September 2006 ISSUE


The Impostor Syndrome

BY Nancy Toth, MA, CHRP
Manager, Professional Development

Katharine Bondy of Western Leadership Inc. has been presenting seminars for APEGGA for several years — longer, in fact, than I have been Manager, Professional Development. A couple of months ago she proposed a seminar on what’s become known as “the impostor syndrome.”

I was reminded of Katharine’s tendency to be on the leading edge of PD for the workplace. If you use the term in a group, most women almost instantly know what you mean, because at one time or another they are likely to have discussed this phenomenon with a female friend.

In a recent telephone interview with Katharine I broadened my knowledge of this disorder. She tells me: “The syndrome was first identified in the 1970s at a time when increasing numbers of women were moving into non-traditional roles in the business world.”

Apparently, very capable women were feeling as if they were frauds. Katharine explained: “Dr. Pauline Rose-Clance first identified and named the syndrome when she found more and more of her women patients were haunted by their successes. They felt they could never replicate the successes because they considered them flukes to begin with and they were terrified that they would be unmasked.”

Dr. Rose-Clance began her work in 1974 with the University of Kentucky as a psychologist. She wrote The Impostor Phenomenon, and subsequently interned at the University Hospital of Cleveland.
Katharine tells me that these days Dr. Rose-Clance is a professor of psychology at Georgia State University. She worked successfully with victims of this syndrome by using the basic process of “re-framing” — she re-framed success for her clients.

A more recent book written by Dr. Joan Harvey and Cynthia Katz is titled, If I am Successful Why do I feel Like a Fake? The research these writers conducted was based on the research done by Dr. Rose-Clance.

Katharine explained that sufferers of the syndrome tend to play a series of games with themselves,  in which they discount their success. These women tell themselves

•  It’s all a mistake — it couldn’t have been me who won the award or received the praise or got the promotion. It was really meant for someone else and they will come and take it back in a moment.
•  I was just lucky — I was in the right place at the right time.
•  I just charmed them - they are nice people and they didn’t want to hurt my feelings.

They generally discount praise and respond by

•  laughing nervously
•  shrugging it off as if the achievement were negligible
•  pointing out minor errors in their achievement.

I asked Katharine if men ever suffer from this syndrome. Apparently some do. It is estimated that about 20 per cent of victims are men — generally those known as sensitive men, or those with low self-esteem.

Men’s success in business and industry generally resonates with the messages society has always sent them about expectations. Those who succumb to the syndrome have had mixed messages as kids.

Parents, teachers, peers, siblings and early employers contributed to these fraudulent beliefs. Perhaps they were told they were not as smart as their brother, or perhaps they struggled with school work and were told they would never make it.

Perhaps they were bright and achieved well in school, but had rebellious brothers and were told by teachers that they would be trouble like them.

In any case, these messages may result in a conflict in self-perception and therefore an inner conflict in the event of career success.

Individuals who suffer from the impostor syndrome, whether they are women or men, simply do not accept the reality of success and will say, for example, that they had a great team around them. The anxiety over their success skews the reality of the experience. These victims use their own kind of logic, saying to themselves that with the law of averages being what it is, the next time they will fail. Because they do not take the credit for the success, these “impostors” do not know how to replicate it!

What happens to these victims of such acute anxiety? By their mid-30s, according to Katharine, some of them simply check out — they go for coffee and are not seen again.

Think about it — the cost to the workplace is a tremendous loss of talent and profit. Some of the women or men who are less conflicted may manage to work out their anxieties and function without suffering too greatly from the syndrome. Some succeed in unlearning this behaviour in response to success. Changes in behaviour often occur because the victim has been challenged by another woman who has worked through the syndrome.

A true “impostor” never feels he or she is measuring up, never feels competent. These employees often avoid highly technical or highly visible roles for fear of being “caught.”

Of course, starting a new, high-level job can make many of us temporarily question whether or not we are up to the challenge, but over time the feeling should disappear.

Impostors are bright and need to be liked, respected and successful; however, it is their anxiety from the conflict between their self-image and their success that paralyzes them.

They have an internal rulebook of sorts that exaggerates everything in their perception. Some of these false, unrealistic beliefs often have the words should, always and never in them.

•  I should automatically get it the first time.
•  Everything I do should be perfect.
•  I should have a perfect job and a perfect family and never sweat, never show the effort.
•  I can never be too pushy, too assertive or too smart especially with a guy I am dating.
•  I cannot be too proud or complain or ask for help.

Further observations of the rulebook include people procrastinating much of the time, never sharing opinions in public, or directly sabotaging their own work so others lower their expectations. The dominant goal of the “impostor” is to avoid being found out, with a secondary goal of being accepted.

The Way Out
What is the way out of this terrible anxiety? It is important to identify the triggers — a psychologist or an insightful friend may be able to help. The required reframing is a process a psychologist can initiate.
“Impostors” are not constantly in this state; however, it can dominate much of their lives. Victims have to ask themselves questions such as

•  When I feel like an impostor, what is going on?
•  What do I do when I have strong feelings of anxiety related to my success at work?
•  What is the pay-off to me for denying my success and accomplishments?
•  What are the consequences of avoiding and denying success?
•  Is this what I want?
•  What behaviours would be better for me?

Once the pattern of behaviour has been understood by the victim of this disorder, he or she must be assisted in identifying what part of the experience is distorted and then change the internal script.
If you supervise or manage employees, have friends with this syndrome or feel you might be a victim yourself, please see the APEGGA website to register for the seminar. It takes place in late September in Edmonton and early October in Calgary.