The Imposter Phenomena

By Dr. Emily O'Leary

The Imposter Phenomena
We all have fears of inadequacies and vulnerabilities. It is what makes us human. It is not whether we have the fears, but what we do with them.

Watching a TED talk by Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston on the power of vulnerability led me to question the “fake it until you make it” mentality. Dr Brown’s talk questioned why vulnerability is seen as weakness when it can also be the birthplace of joy, belonging, creativity, authenticity, and love. Ten years ago I graduated with a PhD and was launched into the workforce as a Clinical Psychologist – I was terrified. Sitting across from my client’s years later, a parallel process becomes apparent as I observe many of them being propelled into the same cycle that is ‘The Imposter Phenomena’.

First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in 1978, the Imposter Phenomena is the feeling that you’re a fraud, and despite how much you succeed, there is always a nagging feeling you are inadequate. According to a study in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, 70% of people feel this way. Academy Award winner Kate Winslet recently confided that “I’d wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and think, I can’t do this; I’m a fraud”. Originally thought to occur more in women, a study by Kumar and Jagacinski (2006) found that both men and women experience the Impostor Phenomena, but they express it differently. Men avoid tasks where they think their inadequacies will be highlighted, women work harder to prove themselves.

The Imposter Phenomena is correlated with high achievers. Despite performing well, the results are never good enough to dampen the fears. A reasonable question to ask is if this drives people to succeed where is the issue? The answer lies in the personal cost to that individual. Kevin is a 23 year old man who had won a much converted internship at a flagship hospital following his medical degree. He had beaten over 300 applicants to succeed. On his first day he experienced a panic attack in the restroom after treating his first patient. Kevin’s interpretation was that it was first day jitters and decided to work harder and study more. He worked 12 hour days and laboured over his notes. Despite several opportunity to present at conferences he remained in the hospital avoiding any attention. Three months later Kevin presented for treatment due to “burn out” and panic attacks.

We all have fears of inadequacies and vulnerabilities. It is what makes us human. It is not whether we have the fears, but what we do with them. Achievement means having the confidence in your judgements to knowing when not to “fake it”. The next time you feel vulnerable or inadequate remember Brené Brown’s words “by embracing our vulnerabilities and imperfections we engage in a life from a place of authenticity and worthiness”. That is true success.



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