Finding a Name for the Feelings

I’ll never forget the day I first learned about the Impostor Syndrome. It was 1983. A chronic procrastinator, I was in my fourth year of a doctoral program. Like a lot of graduate students, my status was what was commonly referred to as “A-B-D,” meaning I’d completed “all but the dissertation.”

I was sitting in class one day when another student rose to present the findings of a study conducted by psychology professor Pauline Clance and psychologist Suzanne Imes called The Impostor Phenomenon Among High Achieving Women (1978).

In a nutshell, Clance and Imes found that many of their female clients seemed unable to internalize their accomplishments. External proof of intelligence and ability in the form of academic excellence, degrees, recognition, promotions and the like was routinely dismissed. Instead, success was attributed to contacts, luck, timing, perseverance, personality or otherwise having “fooled” others into thinking they were smarter and more capable than these women “knew” themselves to be.

Rather than offering assurance, each new achievement and subsequent challenge only served to intensify the ever-present fear of being…

Found Out

“Oh my God,” I thought, “I’ve been unmasked!”

Clearly flustered, I quickly scanned the room checking to see if anyone had caught me nodding in dismayed recognition. No one had. They were too busy bobbing their own heads in like-minded unison.

It’s hard to describe what it was like to discover that these vague feelings of self-doubt, angst and intellectual fraudulence had a name. This, along with the realization that I was not alone, was utterly liberating. This experience proved to be a profound turning point in my life, both academically and personally. I made the life altering decision to change dissertation topics in order to study how and why so many intelligent women set themselves up to fall short.

I completed my dissertation in 1985. From here I set out to share what I’d learned with fellow “impostors” – both men and women alike – all over the country. Some twenty fives years later I wrote The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women.

The people I’ve worked with come from all walks of life. They are doctors and nurses, educators and college students, lawyers and accountants, executives and administrative assistants, engineers and administrators, human service providers and human resource managers, computer programmers and program directors, architects and artists, police officers and principals.

What they share in common is a deep desire to understand why, in the face of often overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they continue to doubt themselves, their competence, and their abilities.

But like me, it all began with the realization that there really is a name for these feelings. When was the first time you discovered there was something called the impostor phenomenon and how has that changed how you see things?

Comments

  1. Carl Fooks says:

    Hi Valerie,

    I’ve only just found out about the Impostor Syndrome, but it’s something that’s been plaguing me for as long as I can remember.

    I work as a computer programmer and have been programming for 30 years, since I was 11. Intellectually, I know I’m very good at what I do, but for some reason I can’t actually feel that. Instead, I feel like a fraud, like I’m lucky to get the jobs I do — which I usually put down to luck, or having incompetent interviewers, etc.

    It is incredibly debilitating and has driven me to depression many times (which usually increases the feelings of fraudulent inadequacy.)

    I hate the idea of interviews (the process where people find out that you’re an idiot) and only leave jobs when I’m forced to go (which is never my employer’s choice!)

    I have to say, I too have found that knowing it has a name, that plenty of other people experience it and is therefore “normal” has been extremely liberating for me.

    Even though I only found out about it about two days ago, I’ve already been seeing behaviour that is down to it. Yesterday, I apologised for being right about something because it upset some people who must know better than me … because I’m a fake.

    Seeing that, and looking back over my life and recognising all the other instances where I’ve been caught in the grip of this syndrome, is helping me see that it is not me that’s fundamentally flawed, but is instead the effect of the syndrome and that there may be a way out.

    I don’t know what that way out is yet, but I’m looking forward to reading your book when it’s released, and sincerely hope that it will help me overcome this constant debilitating fear that I’ll be found out for the idiot that I am. Sorry: think I am!

    Very kind regards,
    -Carl

    • Hey Carl

      Thanks for taking the time to write. I’m sure a lot of people can identify with your experience.

      It may help to know that people who feel like impostors put a lot of emphasis on being “smart.” So when they don’t feel smart (which we all have times, heck days when we don’t feel that way) then we must be an “idiot.”

      I call it Competence Extremism. If I don’t know everything then I know nothing. If it’s not perfect it’s a failure.

      Instead of expecting yourself to be brilliant 24/7, savor the moments when your brain is firing on all cylinders and forgive yourself for being human when its not.

      Non-impostors try new things, they go after cool jobs, they toss ideas out there. Sometimes it works and others it doesn’t. The big difference is that when they do fall short they’re disappointed but they don’t feel the SHAME that impostor do.

      Having been on the hiring side of the table in my corporate job I can tell you that in addition to looking for someone who is generally able to perform the job requirements — and to learn on the job — they’re also looking for someone they want to spend 40+ hours a week with.

