Friday, February 15, 2008

The common experience of feeling like an impostor

Photo by autoreverse tiramisu (Flickr)

Do you see an impostor when you look in the mirror?

You’d be surprised how many people do.

Most of us adopt or are thrust into roles in life that we think we are not up to. Other people might say you’re great at your job or you’re a great parent or a great partner.

But they are looking at you from the outside. You are looking at yourself from the inside and you “know” you are none of these things. What’s more, you think, if other people knew you as well as you know yourself, they would agree with your unspoken opinion.
This is the text of my That's Men for You column published in The Irish Times on Tuesdsay, 12th February 2008:

The so-called impostor phenomenon was first described in the late 1970s. Then, it referred to young women who were doing well in managerial and executive jobs in the workplace but could not give themselves credit for their own ability.

They saw themselves as succeeding either because they were lucky or because they worked harder than anybody else – but not because they were intrinsically good at what they did.

Subsequent research has shown that the term can be applied equally to men.

The odd thing about the impostor phenomenon is that it seems to affect people who are genuinely successful rather than people who fail. The “impostor” may gain promotions, may be praised by colleagues, may be in demand among customers yet her or she feels like a fake.

Instead of basking in this praise and approval, the affected person lives in fear of being found out.

Another curious thing about people who feel like impostors is that they are less likely than others to behave like real impostors. For example, a study of college students found that those who felt like impostors were less likely than other students to cheat.

“Impostors” seem to dread the arrival of the day when their work will be judged, so they have developed ways to put off the evil hour.

One is to put off starting tasks for as long as possible, always completing them just before the deadline.

The other is to start work on a project long before everyone else, perhaps dragging out the preparations interminably and continuing to work beyond the point at which others are finished.

What’s the payoff for these strategies? The first – putting the work off until the deadline is nigh, as I have done with this article – allows the “impostor” to say the work was so rushed it was pure luck that it was any good. This neatly avoids the question of whether the person is inherently good at the job.

The strategy of working interminably on the project allows the “impostor” to assert that anybody who put in this amount of work would be bound to succeed – again, the “impostor” avoids the issue of his or her personal qualities.

The research on the impostor phenomenon has mainly concerned itself with the workplace and with college studies.

However, I have no doubt that it implies also to relationships. The person who cannot take a compliment may be an example of someone who feels like an impostor.

My own phrase for this is “the ah shure syndrome.”

“Aren’t you really marvellous to have rescued your aunt from that burning building?”
“Ah shure, I was heading in the direction of the door anyway and she just kind of clung on to me.”

If you feel like an impostor and someone expresses love and admiration for you, you will conclude instantly that they don’t know what they are talking about. And you will make sure they don’t get close enough to find out what you are really like.

You believe that if they find out what you are really like, they will no longer admire or love you. To avoid this fate you may have rows with people when they get too close. Indeed, you may even walk away from them altogether.

It’s a painful phenomenon and one that may be more prevalent at home and at work than we realise. I think it is also very difficult to get rid of but awareness is the first step to reducing its influence on our lives.


FRED BRITO - The Benevolent Con said...

I completely can relate to this issue. My name is Fred Brito, and I am a former impostor who has crossed over to the other side. You have seen me on an hour long DATELINE NBC and an hour long Dr. Phil. Now lecture on this issue and how to catch con artists and impostors.

"It takes an expert to catch an expert."

Most Impostors and con artist are CEO's, President's, General Managers or Directors or people in powerful positions in the corporate world or non-profits industry. Their resumes are as phony as a three dollar bill. But who would ever check? Who would "question" someones resume, especially if you have been perpetrating the con for years? Trust me, I have had 34 High Level CEO positions in major national corporations, and no one check my background. Despite that I had access to millions of dollars and information, I never stole a cent. It usually does not ens this way. Usually the hiring company, ends up with fraud, internal theft, and the culprit is gone in a flash in the dark of the night.

Today, I unmask impostors and con artist because I know exactly what to look for. Law enforcement, can't handle this issue effectively, because in order to catch a crook, you have to THINK like one. You need to catch them, dead in their own tracks.

Here is my story: Take a look:

For more information, you can contact me at:

Anonymous said...

Fred, it's nice that you've been on two tv shows but I believe you misunderstood the entire post!

This was not about con artists and imposters in the terms of criminals, but more in terms of people and their insecurities; not believing they deserve the job positions they have. They try to stay incospicuous making all compliments insignificant and also performing their duties in such a way that their skills will not be directly linked to their abilities.

In the future please read the posts closely and make sure your comments are related to the specific posts rather than writing comments which basically selling yourself.

Anonymous said...

I stand corrected. I apologize.

Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

Dreamer in Residence said...

As someone who has spoken on the subject of the impostor syndrome for 25 years now, I have to thank you for normalizing what I believe to be the very common -- and yes, normal -- experience of feeling like we have somehow fooled other people into thinking we are smarter or indeed, to your point, more loveable than others believe us to be.

Perhaps because I'm not a psychologist I do not pathologize the impostor syndrome by attributing it to overbearing parents, low self-esteem, borderline personality disorder or indeed, any disorder. I call it being human. In fact there are times when I worry about people who NEVER feel like an impostor... people who suffer from as a columnist from the Rocky Mountain Times dubbed it, "Irrational Self-Confidence Syndrome" -- God knows there's a lot of THAT out there!

While my work deals predominantly with women you are correct in pointing out that many men harbor (normal) feelings of intense self-doubt as well.

I'm smack in the middle of writing a book on the impostor syndrome tentatively called, "How to Feel as Bright and Capable as Everyone Seems to Think You Are" (Crown Publishing). As I sit here trying to cull from the latest psychological (yawn) research on the impostor syndrome your post was like a breath of fresh air.

Thanks again.

Dr. Valerie Young
Recovering Impostor and Speaker

p.s. I laughed out loud at your description of saving your aunt and the burning house. You are a gifted writer.