Research Paper By Shelina Wadiwala
(Transformational & Life Transition Coaching, UNITED KINGDOM)
What is it?
The impostor syndrome describes a chronic experience where sufferers, despite their success and external evidence of their competence, continue to doubt themselves, believing they are not intelligent. They are convinced that their abilities have been over-estimated and have a very real fear of soon being exposed. Their persistent feeling that they could have done better leads them to believe they do not belong where they are and don’t deserve credit for what they have achieved through their own hard work and talent. Instead, they attribute any success they have achieved to external factors such as luck.
The condition was originally associated with highly achieving and successful women, by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, psychologists from Georgia State University, who first documented the syndrome in their 1978 study – The Imposter Phenomenon Among High Achieving Women, where they studied over 150 highly successful women.
It is interesting to note that wider and more recent research has shown that, both, men and women across all fields may suffer from impostor feelings. It has also been suggested by some writers that, rather than being something that women are inherently more likely to suffer from, it is the different social and cultural socialisation patterns across the genders that causes it to show up more among women.
How It Shows Up
Dr. Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization, is highly regarded in her circles for her excellent handling of the H5N1 bird flu epidemic and the H1N1 swine flu pandemic. Her ability, conviction, and good judgment saved countless lives. But Dr. Chan discounts her hard work and talent, attributing it all to luck. Another public health expert physician speaks of her expertise in tuberculosis as “fluke”. She travels the world to give lectures, talks to the media and helps draft policy. Yet she wonders why people treat her with deference. Another woman with two master’s degrees, a Phd., and numerous publications to her credit considered herself unqualified to teach remedial college classes in her field. Michelle Pfeiffer, Kate Winslett, Mike Myers, Meryll Streep, Maya Angelou, Diablo Cody and Sheryl Sandberg are just a few others who have spoken of their feelings of being a fraud and fear of being found out.
People with imposter syndrome hold back in so many ways – they choose easier tasks they believe better fit their abilities, they apply for lower level jobs, or don’t apply at all, they don’t speak at conferences or submit papers to journals, they avoid speaking to others in their field particularly those skilled in that field, they don’t step up as role models, mentors or teachers because they don’t believe they have anything worthwhile to give others. Such with-holding behaviour is neither conducive to personal nor career development.
As well as affecting people at an individual level, imposter syndrome can also be seen to influence the gender balance at the workplace. There is much debate about the lack of women in leadership roles today and some writers like Sheryl Sandberg point to this condition as a contributory factor. She believes that women experiencing imposter feelings question their ability to work and lead, particularly when caring for a young family, and suggests that this leads them to “lean out” of the workforce and not progress to leadership positions.
How Deep Does It Go?
The Impostor Syndrome goes beyond lack of confidence – for these sufferers, self-doubt is chronic and debilitating. When non-imposters suffer self-doubt, low confidence levels, nervousness or even failure, they may experience disappointment but learn from the experience and move on, applying their learnings to new situations. Imposters, however, experience shame and unworthiness.
Being affected by imposter syndrome is also different from suffering with low self-esteem; low self-esteem results from a discrepancy between what has actually been achieved and peoples’ feelings about their own achievements. Imposters, however, as can be seen by their characteristic attribution of success to external factors, have difficulty in emotionally connecting with their achievements. Because of this, being successful does not change their feeling about themselves and does not alleviate feelings of inadequacy.
There is documented evidence (Langford, 1990) that, not only are imposters strongly motivated by other peoples’ impressions of them, but their self-worth is tied up with it too. It appears that imposters are heavily invested in appearing intelligent for the validation they need to feel good about themselves. While they receive positive feedback, their self-worth is maintained, but otherwise it dramatically drops.