      Given the choice between someone with a great personality and an average resume vs. a brilliant bore — 9 out of 10 times personality rules.

      So the next time you’re in an interview worry less about being “smart” and more with being likeable.

      And ditch the shame. Shame leads to depression. You’re good enough right this moment.

      Hope this helps Carl.

      Valerie Young

  2. Hi Valerie:

    Thanks so much for helping me to name the thing that has been plaguing me my entire adult like. It’s true, naming something gives you power over it! I look forward to reading your book during my winter recess from seminary work.

    Best,
    Carolyn

  3. I’m thrilled to be able to do for you, what Clance and Imes did for me some 25 years ago. By putting a name to the feelings they freed countless people from needless self-doubt.

    I’d love to hear what you think of the book after your winter recess.

    Warmly,

    Valerie

    p.s. I think everyone needs a winter recess!

  4. This blog has already helped me gain so much relief and self-knowledge just in the last few minutes. My version of Imposter Syndrome is slightly different, but debilitating to my social life. I did very well in school up until my PhD program. Two years in, the dept reneged on my five-year fellowship and I was asked to leave after my M.A. This was devastating to me as I had built my identity around being an academic.

    How it affects me now is that I don’t feel “good enough” to socialize with people whom I consider to be true intellectual peers. I know I want to socialize with them… go to readings and museums and have stimulating conversations… but I always talk myself out of leaving the house, I guess because of the anxiety and discomfort of being “found out.” It’s been about 18 years since the incident and I feel ashamed that I haven’t gotten over it yet.

    I know that I have incredible talents–as a thinker and as a writer–but I am stuck. I’m not sharing any of it with the world. I’m not meeting the kinds of stimulating people I’d like to have as friends. I’m not enjoying life as much as I’d like to.

    • Hi Laura,

      First, I know that had to be devastating to have someone else decide your career for you. Having said that…

      One thing people with impostor syndrome need to learn to do is to try, try again. In other words, if you truly wanted — or still want — to be an academic then you could have applied to a different university. Not saying its easy…. just that often success takes time and requires rolling with the detours.

      Then again, what if you were to look at this event as a gift? What if you were being saved from a career that really was not your thing? So many people who do go into academia find the tenure track to be grueling with no promise of success. Not because they weren’t worthy. But because there’s a lot of pettiness and politics that go into awarding tenure.

      If you decide to read The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women be sure to read the section on how academic culture fuels self-doubt as well as the fake it til you make it chapter chapter the Harvard PhD candidate suddenly realized that all the “staggeringly brilliant people” around her were not always what they seemed.

      You might want to imagine sitting down with one these people who are indeed your intellectual peer and explaining to them how you don’t deserve to socialize with them and imagine their reaction. I think you’ll find they’d be mortified to know how you feel. Just because someone has a degree does not make them anyone’s intellectual superior. Intelligence comes from being eternally curious… a lifelong learner to say nothing of emotional intelligence. Unfortunately not everyone gets that and can become intellectual snobs. Boring. Boring. Boring.

      As Will Rogers said, “Everyone is ignorant, only on different subjects.”

      Life is short Lauren. The world needs your talents. I would hate you to leave this world with an obituary that read: She had so much to offer…. but was too afraid to try. Stop comparing yourself and live your life fully.

      Hope this helps!

      Valerie

      • Valerie–Thank you so much for your reply! I *just* had an experience with someone last night–a “staggeringly brilliant” person–that left me thinking, “hmm… she is not at all what I thought,” just like you said. Very timely. Thank you! I’m really interested in reading those chapters, so I’m headed over to click that “buy now” button! :)

  5. And, 2 minutes later, I now have it on my Kindle! Scary fast! Thanks again.

  6. Jessica Kohls says:

    Valerie,

    I have to say I am in love, love, love with your book (Secret Thoughts of Successful Women). I love that I stumbled upon this post of you explaining the day you found out there was a name for what you had been feeling. I first discovered the word imposter syndrome from my McNair Scholars Director at the University of Wisconsin River Falls. If this is the first time you have heard of the McNair Scholars Post-Baccalaureate Program it was a program founded in honor of Ronald E. McNair an African-American physicist/astronaut who was killed in the Challenger explosion. Ronald McNair faced many social and economic barriers to becoming educated. So, in essence the program is for undergraduates whom are low-income, first-generation, or fall in a traditionally under-represented group, and this program allows students to gain the skills necessary to pursue a MSc or PhD. With all that you know about imposter syndrome I am sure you have deducted those who are McNair Scholars like myself are one of the groups that are very prone to imposter like feelings.

