It’s my second year in graduate school. I’m only a few mouse clicks away from finding out if my future prospects at a career in research will become a reality, or just an abstract figment of my imagination. I had applied for a prestigious three-year research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I opened up the application page, and after days of anxious anticipation, the website said: Not Discussed. In NIH lingo, this outcome meant that my application fell in the bottom half of proposals that it did not even make it to further review to receive an actual score. I was devastated—I didn’t even make it to the top 50%?, I thought. This grant would have earned me not only the respect of my mentors and peers, but more importantly, validation to myself that I belonged in the world of academia.
I think this is a common story for many women who have high career aspirations and in the course of their pursuit, they face failure and become disappointed. Over time, an internal narrative develops in which failures are taken to be reflective of one’s lack of ability, knowledge, and skills, and sometimes, a feeling of being an impostor. Clinical psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, coined the term “the impostor phenomenon” in a paper they published in 1978, in which they observed that high achieving women, despite their scholastic achievements and honorary accolades, held a self-perpetuating belief that they were unintelligent and feared that some day they would be discovered. They defined the impostor phenomenon as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness” in those who are highly successful but fail to internalize their success (Matthews & Clance, 1985, p.71).
It is important to distinguish that the impostor phenomenon only afflicts those who perceive intellectual fraud, rather than engage in actual fraud. The authors interpreted their findings in the context of attribution theory, which explained how men tended to attribute internal factors, such as their own inherent abilities, to their success, whereas women attributed their successes to external factors, such as luck or temporary effort. However, we have come a long way since 1978 and studies have now documented the impostor phenomenon across genders, ethnic backgrounds, and occupations. A 2007 study found that approximately 70% of people will experience at least one episode of the impostor phenomenon at one time in their lives. There also appears to be a clear link between this phenomenon and the personality traits, need for achievement and perfectionism.
What I find so striking in what I have read about the impostor phenomenon is the way that evidence to the contrary does not cause one to re-evaluate their intellect, but serves to only further reinforce the deeply-held belief that one is unintelligent. It sounds akin to similar core beliefs that my patients have expressed in the office—beliefs that they are unlovable, unworthy, or inadequate. These beliefs are extremely dangerous because they are self-perpetuating, such that no evidence can be brought forward to disconfirm the belief—no awards, honors, or promotions would change them. The beliefs become irrational (not based on objective evidence), and rigid (black and white). What is also problematic is when achievement/intellect are the only sources of one’s self-concept because then there are no other areas to balance out one’s self-view if things go awry in that domain. Such a negative self-view is likely to cause one to feel like a persistent failure and this can be psychologically damaging.
Perhaps there is another way to look at the impostor phenomenon as on the maladaptive end of a spectrum of self-criticism that is actually evolutionarily adaptive. It might be possible that humans evolved to have this little critical voice in our heads to motivate us to achieve, and problem-solve our failures so that we continue to advance and reproduce as a species. This perspective might help us see that the feelings and thoughts that come along with the impostor phenomenon might wax and wane over time, and if we tailor it back a bit, it might even serve to our advantage.
We need to place the original findings of the impostor phenomenon in context, which showed that women were more likely to experience this than men. At the time, women in high-powered careers were much more the minority than they are now, and societal perceptions of those women shaped their self-views of not belonging in their professions. We now live in an age when the first woman ran for president, when women are closing in on the equality gap in education, and when the number of female CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies is at an all-time high.
What does this mean for the modern woman? We need to acknowledge our areas of weakness along with our areas of strength, embrace failure as a necessary part of success rather than hide our imperfections, encourage each other to move up the career ladder if that is your desired goal, and broaden our self-concept to be greater than the achievements we make in the workplace. We also need to find things that we love to do so that the need for achievement is not just driven by a fear of inadequacy but rather, out of genuine passion. If we talked about these experiences more commonly as many other women in our time publicly have, such as Maya Angelou and Sheryl Sandberg, we would find out this is not only a common and fleeting experience, but also just a perception.
"I Don't Deserve to be Here: Presence and the Imposter Syndrome" - Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy on overcoming self-doubt to reveal your boldest self.
Amy Cuddy's 2012 TED Talk, "Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are" is the second most-viewed talk in TED's history with over 37 million views.
By Angela Fang, Ph.D. - Expert Psychologist