Hannah Pearson
By on March 8, 2014 in Women
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The carousel of imposterism

The “imposter syndrome” has garnered a lot of press recently, usually on the negative effect that it has on the psyche. But can we ever use our feelings of inadequacy as a force for good?

Ok, I admit it – sometimes I fake it.

Take your minds out of the gutter – not that. I mean, that I’m an imposter. The wolf in Granny’s gown. You may think that I know what I’m doing and am confident in my ability, but that’s not always 100% true. And slowly, I’m learning to accept that that sense of inadequacy is OK.

The imposter syndrome is when someone has feelings that they are inadequate, despite clear, consistent evidence that they are capable.

Their assessment is simply not true. The woman you know who has a PhD in Physics, but still believes she knows nothing compared to her colleagues. The man you’ve met who was one of the most talented artists you’ve ever come across, yet deep down believes that the compliments he receives are down to him being an affable chap.

An often-told example of imposter syndrome comes from Harvard Business School: the new class was asked to raise their hands if they believed that they only got into the university because of an admissions mistake – more than two thirds of the room raised their hands.

That so many people raised their hands comes as no surprise, as the syndrome mainly affects high achieving people, the ‘A players’, and women in particular. These people often suffer from general anxiety, lack of self-confidence, frustration and even depression, as they cannot meet their own exacting self-imposed standards.

This pressure comes from within, not without: these people are perfectionists and set “excessively high, unrealistic goals and then experience self-defeating thoughts and behaviours when they can’t reach those goals …perfectionism often turns neurotic imposters into workaholics.” So says the Harvard Business Review, and I guess judging by the anecdote above, they all know a thing or two about imposterism!

How do you rate on the imposterism scale?

Maybe you think you’re not a sufferer, so take a look at this scale of imposterism – do you recognise any of these traits in yourself? Try rating each one from 1, not at all characteristic of me, to 5, extremely characteristic of me, and see your score.

  1. Sometimes I am afraid I will be discovered for who I really am.
  2. I tend to feel like a phony.
  3. I’m afraid people important to me may find out that I’m not as capable as they think I am.
  4. In some situations I feel like an imposter.
  5. Sometimes I’m afraid others will discover how much knowledge or ability I really lack.
  6. In some situations I feel like a “great pretender”; that is, I’m not as genuine as others think I am.
  7. In some situations I act like an imposter.

I’ll admit my score first – an unhealthy 30. A lot of it is probably down to studying at Oxford University coming as a state school student. All day, every day, I was surrounded by smart people who’d had a better high school education than me.

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t swap it for the world, but when, in my first year, I ended up in the bottom class for Latin grammar (yes, people still study that useless subject of Classics and I also studied the slightly more useful one of French), with pretty much the lowest marks in the class, it was hard not to feel like admissions had accepted me because I was the only state school student who had actually wanted to study Classics and French. Looking back now, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the class, or even at my college, who felt that way.

Why women suffer more than men

Many studies have been done on imposterism, with a major one in 1978 by Clance and Imes focusing on high achieving women in particular. They looked at the reasons why women, rather than men, often feel like imposters and how sufferers could try to combat it.

One of the main reasons why women tend to suffer more than men is down to the way we react to performance in expected and unexpected outcomes. Women are more likely to put down a success to a temporary cause: luck, effort, whereas men put it down to a stable cause: their own ability.

The converse happens when men and women experience failure. In that case, the woman puts it down to her own ability and the man down to luck or how difficult the task was. In fact, I’ve just had a similar conversation with my partner about why something didn’t succeed in the workplace. I put it down to my own ability,

“Well, it’s just because I’m not a very good manager,” I reasoned. What did he put it down to? The situation.

“Given the office environment, what you were trying to achieve was doomed to fail anyhow,” he assured me confidently.

These two very different ways of seeing the same situation and outcome perhaps reflect how far women have internalised the stereotype that females are not competent. Anything we do that results in failure therefore supports that claim and our internal voice harps on that perhaps we were never very good anyway.

