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The Imposter Phenomenon: Struggling with Success

Teresa Tawes

Outpatient Director at Harford Belair Community Mental Health Center in Work

As I do every summer, I went on vacation with my family. We spent time relaxing, laughing, eating (a lot of eating!) and talking. One thing we always seem to discuss on vacation is careers.

Our family discussions about careers tend to be pretty honest. We share accomplishments, perceived strengths and weaknesses, upcoming projects and self-doubts about our abilities. This year, the conversation turned towards thoughts of career insecurities and how no one can be an expert on all things. In fact, sometimes you may feel so out of place in a situation that you feel like a fraud or an imposter. My father-in-law imparted some of his witticism upon us.

Once upon a time there was a famous scientist who knew everything there was to know about polymer extrusion. He was invited to speak at numerous meetings and conferences. This scientist was so accomplished and successful that he had a chauffeur drive him to each speaking event. While the scientist was presenting, the chauffeur would listen intently to the presentation. One day, the chauffeur said to the scientist, “I have heard you give that speech so many times, I bet I can present it to the audience." The scientist took him up on the offer and at the next conference they switched roles. The chauffeur gave the presentation as the scientist sat and listened. The crowd was pleased and as the applause died down, a participant stood and asked a very technical question. The chauffeur knowing he had no appropriate response, responded…"Sir that is such a basic question even my chauffeur can answer that." (Author unknown)

In this particular situation, the chauffeur is clearly an imposter, but there are times in our own careers when we may feel like imposters. We feel unsure of our abilities and question our self-worth. Realistically this is common for young individuals just beginning in a field or for more seasoned professionals as they change roles or take on new responsibilities. However, for some individuals, typically highly educated and successful, this uncertainty overwhelms their careers. They feel fake and phony. It feels like they are fooling others around them, and they fear that eventually they will be found to be imposters…. Just like the chauffeur.

 

The term Imposter Phenomenon was researched and developed in the 1970's by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. They found that despite degrees, accomplishments, honors and praise by those respected in their fields, individuals could not internalize and accept their own accomplishments. Often individuals identify luck as a reason for accomplishments and are therefore filled with doubt. Since successes are hard to accept, these accomplishments are often discounted and brushed off as “no big deal".

Just like other facets of our character, the Imposter Phenomenon is thought to develop through our early interactions with parents, family members, educators and our community.

No field of study or profession seems to be free of the this phenomenon. A quick search of the Internet provides a bevy of articles and sites about the topic. Interestingly, many sites and articles focus on college and graduate school. Check out Massachusetts Institute of Technology's website — It posts an article about students fessing up to their imposter feelings. Caltech's website shares information from their counseling center about Imposter Phenomenon, including what it is and how to deal with it on campus. However, from the number of web articles on Imposter Phenomenon and tech jobs we can speculate that Imposter Phenomenon was not worked through at the counseling center for many in the tech field.

 

So why is Imposter Phenomenon so prevalent in the tech community? Perhaps it has to do with the fact the the tech world is extremely competitive. Programmers and developers feel that they have to perform at optimum levels all the time. This leads co-workers to only share their best stories and accomplishments thus reinforcing the competitive cycle. Additionally, the tech world is always changing. One minute you know the latest language and platform and the next you are pulling all nighters to learn something new. Finally Imposter Phenomenon is more common in peer reviewed industries such as technology. Who wants their work and ideas to be scrutinized by their peers? This level of peer assessment can and does lead to feelings of insecurity and doubt.

Whether you are in the tech field or one of the many professional fields, feeling of phoniness can creep into your career. If so, consider the following:

  • Acknowledge and explore your feelings — Take time to think about your experiences and feelings and share them with friends, colleagues and peers. There is often relief in sharing your story. You might even find that you are not alone in your struggles.
  • Don't compare —Comparing ourselves to others can be a slippery slope. Comparisons often lead to disappointment, frustration and more self-doubt. Also when comparing, we tend to see the best parts of people and ignore the not so great parts. Try to look at both yourself and others in more objective ways.
  • Toot your own horn —Celebrate your accomplishments! Keep a journal or book and document all that you have done. This is evidence that you have earned each accolade. Don't discount the positives — you could not have achieved all that you have without your abilities!
  • You don't have to be perfect —In the highly competitive world in which we live, we have the distorted belief that we must know everything and be everything. This is not true. Be yourself — with all of your strengths and weaknesses….Remember we often learn the most from our failures.

The chauffeur found out that being an imposter will only get you so far. Remember that hard work, accomplishments, failures and all the rest will keep you fresh in your career and striving for more.

Teresa Tawes, LCPC, is the Outpatient Director at Harford Belair Community Mental Health Center, and a member of Traitify's Psychology Advisory Board. To learn more about Traitify and our visual personality assessment, please click here.

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