The common factor, among those who suffer from IS, is difficulty internalizing (or ‘owning’) their accomplishments. Although there is ample evidence of their capabilities and competence, they remain convinced they do not deserve the success they have achieved.
Studies of IS have largely taken place in professional or educational environments. This focus may explain why – when the phenomenon was first described – so little attention was given to the possibility that those who suffer impostor feelings, may not experience these feelings all of the time.
In this respect the position taken by McIntosh (1984) in her keynote speech vii at the aforementioned induction ceremony (§ 1.2) is an interesting one. McIntosh suggests that feeling like a fraud with regard to one’s capabilities can be attributed to the “public nature of certain activities”. She goes on to state she believes:
People feel fraudulent especially when ascending in hierarchies in which by social definition they do not belong at the top of the pyramid.
What McIntosch is saying is that feeling like an impostor is linked to the environment in which these feelings occur. It is only logical to experience these feelings when we have risen up in an environment we are “socialized to feel we shouldn’t be there”. For example, when women work in professions dominated by men or when people stemming from a minority background find themselves working in predominantly white companies.
These feelings, however, seldom occur in all areas of life. Few people experience feelings of fraudulence for example while playing a game of tennis, reading a book, grocery shopping or walking the dog. Being praised for things like that “is not so unnerving as being praised for giving a speech”.
From personal experience:
In my final years in the corporate world I held a position as a project manager and consultant. In it I had four roles:
- project manager and consultant
- application manager
- chairperson of employee counsel
- mentor and coach to more junior employees
It was only in my role as project manager and consultant that I experienced feeling like an impostor. I never felt anything but secure and confident in my capabilities in my other capacities.
As a former IS sufferer I tend to subscribe to the position taken by Dr McIntosh. Like McIntosh I don’t think people who feel like a fraud, experience those feelings in all areas of their lives.
This is in no way diminishes the crippling effect these feelings can have on someone’s performance or mental health. It does however suggest, I think, there are openings that can be used to help people who suffer from IS discover and acknowledge for themselves the very real capabilities others see in them.
2.2 Common behaviours
Though IS is a highly internalized experienced, there are some behaviours (Clark, Vardeman, Barbra 2014)viii that should raise a red flag for those who work with people displaying them.
- Denying compliments and downplaying achievements: when complimented they tend to make their accomplishment or contributions smaller and say something like: “It was nothing. Anybody could have done it.”
- Trouble putting feelings in perspective: errors made, even small ones, have an enormous impact on their mental state. It is not uncommon for them to fall into the trap of excessive worrying: “How could I have been so stupid? I should have picked-up on that mistake! Now they will know I don’t belong in this position!”
- Perfectionism: often they will work exceptionally long and hard to deliver the perfect result. Every ‘t’ needs to be crossed and every ‘i' is to be dotted. Long after supervisors, managers, clients or professors will be satisfied; they keep working on the end result. Just good is not good enough to make sure they aren’t found out.
- Procrastination: postponing a task or job is another way of preventing one is going to be found out. The thinking here is: “When I don’t deliver nobody is going to find out what I would have delivered would have been substandard.”
These behaviours often are closely related to fear of failure, fear of success and workaholism.