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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Elliott

Look Inward: Imposter Phenomenon

First, I want to thank you all once again for reading. I would never imagine that my side hobby for writing about random things would translate into nearly 2,000 readers in two months! For those who missed the last two blogs, check them out here and here.


When people praise you for an accomplishment, are you afraid you won't be able to live up to their expectations in the future? Are you afraid that people important to you may find out you are not as capable as you are? Do you tend to focus more on the moments where you failed rather than the moments you succeeded? Do you believe your success(es) are due to luck, chance, or mistake? Do you compare your ability to those around you and think they may be better than you? Do you worry about not succeeding with a project or examination, even though others around you have considerable confidence? (Did I just @ every musician that ever was or ever will be?)


If any of the questions above resonated with you, chances are you have suffered from Imposter Phenomenon. In this blog, we are going to dive deep and talk about Imposter Phenomenon (sometimes referred to as imposter syndrome), look at the root cause, and explore some possible solutions. Before we go any further, I want to address that, yes—this is a real thing. I admit to you that the first time I heard the term, I quickly dismissed it as illegitimate. When I learned more about what it was, I soon realized I've been a victim of Imposter Phenomenon many times.

Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Susane Imes coined the term "Imposter Phenomenon" (henceforth referred to as IP) in a groundbreaking research publication in the late 1970s investigating this unnamed phenomenon particularly in high achieving women (Clance & Imes, 1978). In less than ten years, IP was widely accepted and cited in the psychology profession. Since then, hundreds of validated experiments and inquiries have continued to strengthen the understanding of IP. There is even an assessment tool—called the CIPS scale—which will be provided at the end of this blog.

So what is IP?

In short, IP sufferers believe that their success—an A on a paper, nailing an audition, getting that great job—is somehow a mistake, not deserved, or can never be duplicated again. They believe it's just crazy luck. It's when an individual experiences unwarranted feelings of inadequacy concerning their abilities (Clance & Imes, 1978). It's the phoniness one feels about their achievement. It's the inability to accept and internalize that they were responsible for their success. Research or no research, I can confidently say most people tend to encounter some degree of IP at some point in their lives.

Why is IP important to acknowledge?

IP is important to acknowledge because it is naming something we already know, feel, and experience. It starts the process of normalization. Research literature on the effects of IP on our daily lives is immense. At the time of this blog, there is no study investigating the prevalence of IP across all populations. However, there are literally hundreds of studies exploring IP in specific people, to include: nurses, teachers, parents (more on this later), musicians, students, law enforcement, elementary children, medical doctors (this was particularly scary to read…), mothers, animal handlers—literally everything (Bergsmann, Schober, & Spiel, 2012; Cokley, Smith, Bernard, Hurst, & Jackson, 2017; Vergauwe, Wille, Feys, & De Fruyt, 2015). From the research, some surprising findings and theories are developing. Leon & Matthews (2010) drew compelling conclusions that IP is not only correlated with unemployment but is also a cause of unemployment. They asserted that IP—which is a form of self-handicapping or self-limitation—causes people to perform poorly in interviews or even turn down opportunities. In short, they proposed that the solution to the "unemployment crisis" (this was in 2010), was to address IP head-on via counseling, mentoring, and training. Other researchers have examined IP through the lens of conservation of resources (COR) theory. In one particular study, researchers examined college faculty to consider how IP impacted psychological well-being and work outcomes. Through the COR theory model, they drew reliable conclusions that those who experience high levels of IP deplete critical resources needed to avoid psychological strain (Hutchins, Penney, & Sublett, 2018). Ever met a faculty member who described themselves as tired or unmotivated? It just might be caused by avoidant coping strategies (IP), resulting in emotional exhaustion. This is a form of burnout. However, the majority research on burnout focuses on external causes. Research on the inward-facing causes (IP) of burnout are scant. The studies that genuinely surprised me focused on parenting. While many researchers agree that imposter feelings are often rooted in early family relations (and there's empirical support for this assertion), there are now studies exploring the link between parenting styles and IP. For parents out there, here are two empirically proven ways to set your child up for higher occurrences of IP as adults:

  1. lack of parental care

  2. parental overprotection

While both of these parenting styles result in higher IP occurrences later in the child's life, parental overprotection increases the presence of IP threefold. Let me just hit the nail on the head here: children raised by overprotective parents are three times more likely to experience IP as adults (Li, Hughes, & Thu, 2014). Interestingly, parental overprotection has varying degrees of impact, depending on whether it comes from the mother or the father. Women respond more positively to maternal overprotection. Men react more positively to paternal overprotection. Side note: this reinforces something I've said many times—if you want to make a grown man cry, ask him to talk about his father. (Really). Many studies draw strong correlations between generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or social anxiety disorder (SAD) and IP. It goes both ways, however. People who suffer from IP but do not suffer from GAD or SAD can experience pronounced levels of anxiety at the thought of being successful or high-achieving. Interestingly, some people (incorrectly) diagnosed with GAD or SAD may actually have recurring episodes of IP (Ross, Stewart, Mugge, & Fultz, 2001) which calls for very different treatment approaches.

What is the root cause of IP?

