January 4, 2018

Feeling Like a Phony? How the Impostor Syndrome Works and Why You Shouldn’t Let It Stop You.

Disguise/glasses with nose

What Exactly Is the Impostor Phenomenon?

Maria couldn’t help but think to herself, “Everyone can tell that I don’t belong here”. As one of few female leaders in the world of computer science and engineering, Maria often felt like she didn’t fit in. However, her self-doubt went beyond simply being a woman in a man’s world. Increasingly often she found herself thinking, “I am an incredible failure” (1).

Many female leaders experience a sense of not deserving or belonging in their position. This sensation is commonly referred to as the Impostor Phenomenon (IP). We ask ourselves if these doubts are unwarranted and wonder if they accurately reflect our true capabilities. Yet impostor feelings can be so overwhelming that they’re difficult to dismiss. As a result, we continue to question if we are really cut out for the job. So what can a woman experiencing the IP do?

First of all, let’s go back to Maria. Her story is the real life narrative of Maria Klawe, Ph.D. Dr. Klawe is currently the President of Harvey Mudd College and was formerly the Dean of Engineering at Princeton University and the Dean of Science at the University of British Columbia. By most objective standards, Dr. Klawe has achieved remarkable success. Yet, she grapples with feelings of failure and doubts that she deserves this success (1). The takeaway here is that no one is immune to impostor feelings.

Here’s what we know about the IP. Defined as an internal experience of intellectual phoniness, the IP is experienced more frequently and to a greater extent by women than by men (2, 3). The epitome of the IP is a smart woman who believes she is not actually smart and that she has simply fooled anyone who thinks she is. She is terrified of being evaluated and “found out” (2, 3) because she fears the humiliation of failure. She doubts that she is able to live up to others’ expectations of her (3). She is unable to realistically assess her own competence and chronically underestimates herself while overestimating others (3). This woman may accomplish achievements that are successful by objective standards, yet fails to internalize these accomplishments, even when she receives positive feedback or praise from others (3).

That failure to internalize success is a defining feature of the IP. People experiencing the IP tend to attribute their success to factors such as luck, being at the right place at the right time, extra effort, or the misjudgment of others. This is related to the idea that unexpected levels of performance are attributed to either a temporary cause (e.g., extra effort) or an external cause (e.g. luck). On the other hand, expected levels of performance are attributed to stable causes (e.g., intelligence) (2). Society’s expectations of women tend to be incompatible with expectations of leaders (4). So when a woman achieves success as a leader, that woman may perceive her success as an unexpected level of performance. Therefore, she is less likely to attribute her success to its real cause (her own intelligence) and is left feeling like a phony.

What Causes the Impostor Phenomenon?

Trigger events are often responsible for stirring up impostor feelings (5). Triggers represent changes in a person’s circumstances that may be dramatic or subtle, positive or negative, and arise from internal or external sources (5). Examples include promotions, changing employers, or starting a new career. Trigger events act as catalysts for heightened self-awareness (5) and prompt comparisons of ourselves to relevant others.

Although trigger events may increase the likelihood that you will experience impostor feelings, you still have a choice about you will react to those feelings. And there are some really compelling reasons to not let the IP stand in your way.

3 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Let the Impostor Phenomenon Stop You.

First and foremost, the IP holds women back! Because women are more prone to experiencing the IP, it can prove exceedingly detrimental to current and aspiring female leaders. Remember, the IP is based on distorted perceptions. Impostor feelings may cause a woman to decline a professional opportunity for which she is actually qualified. This further perpetuates the lack of women both currently in leadership positions and in the pipeline. In other words, IP sufferers may not be achieving at their maximum potential (3).

Furthermore, the IP may lead to inauthenticity, or not divulging one’s true feelings or opinions (2). A person who feels phony is likely not behaving in a way that is fully authentic. They may put on a facade in an attempt to “look the part” and have not internalized their own strengths (3). Such inauthenticity is not only an exhausting ruse to maintain, but it may also interfere with relationships with others, leading to a lack of trust (6).

Lastly, the IP has been associated with multiple, negative outcomes. Combating feelings of phoniness can lead to anxiety, depression, and lack of confidence (2). The results of impostor feelings are not only undesirable, they are also unhealthy.

In summary, if you have self-doubts that are not based on an objective assessment of your competence, then it’s possible you are experiencing the IP. The IP has many negative implications. Sufferers may not be achieving at their maximum potential (3) and it is neither healthy nor enjoyable to experience. Impostor feelings are based on distorted thought processes and may contribute to suboptimal decision-making. Trigger events may provoke the IP and are occasions to be particularly vigilant in guarding against the effects of impostor feelings.


About the Author

Leslie Trainor, M.B.A., is a Ph.D. student in Organizational Psychology. She is the Research Lab Manager for LeAD Labs, a leadership development firm, and her research interests are women in leadership and toxic leadership. Currently, she is an independent contractor working with the County of Riverside Economic Development Agency operationalizing and administrating non-profit corporations affiliated with the Housing Authority, Workforce Development System, Library System, and March Air Reserve Base.

Related Research

(1) Klawe, M. (2014, March 24). Impostoritis: A Lifelong, but Treatable, Condition. Slate.

(2) Clance, P.R. & Imes, S.A. (1978). The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic interventions. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 15(3), 241-247.

(3) Clance, P.R. & O’Toole, M.A. (1987). The impostor phenomenon; An internal barrier to empowerment and achievement. Women and Therapy, 6(3), 51-64.

(4) Eagly, A. H., & Karau, S. J. (2002). Role congruity theory of prejudice toward female leaders. Psychological Review, 109(3), 573–598.

(5) Gardner, W.L., Avolio, B.J., Luthans, F., May, D.R., & Walumbwa, F.O. (2005). Can you see the real me? A self-based model of authentic leader and follower development. Leadership Quarterly, 16, 343-372.

(6) Eagly, A. H. (2005). Achieving relational authenticity in leadership: Does gender matter? The Leadership Quarterly.