More than 25 years later, Guy French (modified name) still remembers the unshakable feeling of dread. He had just begun his studies at a well-respected Journalism Program in Eastern Canada and was well on his way to fulfilling his dream of being a print journalist.

He felt he didn’t belong and that eventually, those who ran the prestigious institution would figure it out.

“After every class, I kept expecting someone to pull me aside and say, ‘Look, you have no idea how lucky you are to be here. You’d better not screw this up.’”

French excelled in his studies but never felt comfortable, surrounded by so many other gifted and capable fellow students. He did not know it at the time but now recognises he was suffering from Impostor Phenomenon. Still, he overcame this malaise and went on to enjoy a successful career as an editor and regular columnist at a Canadian daily newspaper.

Many others are not as fortunate. For them, the toll Impostor Phenomenon takes on both their professional and personal lives can be crippling.

Impostor Phenomenon, or IP, was first identified in 1978 by Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes, who defined it as ‘An internal experience of intellectual phoniness in individuals who are highly successful but unable to internalise their success.’ In essence, it is a persistent feeling that you do not deserve to be where you are and will eventually be exposed as a fraud.

Academic Advances In IP

Dr Clance published her seminal work on IP in 1985 with ‘The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the Fear That Haunts Your Success’. In it, she lays out the different stages of what she describes as the Impostor Cycle.

The behavioural pattern begins when someone exhibiting IP receives an assignment. The first stage is typified by a combination of anxiety and depression tied to the belief that the person suffering from IP will not be able to deliver. A frenzied effort to accomplish the task generally characterises the next stage. Once delivered, there is a brief period of respite, but this quickly dissipates, even after receiving positive feedback. Usually, this feedback is dismissed as not being related to ability or false altogether, which then only fuels feelings of inadequacy leading up to the next assignment.

Initially, Clance and Imes thought Impostor Phenomenon might be limited to professional women. However, independent work by researchers Topping (1983), Bussotti (1990) and Langford (1990) proved that IP affects both genders equally. These studies also found that academics, as well as others in high-stress, high-reward occupations, were most likely to exhibit Imposter Phenomenon.

In 1985, researchers Harvey and Katz built on the work carried out by Clance and Imes putting forward three prerequisites for Impostor Phenomenon: the belief of having fooled other people, the fear of being exposed as an impostor and the inability to attribute personal achievement to internal qualities such as ability, intelligence or skill.

PSYCHOLOGY: How to Keep the Impostor Phenomenon from Holding You Back
Photo by Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash

Classic Signs of Impostor Phenomenon

In the course of her research, Dr Clance found several key characteristics common to most people dealing with IP. These signs include:

A NEED TO BE THE BEST – Often, those with IP feel a compulsion not just to succeed but to eclipse their peers in doing so. Failure to exceed the accomplishments of their peer group will likely be internalised as feelings of inadequacy.

PERFECTIONISM – The fear of impending failure and the compulsion to avoid it leads to perfectionist tendencies in the workplace. Assignments and tasks cannot be submitted until they are absolutely flawless.

FEAR OF FAILURE – The thought of not delivering perfection can trigger a crippling fear of failure. This fear is a prevalent trait found in people suffering from IP.

INABILITY TO ACCEPT PRAISE – The tendency to instantly discount positive feedback and cling to a belief that any success is attributable to luck or some other external factor.

FEAR AND GUILT AROUND SUCCESS – Those exhibiting IP fear failure and strive for perfectionism. Any success they do enjoy, however, only leads to greater anxiety. More success means more pressure and higher expectations.

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Root Causes of IP

Of particular relevance to the world of family business is research that points to family dynamics as one of the leading contributors to IP. Dr Clance found that a significant majority of her subjects could trace their feelings of unworthiness back to childhood family experiences.

She found four general family characteristics related to Impostor Phenomenon:

(1) The perception that a person’s talents are atypical compared with those of other family members.

(2) Family messages conveying intellectual ability and success require little effort.

(3) A discrepancy between feedback about ability and success.

(4) A lack of positive reinforcement in general.

Family business members could be especially susceptible to Impostor Phenomenon. Quite often, potentially dysfunctional family dynamics perpetuate into adulthood within the workplace.

Culture is another underlying factor contributing to the onset of IP. Early research showed that in the US, minorities were more likely than Caucasians to experience the effects of IP. A 2013 study from the University of Texas at Austin further delineated the cultural aspect by suggesting that Asian-Americans were more likely to experience IP than African- Americans or Latino-Americans.

What can be done?

Impostor Phenomenon has no prescription drug dedicated to its treatment and no one-size-fits-all path to wellness. That said, there are steps proven to help manage the effects of IP.

TALK ABOUT IT – Sharing your experiences with others who have gone through the same thing can help you understand it better. Knowing that you are not alone will help you feel validated and less like a fraud.

OWN YOUR SUCCESS – Impostors share a tendency to discount successes and hang on to imperfections. For example, you remember the presentation that impressed your colleagues only as that time you stumbled over your words. Reverse this trend by acknowledging and accepting your successes – it is more than okay to pat yourself on the back.

LEARN TO ASK FOR HELP – Those who feel like an impostor are preoccupied with trying to keep others from finding out how little they know when, in reality, they know quite a lot. Asking for help will reduce the pressure to know everything and be able to do everything single-handedly.