How imposters maintain the facade

There are four behaviours that we imposters use to keep their imposterism in place:

  1. Diligence and hard work. Imposters believe that as long as they work super hard at something, they can maintain the status quo of always being the best, the brightest. If they stop working hard, they believe that they will automatically fail, as it is only through sheer effort that they succeed, rather than any innate intelligence. I definitely fall into this camp.
  2. Intellectual inauthenticity. Imposters will spout the beliefs of their professors or bosses, rather than their own, for fear of conflict and having their own views cross-examined and found to be lacking.
  3. Using charm to win approval from superiors. Here, imposters strike up relationships (sometimes even sexual ones) with mentors or bosses to feel special and have their innate talents recognised. The problem with this route is that if the mentor or boss does then recognise that imposter’s ability, the imposter is easily able to negate it: “Oh, they only gave me that promotion because I gave them a jar of homemade marmalade.” Then the quest for a new mentor and the people pleasing starts all over again.
  4. Maintaining the imposter feeling because of the negative consequences of being perceived as confident and able. That goes along the same lines as the childhood admonishment, “no one likes a show-off”, but rather than being a choice, it is still an involuntary reaction. If the woman truly believes that she is not capable, then she cannot offend anyone or reject any societal values by being smarter than the man.

Are we all simply phony phonies?

That last method, not wanting to be seen as a show-off, leads us to another study at Wake University – this time on ‘phony phonies’. Regardless of whether or not they suffered from the imposter syndrome, the subjects were told that they had to take a test. However, beforehand, they had to tell an external evaluator how well they thought they would do. The imposters, as assumed, predicted that they would not do very well.

In the second experiment, all the test subjects got to make their own evaluations in private, ‘anonymously’. There, a surprising result came out: even the people who had classed themselves highly on the scale of imposterism predicted that they would achieve high scores in the test. In fact, these scores were just as high as those who did not suffer from imposterism at all.

The conclusion? That some of the imposters are actually feigning at being an imposter – they are phony phonies. These people are merely adopting this public self-deprecation as a social mechanism rather than a deep seated personality trait.

That being said, the New York Times asks a valid question: if so many high achieving people suffer from imposterism (or even fake imposterism), then can it really be all that bad? Is the fear of failure and being found out as mediocre the real driving force behind people’s desire to succeed? Is the need to be number one to prove as much to yourself as to others that you are a high achiever, actually driving companies further?

Even if some of the imposters are really ‘fake’ imposters, I think the fact that they are playing down their achievements speaks volumes about how society is today. That it is better for women (or men) to be modest about their results and abilities rather than celebrate them out loud. I definitely agree that there is a fine line between celebrating and bragging, but women need to do it more and louder, to bag that promotion or win the respect of the team.

It’s a slippery slope – you might start by being a ‘fake’ imposter, but it’s not too long before you’ve internalised that message and pretty soon you’re a ‘real’ imposter, with all the emotional baggage that that entails.

Imposterism can lead to a dangerous burnout

The problem about being an imposter is that it’s a dual-edged sword. On the one hand, you have that inner voice telling you that you’re no good. On the other, you have an overwhelming urge to disprove that voice by each time achieving bigger and better things.

That attitude of bigger and better can often lead to burnout, particularly if your manager isn’t sensitive to what’s really going on. I read a fantastic example on the HBR blog, where perfectionism and imposterism can be taken to extremes. A guy (yes, not a lady), was asked by his boss to find a few examples of the best insurance policies the company had written in the last five years. This guy then spent hours poring over every policy the company had ever written over the last 25 years, before he pulled together his report.

The boss hadn’t asked for such detailed work, and in all honesty, such over-the-top research was a waste of time, both for the company and the employee. Instead, the boss should have set clearer parameters for the task at hand and the guy, knowing his own weakness, should also have decided to define them with his boss. You can only imagine that this scenario would continue in a never-ending, exhausting carousel of over-achieving until burnout is the only way to stop the ride and get off.

Mentors are the key to combating imposterism

How can we learn to tame the beast of imposterism? One way is by having more mentors who are open about their own feelings of imposterism. It’s easy to look at your boss and forget that once upon a time they too didn’t know how to handle a situation and felt like a fraudster when they were in your job.

Another is by trying, very hard, to own our own success and put it down to our ability, not ‘luck’ nor ‘effort’ and not be afraid to talk about it.

So here goes nothing, deep breath, and…

“My name is Hannah and I am an ex-imposter. I used to think that my first class degree from Oxford University was a fluke and down to hard work, as I spent months revising and memorising facts. Now I know it’s because I’m smart.”

Ok, I don’t quite believe it yet. But I’m willing to give it a go.