The Imposter Phenomenon - Why you may feel like a fraud

I recently conducted some research into the effectiveness of coaching in helping individuals overcome the Imposter Phenomenon. I have put two posts together summarising this research: the first is an explanation of what the Imposter Phenomenon is and the second are some tips to help individuals overcome some of the negative symptoms.

The Imposter Phenomenon (IP) was first introduced by two researchers - Clance and Imes - in the 70’s to describe feelings experienced by some high achieving individuals of being a fraud. These individuals tend to believe their success is due to luck or interpersonal skills rather than high levels of competence, and worry that they will be ‘found out’. They describe the “Imposter Cycle” whereby, when an individual with IP is facing a task, they start with worry, have self-doubt and fears of discovery as a fraud and then either over-prepare or procrastinate. They typically do well in the task and temporarily feel satisfied and relieved. However, this quickly moves to self-doubt, over-critical analysis and denial of any real success.

Imposter Phenomenon is not a false sense of modesty and it is not low self-esteem; individuals affected by IP have high expectations of what they will achieve. However, they set the bar too high and, when they only achieve excellence rather than near perfection, they feel they have not performed well enough. They also typically compare themselves with others, fearing that they will not be able to perform as well. There can also be two other relevant fears: fear of failure and fear of success. Fear of failure results in individuals affected by IP constantly striving to deliver their best work and never letting up, as they fear they may only be one small mistake away from complete failure. Success can also be a daunting prospect for these individuals: if they succeed they fear they may not be able to live up to their successes in the future and this increases their chances of being ‘found out’. Success may also lead to a promotion, taking them away from their comfort zone. In extreme cases, individuals affected by IP may even sabotage their own successful careers.

Many individuals with IP only demonstrate imposter traits in one area of their life. For example, they may exhibit imposter feelings at work but not in their personal life and I found this to be true with several of the individuals I worked with in my study.

Research suggests that the Imposter Phenomenon is often learnt behaviour from childhood that is internalised either through:

  • Lack of praise, whereby the child learns to work harder next time
  • Excessive praise, whereby the child becomes scared of doing anything less than perfectly
Parents who over-invest in achievement tend to produce children who are prone to have IP. On the flip side, it is also true that individuals who are not expected to succeed and are not encouraged also are prone to IP. It is also interesting that the strongest predictor of feelings of being affected by IP is overprotection or lack of care in the paternal, rather than maternal, parenting style.

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