Feel Like a Fake or a Fraud? You’re Not Alone

Source: Photograph by Daniel Fazio. Copyright free. Unsplash

When I was in graduate school and stressed, I had the same recurring dream, albeit in two variations. The first was that I’d never fulfilled my undergrad science requirements and had been denied a degree. The second was that I hadn’t taken the swimming test—believe it or not, a requirement for women at Penn in 1969—and never graduated. Of course, both dreams had the same message: I was an imposter. No one goes to graduate school without having earned an undergraduate degree first. Bingo!

Well, it turns out that my twenty-one-year-old self had lots of company; that feeling of being a fraud or an imposter happens to just about everyone, although some people suffer more than others. It even has a name: The Imposter Phenomenon, coined by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes over forty years ago.  Have you ever felt like you were play-acting through life, earning promotions you didn’t deserve, picking up kudos that life handed you by mistake? Is your habit of mind always to denigrate your achievements or to minimize the effort you actually put it? Are you afraid of failure? Did your childhood experiences include a lot of put-downs or criticisms, or were you dismissed or ignored?  Have you been praised for your intellect, and always pooh-poohed it? Are you prone to looking over your shoulder, seeing what everyone else is doing?

All of these various and sundry things make you the perfect candidate for feeling like a fraud, even when you’re not. Counterintuitive but true.

The irony is that the true imposters, the really fraudulent people, never let the thought enter their minds because they’re high in narcissistic traits.

Highly successful women such as Jodi Foster, Natalie Portman, Tina Fey, Cheryl Strayed, and Sheryl Sandberg have confessed to it. In her book, Lean In, Sandberg put her experience in context, writing, “And every time I didn’t embarrass myself — or even excelled — I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up.”

Here’s what Justice Sonia Sotomayor had to say about it: “I’m not a classic impostor-syndrome person because I have that initial insecurity but I’m capable of stepping outside of it and proving to myself it’s wrong.”

If you suffer from it, you need to follow the Justice’s lead and learn how to step outside of it.

Are women more susceptible to the imposter phenomenon?

That’s actually a matter of some debate, in part because the original research by Clance and Imes in 1978 focused specifically on high-achieving professional women, and noted anecdotally that men seemed to suffer from it less. It strikes me that cultural context is important too because in 1970s and 1980s, women in professional settings even wore clothing that pretty much aped what men wore (suits and shirts modeled after menswear); the secret code was “pretend you’re not a girl.” Clance and Imes attributed to the phenomenon to early childhood experiences, stemming either from a girl having a sibling who is designated as the “Intelligent” child or from a girl being told that she’s superior and a star 24/7.  As the authors saw it, In the first case, the daughter may set out to disprove the family myth and remains plagued by self-doubt that the family is right. In the second case, the superior label can cause deep self-doubt because, inevitably, there are things she can’t succeed at or do easily.

Joe Langford and Clance re-examined the root causes years later, in a 1993 article. This time, they linked the feeling of being fraudulent with general anxiety, introversion, and believing that the self is fixed and defined by achievements; finally, they linked the syndrome with growing up in a family high in conflict and lacking in support.

I’m not surprised because feeling like an imposter has come up often in the interviews I’ve conducted with women who lacked love and support in childhood for my book, Daughter Detox. Many daughters describe being plagued by extreme self-doubt and a feeling of faking it through their professional lives, even when their external achievements belie that self-assessment. This is especially true for daughters who grow up with mothers high in narcissistic traits—who play favorites and use shaming and blaming to bring the wayward into line—as well as controlling, combative, and dismissive mothers, many of whom are hypercritical.  Achievements in these familial contexts tend to be a way of winning a mother’s love and attention; they do not contribute to a daughter’s sense of her own power but instead underscore her powerlessness. That, too, contributes to feeling like an imposter.

New science on the phenomenon

Since Clance and Ime’s initial findings, years of research have yielded more nuanced insights. On the one hand, despite all the progress, cultural stereotypes still seem pretty much in place assigning brilliance as a male trait and making little girls wonder about faking it, as a study published in Science in 2017 made clear. Lin Blan and her team looked at 5,6, and 7-year-olds and their association of brilliance (“really, really smart” in kid talk) and gender. They found that while at the age of 5, both boys and girls identify someone who’s really, really smart as either a boy or a girl, by the age of 6 and 7, girls were less likely to denominate a girl with the designation than a boy. Alas, the same results showed up when asked to designate someone as “really, really nice;” the stereotype of girls being more nurturing and kind also showed up by 6 and 7. Interestingly, ideas about brilliance and gender had nothing to do with how these children saw reality; when asked who did better in school, the answer was “girls—reflecting a truth.

So, is feeling like an imposter only a female problem? Actually not, as a study by Sonja Rohrmann and her colleagues showed; they found no association between the imposter phenomenon and gender. Unlike other studies, their sample was of working managers, not students, which may explain the different findings. Not surprisingly, they also noted a link between anxiety and the imposter phenomenon. Counterintuitively, they also found that people who felt like imposters were both perfectionists and procrastinators, two working styles that seem, on the surface at least, to be contradictory. They explained their findings by suggesting that people who feel like imposters tend to over-prepare and work in such a way to impress others—showing their perfectionism—while also procrastinating, which tends to bolster their vision of themselves as fraudulent.

A new study by Rebecca L. Badawy and her colleagues published this year specifically looked at gender differences and came up with some really interesting findings, limited only by the use of student participants, not adults in real-life workplace situations. They point out that, theoretically, someone who already feels like an imposter will have their feelings validated by negative feedback and will decrease their efforts. While it was true that more women identified themselves as feeling like imposters, the men who did had greater anxiety in the wake of negative feedback and their subsequent work effect was more affected than that of women who felt like imposters. The women didn’t just show more resilience but their subsequent efforts were also less affected.

Recognizing that feeling like a fraud or imposter actually has a name and that there’s scientific research that explores it can help you disarm it, especially if you’re able to trace that automatic conclusion back to its roots in your childhood. Were you taught to fear failure? How were praise and support meted out in your family of origin, and for what? Do you make excuses for your successes, and tend to attribute your achievements to dumb luck or being in the right place at the right time? The problem with feeling like an imposter is that it robs you of the pleasure and pride in your very real achievements.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2018

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