So, we have talked a lot about correlations, but what, exactly, is at the root of IP? I'll admit I was both excited and surprised by this overwhelming conclusion from the literature: fear of failure. For those that don't know, fear of failure (AKA "fear of negative evaluation") is a crucial concept in my current research. So, it piqued my interest to investigate this topic further.

"When we change how we attribute our outcomes, the outcomes will change."

For the many living with numerous occurrences of IP in their lives, you might have reached a point where you think that there is no way to get rid of it. The research says otherwise, but I'll forewarn that there's no quick fix or pill to combat IP. It takes work. You will have to draw awareness to your attributions, maladaptive thinking, and achievement orientation. It's essential to identify and frame the root cause of the problem to solve the problem. Fear of negative evaluation and, consequently, IP, is centered around the general concept of achievement. Two theories are deeply rooted in achievement and can help us frame the root cause: attribution theory and achievement goal theory. A brief examination of these two theories will help us explore some ways to help combat IP.

Attribution Theory

As humans, we feel the need to assign a cause to all actions and behaviors. This is where attribution theory comes in. It's our way to attempt to understand the behavior of ourselves and others by attributing feelings, beliefs, and intentions to them. What's crucial to understand is that our attributions do not reflect the real world; instead, they reflect our beliefs of the real world. It is our values, beliefs, and attitudes that frame how we attribute and assign a cause or attribution.

  • Key takeaway: people suffering from IP often attribute failures to ability and successes to chance.

  • Remedy: Attributional retraining. Failure is rarely a reflection of ability and is rather a reflection of effort. The more we can retrain ourselves to value effort rather than ability, the better.

  • Homework: In the next week, tune into your self-dialogue. When something good happens, to what are you attributing? Ability, effort, or chance? We all carry attributional biases. It's time to be aware of them to change them. When we change how we attribute our outcomes, the outcomes will change.

Achievement Goal Theory

We all have goals. Achievement Goal Theory (AGT) focuses on the behavior surrounding and attributed to the goal, not the goal itself. Put another way, AGT is how we evaluate or attribute our competence or incompetence and orient our behavior. In this light, AGT impacts our behavioral and cognitive outcomes about a goal. AGT links directly to motivation. The theory outlines that human beings define competence in two main—and significantly different—ways:

  1. those that define competence in terms of normative standards (in which case, we experience feelings of achievement when we outperform others).

  2. those that define competence in self-referent terms with a focus on personal learning, understanding, and mastery (in which case, we experience feelings of achievement when we outperform ourselves).

Colloquially, these are referred to as "mastery goals" and "performance goals." Performance goals, or goals in which we feel achievement by outperforming others, have negative consequences. Psychologically, performance goals hinder our motivation and learning; mastery goals foster learning, development, and motivation (Kumar & Jagacinski, 2006). I should be fair to point out that there is some evidence to support that performance goals can have positive outcomes, particularly in group efforts like sports teams.

  • Key Takeaway: people suffering from IP often define competence in normative standards and approach achievement through the performance goal frame.

  • Remedy: Achievement repositioning. If we view our competence and achievement through the mastery lens, we tend to view mistakes as opportunities, and it boosts our intrinsic motivation. If we consider our competence and achievement through the performance lens, we tend to see our mistakes as failures. Building upon our discussion on Attribution Theory, there is another implication here: mastery goals are attributed to effort and persistence; performance goals are attributed to ability. You can hopefully see the pattern here. Focus on you, your mastery, and your effort. Life and death are both guarantees. Most of us choose to focus on life. Success and failure are both guarantees. Those with IP choose to focus on failure. It's time to make the switch.

  • Homework: Repeat after me--"My failures do not speak to my ability." Say it again, and believe it this time. Repeat as often as necessary.

​Absent of cognitive impairments, we all have strong ability (note that ability should not be confused with talent, aptitude, or skill). When we attribute failure to ability, we have done ourselves a strong disservice. Ability is internal, stable, and not within our control (Sakaki & Murayama, 2013). Thus, if we attribute failure to our (lack of) ability, we have inherently increased our expectation for future failure. The next time you succeed or fail, take a moment to assess your effort.


Final Thoughts

So, was this a cure to end IP in its tracks? No. However, there are ways to eliminate or reduce the occurrence of IP gradually. The good news is that we are in control of IP. The bad news is that we are in control of IP. Put another way: IP is an outward-facing ailment that we internalize. Look inward and be an observer of your thought processes. As you start to recognize the patterns, feel empowered to jump in and interrupt yourself. Abandon the idea that your successes are a chance, and your failures are a lack of ability. Science proves that it is the exact opposite. Ability is what fuels our effort, choice, and persistence, and these are the qualities that lead to success and achievement. The next time you experience IP, pause and focus on your effort rather than your ability. Ask yourself if you are attributing your success or failure to ability or competence. Ask yourself what your goal is: is it to do better than someone else or to do better for you? Whether you succeed or fail, do you acknowledge and celebrate the learning that resulted? The more we can retrain our achievement orientation and attribution, the higher the chance we have at reducing or eliminating IP. If you want a sense of where you are on the IP severity spectrum, check out the Clance IP Scale (CIPS) here. What's your experience with IP? What has worked for you? Leave a comment or shoot me a message! ​If you enjoyed this post, please share with your friends. Additionally, I'd love your feedback or any suggestions for another topic. Thanks, and be well.

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