imposter phenomenon.

The imposter phenomenon (IP), also known as imposter syndrome, was initially identified in 1978 by Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes of Georgia State University in the paper, "The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention." Clance and Imes describe the phenomenon based on the experiences of high-achieving women (achievement indicated by academic performance and professional accomplishments) that felt they were not deserving of their success, and dismissed it as a fluke.

The saying goes, some people are born on third base but are convinced they hit a triple. These people would be considered "delusional," "narcissistic," and probably "assholes."

Image: DaPuglet/Flickr

To explain the imposter phenomenon, the person consistently hits triples, but attributes their being on third base to anomalous gusts of wind and getting lucky with the pitches.

Social psychologist Claude M. Steele notes another factor, stereotype threat, as a contribution to this imposter phenomenon, specifically amongst minorities. Stereotype threat is a fear of confirming a negative stereotype about a person's ingroup, which in turn, "undermine(s) feelings of belonging, competence, and aspiration. The title of Steele's book, Whistling Vivaldi And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us, references New York Times writer Brent Staples, a black man, who "whistled Vivaldi while walking the streets of Hyde Park at night to signal to white people that he was educated and nonviolent." The story highlights the additional mental capacity required to think, worry, and behave to negate a stereotype threat, making the act of walking an exhausting endeavor.

The imposter phenomenon perpetuates itself in individuals in a very efficient flow of reasoning.

In a 2011 article in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, psychologists Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander, from Thailand and Australia, respectively, perform a meta-analysis on articles on imposter syndrome, the factors that contribute to it, and some of the psychological consequences. Their analysis shows that degrees of imposter syndrome, or "imposterism" as noted in the paper, have been observed across many groups: men, women, college students, academics, medical students, marketing managers, and physician's assistants. Separate from this meta-analysis, a separate write-up of the prevalence of imposter syndrome in systems librarians also exists, highlighting how no one group is immune to the grips of feelings of inadequacy.

The imposter phenomenon perpetuates itself in individuals in a very efficient flow of reasoning. When faced with an "achievement-related task," they will either over-prepare, or procrastinate. If over-preparation results in achievement, an individual can attribute their success to the amount of effort put in, discounting their abilities. If success is achieved despite procrastination, an individual will chalk their victory up to luck. Either way, their abilities and talents are discounted, allowing feelings of self-doubt to continue despite repeat success.

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Measuring feelings of the imposter phenomenon is difficult, but not impossible. There are multiple scales for assessing, one being Dr. Pauline Rose Clance's Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale (CIPS.) These scales of measurement identify feelings of being an imposter, and the extent to which it is interfering with their daily life. It's tempting to throw around imposter phenomenon around liberally, like how ADD and dyslexia can be inappropriately used to label other behaviors. These scales, such as CIPS, remind you like ADD or dyslexia, imposter phenomenon is a real thing that can be measured and assessed.

So if you can measure Imposter phenomenon, how does one get rid of it? (Asking for a friend.)

The American Psychological Association has outlined a path for graduate students to take to combat feelings of imposter syndrome, but its advice could apply to most people. The article notes steps such as reaching out to others for help, recalling your own expertise, recognizing imperfection as normal, to remove feelings of inadequacy. This is a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) based approach, where diving into the "why" of your thoughts and fears can help change your behaviors.

These exercises may appear to be intuitive and basic, but when you're looking to change subconscious thoughts, it's easier said than done.

Rose Clance co-wrote a paper in 1993 with clinical psychologist Dr. Joe Langford, exploring potential therapies for the imposter phenomenon. In the paper, Clance describes IP as a phenomenon that arises due to the individual's obsession with others' approval. The goal then, of therapy, is for the individual to turn inward for approval, and be less preoccupied with how those perceive them. For example, you wouldn't focus on losing Time Magazine's Person of the Year, you'd focus on being a less terrible person.

It's helpful to be aware of the imposter phenomenon, regardless of your own feelings. It can help you make sense of other's behaviors, whether they're a systems librarian, a person of color in an office, or a senior citizen preparing for his first federal government job.