Understanding the imposter phenomenon
In 1978, a paper came out in the journal Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, which landed in the research community with a splash. Chances are, even nearly 45 years later, you’ve heard of its central premise―imposter syndrome, or the constant worry of being exposed as an imposter in one’s professional life.
The term is now ubiquitous, but the paper’s authors never referred to imposter syndrome as a “syndrome” at all. Regardless, what they originally termed the “imposter phenomenon” has taken on a life of its own, and thinking the concept through allows us to examine the drivers of our own feelings of self-doubt.
Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, the researchers behind the paper, focused on high-achieving, mostly white women in their study. Since then, the concept of imposter syndrome (or to use the more accurate term, the imposter phenomenon, which implies an experience rather than a medical issue) has been useful in allowing many of us, particularly women, to unite over the ways we doubt ourselves in professional settings.
However, it’s also been criticized as having an overly narrow focus on individual behaviour and not addressing the structural factors―such as biases in hiring, promotion, leadership, and compensation―that disproportionately affect women and marginalized communities in the workplace, and sow feelings of self-doubt in the first place.
With these considerations in mind, we can think about what imposter syndrome can teach us about self-doubt and how we can channel these feelings into positive changes. Self-doubt, a key component of the imposter phenomenon, is real, and it can affect our performance in both positive and negative ways.
We can recognize when we are experiencing debilitating self-doubt by tuning into our emotions and physical sensations.
“Experiencing self-doubt is different and more intense than ‘healthy nerves,’ as I tend to feel hijacked and with reduced capacity to think clearly or be in touch with any emotions other than doubt and intense anxiety,” says Martin Vera, a leadership consultant and executive coach based in London, UK.
In moments of intense self-doubt, Vera starts to experience negative inner voices that override how he’d like to show up and feel in each situation, accompanied by physical symptoms of stress.
Self-doubt may push us to work harder to “prove” ourselves, but Vera cautions against doing this for too long, as it can lead to burnout and does nothing to break a negative cycle.
Feelings of self-doubt can be particularly common in workplaces that value overwork and individual achievement. If this resonates with you, consider talking to an HR manager you trust about how to promote a healthier workplace culture.
Severe cases of self-doubt can lead to our capacity to think productively being shut down and losing touch with our true motivation and drive. Vera recommends addressing these feelings through three C’s: courage, curiosity, and courage again.
Say you’re feeling like you can’t ask a question at work, because people will think it’s silly. Vera recommends the following.
· Have the courage to stick with the emotion, and pause to reflect on your feelings.
· Use your curiosity to tease apart different strands of what you’re feeling:
o Is there someone specific in the room who you’re worried about?
o What past experiences have shaped your expectations now?
· Have the courage to go out on a limb and test whether your feelings are true:
o Try asking a small, safe question.
o Check the actual response versus your imagined one. Chances are, it won’t be as bad as you think.
conflict resolution and/or negotiation training
Training focused on resolving workplace conflicts or advocating for yourself (for example, in relation to salary) can help you feel more equipped to navigate tough situations.
public speaking workshops
If giving presentations puts you into a spiral of anxiety, taking a workshop on public speaking can help you feel calm and collected.
political or organized action
Consider getting involved in workplace committees or broader political actions that fight systemic factors of discrimination.
First described by Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in a 1978 paper published in the journal Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, this condition was referred to as “imposter phenomenon.”
Now more commonly referred to as imposter syndrome, other terms used to describe the same condition include
· fraud syndrome
· perceived fraudulence
· imposter experience
The Canadian Medical Association defines the condition as “a psychological pattern of fear and self-doubt … that interferes with people’s belief in their own accomplishments and burdens them with the persistent, internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud—despite evidence of their abilities.”
· lemon balm
This article was originally published in the February 2024 issue of alive magazine.