the impostor phenomenon -- 3/1/18

Today's encore selection - from "Great Pretenders: People Who Feel Their Success Is Undeserved" by Birgit Spinath. The impostor phenomenon:

"[A significant number of individuals who achieve at a high level nevertheless] see themselves as frauds. Psychologists call this the impostor phenomenon. Those who are afflicted believe that their successes cannot be attributed to their own abilities. Instead they are convinced that other people's praise and recognition of their accomplishments are the result of charm, deception or simple good luck. Interestingly, such thoughts tend to surface in people whose lives have been an apparently uninterrupted string of successes.

"Many people have a tendency to blame external circumstances for their own accomplishments or failures. But those plagued with impostor thinking go well beyond this. They actually view themselves as swindlers who cheat their way into success without in any way having earned it. They live in constant terror of being exposed.

"Recently researchers have been taking a closer look at the emotional characteristics of people plagued by such ideas. By better understanding how the impostor phenomenon differs from related mental states such as social anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, psychologists are learning how to help people recognize and dispel the troubling thought that they are nothing but phonies.

"The term 'impostor phenomenon' was coined in the 1970s by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, both then at Georgia State University. Clance and Imes noticed that many of their students with excellent test scores and good grades admitted during counseling that they felt they did not belong at the school. Although these students were successful and accomplished, they expressed the idea that they had somehow conned their way into their current positions. They were astutely aware of their weaknesses and tended to overestimate the strengths and abilities of others. In their minds, they always failed to measure up -- and they dreaded the day they would make a mistake and reveal to the world the grand illusion.

"Clance and Imes described this impostor phenomenon in a 1978 paper, taking care not to call it a 'syndrome' or a 'disorder,' because it is not a debilitating medical condition. Still, such thinking can be persistently troubling for those who suffer from it, and it may even keep some people from fulfilling their potential or finding contentment.

"In 1985, after further studying the associated feelings and ideas, Clance developed a questionnaire to help individuals determine if they show an impostorlike pattern of thinking. The test, widely used today by counselors and psychotherapists, covers the three main components of such thinking: feeling like a fake, discounting praise and achievements, and attributing successes to luck. The first component, feeling fake, is the core of impostordom. People feel that they have pulled the wool over everyone's eyes -- that they are not really as smart, talented or hardworking as they have convinced everyone they are. The second facet is the inability to acknowledge praise or good performance, which means that even after working hard and achieving a goal, these so-called impostors will ignore the fact of their success and continue to focus on their perceived weaknesses. And finally, when faced with their own conspicuous achievements, sufferers will attribute their good fortune to chance or some other external factor rather than taking credit for it. ...

"[T]o ensure that their 'failure' is not uncovered in a performance situation, such people may avail themselves of two seemingly opposite strategies: overdoing and underdoing. Overdoing involves disproportionate efforts such as studying and restudying material they have already mastered or obsessively preparing and practicing every detail of a short, routine presentation [or task]."


Birgit Spinath


"Great Pretenders: People Who Feel Their Success Is Undeserved"


Scientific American Mind


March/April 2011


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