The Impostor Phenomenon was first described in 1985 by Dr Pauline Clance, from her observations in a clinical setting, but only in recent months has this condition come under the spotlight, known as Impostor Syndrome.
It is most frequently associated with professional women, however subsequent research has found that it affects a wide range of people – including men, and those in varying industries such as academia, medicine and marketing.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
Individuals with the Impostor Phenomenon experience intense feelings that their achievements are undeserved and worry that they are likely to be exposed as a fraud, even though there is concrete and objective evidence that they are high performing professionals.
We spoke to a number of highly successful women to understand the root cause and symptoms of Impostor Syndrome – all of the women we spoke to admitted to experiencing the condition at least once, some telling us it is a regular form of anxiety that debilitates them from achieving their goals.
The Impostor Cycle
Perhaps this cycle is familiar to you?
It begins when the individual is set an achievement related task, such as a project, a piece of work or a vocational task and feelings of anxiety ensue. They react to this anxiety in one of two ways; 1) through extreme over-preparation or 2) by initial procrastination followed by frenzied last minute preparation. Once the task is complete, they feel a sense of relieved satisfaction but this feeling is short lived. The task is successful and they receive positive feedback for their work but they deny this success came as a result of their own abilities.
If they over-prepared, they attribute the success of the task purely to having put in so many hours it could not have failed, and therefore hard work is not a reflection of real ability. Those who procrastinated believe their success was simply a fluke and they “winged it” or got lucky on that occasion.
Why does Impostor Syndrome Occur?
“Impostors often secretly harbour the need to be the very best compared with their peers. Clance observed that Impostors have often been in the top of the class throughout their school years. However, in a larger setting, such as in a university, Impostors realise that there are many exceptional people and their own talents and abilities are not atypical. As a result, Impostors often dismiss their own talents and conclude that they are stupid when they are not the very best” (Clance, 1985)
We spoke to Kirsty Henshaw, Managing Director of Kirsty’s, an £8m retail food business producing healthy, gluten and dairy free ready meals and desserts that are sold in over 3500 stores including all of the major supermarkets. Interestingly, she attributes some of the stimulus for feelings of inadequacy and the increased prevalence of Impostor Syndrome in recent years to the images we see on Instagram and social media.
Kirsty told us “We are all bombarded with images multiple times a day, so when you see Instagram stories of other successful entrepreneurs posting snippets of their glamourous and perfect lives it can make you feel like a failure, even though you’re anything but. You can have a multi-million-pound business or a high-flying job, but the benchmark of perfection is so high and we are exposed to other people’s success almost constantly”.
Are there ways to manage these feelings?
Engaging the support of a Business Coach or Mentor can be useful in seeking validation from another person you perceive to have good judgement and substantial experience.
The fear of failure (actually really meaning the fear of humiliation in front of your peers) ranks highly amongst possible explanations for the symptoms of Impostor Syndrome, and this can be mitigated through planning and process. By rationalising your theories of how you attain success in a methodical way, may provide some relief but the tendency in Impostors is to “over work” to ensure that this does not happen.
Simply being self-aware of these feelings and behaviours and understanding why they are happening is a positive step in being able to manage them.