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Imposter Phenomenon: What It Is and How to Overcome It


Image Source: Chris Yang | Unsplash

Imposter Phenomenon (also known as Imposter Experience or Imposter Syndrome) is a psychological state in which you believe you are not as capable as others perceived you to be. In the 1970s, psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance coined the phrase to describe a group of female college students who, despite excellent grades and scores, believed that most or all of their accomplishments were due to chance or error. Follow-up research revealed that both men and women are susceptible to imposter sentiments, with early family conflict and a lack of parental support possibly playing a part in the etiology.

To put it another way, imposter phenomenon is the experience of feeling like a phony that is about to be discovered or as if you don’t belong where you are and were only there by chance. Anyone can be affected, regardless of their socioeconomic status, employment history, skill level, or experience.

Cause and impact of imposter phenomenon

According to a study done by Dena Brevata and her team, up to 82% of people experience imposter phenomenon; the participants believe they haven’t earned what they’ve accomplished and are a fraud. While no research has specifically looked at the relationship between this phenomenon and a person’s intelligence, some experts believe that the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias that causes clever people to doubt their own competence, may play a role in impostorism.

In their pioneering studies, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes discovered that the imposter phenomenon was linked to early family dynamics and gender stereotypes. However, a subsequent study has revealed that the phenomenon affects people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. Self-efficacy, perfectionism, and neuroticism are all issues that those who suffer from it face. 

Impostorism grows in some competitive environments, including workplaces and even entire professional fields. It is linked to the type of work one does and whether or not it can be measured objectively. This can be found especially in work environments that allow for comparison amongst peers; this pushes people to adhere to a competition mindset in which success is favored and rewarded and failure is looked down on and shamed.

Overcoming imposter phenomenon

The imposter phenomenon can suffocate a person’s opportunity for growth and fulfillment by stopping one from seeking new opportunities in career growth, relationships, or hobbies. Similar to perfectionists, people with imposter phenomenon put a lot of pressure on themselves to perform every assignment flawlessly because they are afraid that making a mistake will show that they are not good or smart enough for the job. They maintain this high level of stress because they believe that without discipline, they will fail; instead of rewarding themselves, they focus on the next task at hand.

People can continue to grow and thrive by confronting this phenomenon. Imposter phenomenon can be overcome by changing one’s perspective on their own talents by reminding oneself that their place in their chosen field is earned through the expertise and accomplishments one has gained.

Here are a few practical methods that can be taken to overcome the imposter phenomenon.

  • Evaluate your abilities. Make a realistic evaluation of your abilities if you often overthink about your performance and social abilities. If you feel like you are being too critical of yourself, remember to include your achievements and strengths in your self-assessment.
  • Stop comparing yourself to others. When you compare yourself to others, you will constantly see a shortcoming in yourself, escalating your feelings of not being good enough or not belonging. Instead, when you are in a social setting, pay attention to the conversation. Have a genuine interest in learning more.
  • Challenge your thoughts. Question whether your views are rational when you begin to evaluate your abilities and stop comparing yourself to others. 
  • Talk to other people. Irrational beliefs tend to fester when they are kept hidden and unspoken about. Turning to a coworker or a mentor who understands your insecurities about your performance can be beneficial in some instances. However, research indicates that reaching out to people outside of your academic or professional group may be a more effective way to prevent impostorism. Those individuals may help contextualize your issues, reframe your perspective, and offer support and love.

Whatever it is that makes you feel like you don’t belong, do not let imposter phenomenon stop you from achieving your goals. Move forward, believe in your capabilities as a person, and continue to improve on yourself.

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