You’re a fraud, and everyone knows it. You somehow lucked into your role, and your colleagues are clearly more qualified than you are. You’re working overtime to keep your head above water, but you know it’s only a matter of time before your shortcomings are exposed.
Sound about right? If it does, you may be experiencing something known as “imposter phenomenon”—a concept that has been around since at least the 1970s, but has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years.
What exactly is imposter phenomenon?
The technical definition: Persistent internal experiences—thoughts and feelings—of “intellectual phoniness” and “the inability to internalize professional success,” says Holly Hutchins, an associate professor of human resource development at the University of Houston. “For most of us though, it is thinking and feeling like we are a fraud or a fake,” she says.
Hutchins provides a few more common characteristics of those with imposter phenomenon: For instance, they tend to attribute their success to external factors like timing or dumb luck, while at the same time blaming themselves for any mistakes or failings. They also avoid situations in which they might be evaluated closely. This includes seeking promotions, a salary bump, or volunteering to take on new projects or responsibilities. This can stymie their career advancement or professional success, Hutchins says. Finally, they “over-work” to the point of burnout in order to keep up the appearance that they’re a high performer. They also tend not to credit themselves or feel relief when they accomplish something.
“A key piece of IP is that there’s this constant fear of being found out, so imposters tend to experience high levels of anxiety,” says Rebecca Badawy, an assistant professor of management at Youngstown State University in Ohio. “But one of the interesting things is that we don’t see imposters actually performing worse.”
In fact, imposters are often above-average performers. “IP tends to affect high achievers, who ironically have had plenty of life experiences they can draw from that suggest they are highly competent people,” says Nick Schubert, a research assistant and program coordinator at Canada’s Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre who coauthored a 2017 study linking IP to low self-esteem.
Imposters also tend to be perfectionists—people who think, “If I can’t be perfect, then I’m a failure,” says Badawy, who is author of a new study on imposter phenomenon among college students—a group that is rife with IP. Badawy says the phenomenon was first identified among female professionals, and that women tend to experience IP to “a higher degree” than men. But her study found that males with IP tend to experience more negative outcomes. “Under conditions where they receive poor feedback or someone important is evaluating their performance, males tend to perform worse, where females don’t have that reaction."
Badawy adds that “self-handicapping” is also common among people with IP: “They’ll do things to impede their ability so that when they fail, they have an excuse,” she says. “So among students, they may not study for a test or they fail to work hard on an assignment.”
Schubert says imposters are also at risk for anxiety and depression. “People who experience IP have an intense fear of failure because their sense of self-worth is constantly at stake,” he says. They put “immense pressure” on themselves, he adds.
Is imposter syndrome more common than it used to be?
Not clear. “My gut is that it is probably more prevalent, but we don’t have evidence on this,” Badawy says. “But I think it’s a popular concept for study today because many people feel it.”
There’s a lot of research in IP in workplace settings. And Badawy says she’s also noticed it among celebrities. “If you want to see what imposter phenomenon looks like, watch a video of Natalie Portman’s commencement speech at Harvard,” she says. In that video, Portman talks about her own insecurities and sense of unworthiness when she was a student at Harvard. “In the first two minutes, she outlines imposter phenomenon perfectly,” Badawy adds.
Assuming there is an uptick in IP, what might be causing it? “I think it could be more prevalent because today you have a lot of melding of roles,” she says. She talks about the 1950s and 60s as a time when men and women had more rigidly defined roles, and that these led to societal “prototypes” that people could strive to emulate. “Now there are no clear prototypes, so things are more fuzzy and there’s less certainty,” she says.
More from Tonic:
Hutchins reiterates some of these identity-based drivers. “We found that imposter concerns were pronounced for individuals who often had to address disparities or challenges given the intersection of race, gender or some other identity,” she says. “In my study exploring university faculty and their imposter experiences, faculty who were first in their family to earn an advanced degree, or who were an under-represented minority, discussed experiencing imposter feelings throughout their academic career.”
Also (and like seemingly everything else these days), Badawy says social media may play a part. “I think social media does a number on our self-image and puts us in this constant state of comparison,” she says. “When you put social comparison on overdrive—on every type of steroid possible—that’s going to have a massive impact on how we see ourselves and our world.”
What can be done to limit the effects of imposter syndrome?
“I think awareness is a big thing—just being aware that this is an actual phenomenon and unrelated to competence,” Badawy says.
“Talking about it with peers can help too,” Schubert adds. He says people with IP are often relieved to learn that many of their coworkers feel the same way they do, which normalizes the experience and gives them a sense that they belong.
Hutchins agrees. “Most people experience imposter thoughts and feelings at some point in their career,” she says. “The dangerous part is when they feel like it is just them and develop an unhealthy approach to coping with these beliefs.”
She’s creating an intervention program at the University of Houston to help people with IP, and says that working through imposter feelings with a therapist or some other mental health professional can help people identify “stuck points”—or negative beliefs they have about themselves that don’t align with reality.
“Imposter phenomenon is about how we attribute our self-worth regarding work,” she says. “Individuals have to become aware of problematic thinking patterns and learn or relearn productive ways to counteract these.”
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of Tonic delivered to your inbox.