    So, long story short, here I was a horrible student in high school, the first in my family to go to college, low-income, female, and from a town no one has ever heard of in the Midwest. I thought what the hell am I doing. I was relentless to prove myself my first years of college and received Deans List every semester, a professor pushed me into submitting an application to McNair Scholar’s and I got in. My mom wanted me to come back home, get married to a nice wealthy man, and get started on making babies, but instead apparently I was going to Graduate School. I went through the intensive program because I felt it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, never anticipating I would make it through, or even graduate with my Bsc for that matter. I graduated May 2011, moved to England and I am currently 6 months into my MSc Program.

    I had so much apprehension beginning my graduate school program…I have never felt so frozen with fear in my life. I could “fake it until I make it” in undergraduate, but graduate school, and in a different country at that! I felt like I was kidding myself and I really needed some guidance and I did not know from where. So I searched imposter syndrome on amazon, and there was your book. I put it on my wish list…and this Christmas I received it as a gift from my husband. I am only 5 chapters in, but I am taking it oh so slow…I have never had anyone break down so many points about imposter syndrome that I needed to hear. I bought a journal and have been taking notes while reading the book like it was written for me. I have been facebooking about it, and I am about to write a blog about it. I am so excited to read what comes next and I just feel so much more at peace while reading it and can’t get enough. One thing I am still struggling with is the difference between having self confidence and being arrogant…I don’t know if I can actually distinguish the difference between the two. If you have any more advice on this I would appreciate it?

    Also, your book has opened up the lines of communication with my family. I was able to establish both my dad and sister have imposter syndrome. I would have never thought my dad, the jack of all trades, would have imposter syndrome. I was also shocked when my sister (a nurse) told me that she goes to work everyday feeling like she doesn’t belong there and she is horrified that what she believes to be her inexperience will cause the death of one of her patients. Your book has become a kind of a family experience for me. I just wanted to drop you a note to tell you my story thus far in my struggle with imposter syndrome, and also to let you know that I appreciate all the time that it must have took to compile this information and how much of your life you must have devoted to this topic. You have truly helped me in my journey! Thank You!

  7. Hi Jessica,

    What a wonderful post to wake up to! Writing this book was the hardest thing I ever did so I appreciate that all the effort is being noticed.

    I’m thrilled to know The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women is helping you put so much of your impostor experience into a social context — first generational professional, being a student and especially a graduate student, and finally a woman.

    How wonderful too that it’s opened up a dialogue within your family. It would be interesting to have a book club made up just of family members!

    I think you’re going to really like Chapter 6 The Competence Rulebook for Mere Mortals. And as for understanding the difference between being confidence and being arrogant — this very question is the basis for Chapter 10 on why its harder for women to follow the advice to just “fake it til you make it.”

    I’d love to hear from you again once you finish the book to see if you still have any outstanding questions. And of course, I’d love to hear any ahas!

    Once Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, I’d be honored if you were able to take a few moments to offer a review on Amazon.

    Finally, I SO appreciate you helping to spread the word about the book. I’d love to help as many people who experience the impostor syndrome — men and women alike — as possible. THANK YOU!

    Warmly,

    Valerie Young

  8. Hi Valerie,

    I stumbled across this blog purely by chance as I was researching on ‘fear of being a fraud’. I’ve just bought your book and wanted to say thank you. I look forward to reading it.

    The reason I was researching this topic is because I’m considering going back to work after having had two kids. My career was in corporate/management training. I had been in this industry for 2 years before I got pregnant and was doing really well. When I have no experience I usually dig in with passion and determination and often this makes me good at what I do. After some time however I got the reputation I was an excellent trainer. I didn’t really accept this because I always felt I copied from all the other good trainers. In addition, I would think how would they know? Anyway, my greatest anxiety was when I had to be in front of all my piers. I would just block and perform very badly. I knew it was illogical but I just couldn’t shake the anxiety and I would always look so incompetent. I felt like this many times in my life: when there are high expectations of me I always fall short.

    Is this related to the imposter syndrome? The fact that I always show complete incompetence in front of those that consider me to be good at what I do? I was once asked to be part of an international task force (I was 25, had just finished my traineeship and was promoted to brand manager) because the European CEO had seen me present my brand plans and thought I would be able to provide excellent insights. Now that just did it. My anxiety was so high I developed chicken pox for the second time and a year later changed company. I have to say it’s quite crazy at how I go about running away from my fears. :-)

    I look forward to your reply. In the meantime I’ll be devouring your book.

    Vanessa

Speak Your Mind

*