Some people really are impostors. Other people fear that they are impostors, but aren’t. It’s useful to make the distinction. It is best not to begin by thinking that imposture is a state of mind.
When we hear about impostors we first think of people like our current president, a man who was elected to a job that is beyond his abilities and who, one might posit, fears being exposed as a fraud. Obama is an impostor because his work experience and professional accomplishments in no way qualified him for the presidency of the United States.
Celebrities are often impostors, especially when they advocate for trendy causes. When Leonardo DiCaprio opines about climate change or global warming, we know that he does not owe his platform to anything resembling a professional qualification in climate science. He is more like a ventriloquist’s dummy, mouthing words that are being spoken by someone who has hijacked and taken over his mind.
Does he fear exposure? Yes and no. One suspects that someone who makes a living pretending to be someone he is not does not especially worry about being seen as pretending to know more than he does in his non-acting endeavors. Even the appearance of being well informed might suffice.
Before we try to analyze the impostor syndrome we must note that out culture tends to reward more than to punish impostors. And we ought to understand that the fear of exposure, the sense of being a fraud must be more acute in cultures where people tend to overexpose themselves, to overshare on social media. After all, if someone feels like an impostor on the job and fears exposure, he might simply be displacing a fear of being exposed for having done something shameful somewhere else.
Examine what psychologists call the impostor syndrome. Belgian researchers writing in the Journal of Business Psychology define it as:
… intense feelings of intellectual fraudulence, often experienced by high-achieving individuals.
Apparently, the researchers are psychologists. They see the syndrome merely as a feeling, a dread that is not supported by the facts. By their reasoning, people who suffer from impostor syndrome cannot accept that the successes they have achieved are really theirs. Thus, rather simplistically, the authors assume that the impostor syndrome is an irrational emotional response to success. It might be thus, but there might be more to it.
If the syndrome is a personality trait, it might have been inculcated in childhood. If it was, it has not prevented these people from succeeding.
If you have been working your way up the corporate ladder while dragging along a childhood trauma, we might say that the trauma is not as influential as one might imagine. Besides, if you feel that you are an impostor and are succeeding, then the feeling is part of your formula for success. Perhaps it signifies a level of humility that helps you to accomplish tasks. If that is true, you will be wont to give it up.
At some point, this irrational fear might very well slow you down, but, if the phenomenon is part of your psychic make up, we would want to know why it manifests itself when it does and not sooner.
I am not entirely comfortable seeing this as a state of mind. Allow me to speculate on some alternative psychosocial explanations for what might be contributing to this syndrome.
An individual can reach a level where he is simply not competent to do the new job. He might have been the best of a bunch of bad candidates. He might be married to the boss's daughter. He might have inherited the company. He might have been promoted for reasons of diversity. When he is given a new task an competes it successfully, it might conclude that he got lucky or that people are patronizing him.
In an era where affirmative action influences hiring decisions, anyone who belongs to a group that receives preferences might very well see himself as an impostor, as someone who does not really belong. Even if he doesn't other people might very well do so.
Since the researchers note the prevalence of the impostor syndrome among students, we must ask whether the obnoxious habit of giving every child a trophy, that is, unearned praise, does not make children feel that their achievements are not really theirs.
And, let’s not exclude the influence of what has been called the evil eye. For all I know, someone might be surrounded by people who do not respect him, who resent his success, who want his job or fear that he will take their jobs. What is called the evil eye, a resentful gaze is a form of psychological manipulation that undermines an individual without his even knowing it.
The authors also note the influence of worldwide competition. If you are great at your job in one place someone somewhere else might be better at the same job. And he might take your job. Thus, what is being called the impostor syndrome might be an anxiety about competing against people in Singapore. And it might be a reasonable fear. It might be better than to be overconfident.
As for the way sufferers from the syndrome react when given a new task to perform, the authors describe it in these terms:
Specifically, when an achievement-related task is assigned to them, impostors are usually plagued with worry, self-doubt and anxiety. In order to deal with these feelings, they either extremely over-prepare a task or initially procrastinate followed by frenzied preparation. Mostly, they succeed, and they experience temporary feelings of elation and relief. However, their success reinforces the feelings of fraudulence rather than weakening them, because in their mind, this success does not reflect true ability. Once a new task is assigned, feelings of anxiety and self-doubt reoccur, a phenomenon referred to as the “impostor cycle.”
How do they attempt to deal with their feelings of imposture? The authors describe their tactics:
Furthermore, it can be argued that due to the fear of being exposed, impostors can become so engaged in their own tasks and performance that there remains less energy for tasks that are not part of their job description. Presuming that high personal achievement is the ultimate cover for their self-perceived fraudulence, and that personal resources are restricted, we expect impostors to be less inclined to engage in OCB.
OCB stands for Organizational Citizen Behavior, the kinds of behaviors that fall outside of specifically required tasks. The authors describe it in an interview published in the Harvard Business Review:
Organizational citizenship behavior, or briefly OCB, refers to behaviors that go beyond your job requirements, such as helping colleagues with their work, working longer than you are expected to work, attending meetings that are not mandatory. We argued that due to the fear of being exposed, impostors can become so engaged in their own tasks and performance that there remains less energy for tasks that are not part of their job description. Presuming that high personal achievement is the ultimate cover for their self-perceived fraudulence, and that personal resources are restricted, we expected impostors to be less inclined to engage in OCB. However, similar as for conscientiousness, the negative relationship might also be due to a general tendency to downgrade oneself.
What does it mean when people do not put themselves out to perform tasks that are not part of their job description? If they suffer impostor syndrome they might be saying that they do not want to become more successful and have more responsibilities. After all, the more responsibilities you have the more chances you have to mess up. And the more costly your mistakes will become. People who suffer from the syndrome might believe that even if they did not mess up this time, they surely will next time.
Downgrading themselves might be the best way to manage their anxieties.
See also Melissa Dahl’s article in the Science of Us.