“Fraud” alert The ori­gins of the im­poster syn­drome— and how to over­come it.

Elle (Canada) - - Career -

We all know the old ax­iom “Fake it till you make it.” But if you’ve landed your dream gig yet you spend your work­days ag­o­niz­ing that your boss is go­ing to dis­cover you’re a “fake,” you likely have a case of im­poster syn­drome.

Amer­i­can psy­chol­o­gists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term back in 1978 af­ter a num­ber of bright stu­dents in their grad­u­ate-level classes told them they didn’t be­long with all of their smarter class­mates. Since then, the phe­nom­e­non has been stud­ied ex­ten­sively across mul­ti­ple fields. Take, for in­stance, the med­i­cal res­i­dents in a 2004 Fam­ily Medicine Jour­nal study: Of the 185 doc­tors ques­tioned, nearly one-third re­ported that they didn’t feel like they were as com­pe­tent as peo­ple seemed to think they were and that, when they fin­ished their res­i­dency, they prob­a­bly wouldn’t be able to prac­tise medicine. Nar­row the re­sults down to the fe­males and the num­ber jumps to 41 per­cent. Or con­sider more re­cent work done by two Amer­i­can

so­ci­ol­o­gists, Jade Avelis and Jes­sica Col­lett, who wanted to know why so many fe­male aca­demics “down­shift” from want­ing ten­ure-track po­si­tions to choos­ing less-de­mand­ing jobs. The lead­ing cause of this, as de­tailed in a pa­per they pre­sented at the 2013 Amer­i­can So­ci­ol­ogy As­so­ci­a­tion con­fer­ence, was sur­pris­ing: It wasn’t “hav­ing a fam­ily,” as some ex­pected, but “im­pos­ter­ism.”

The com­mon de­nom­i­na­tors in all the stud­ies: highly ca­pa­ble and suc­cess­ful peo­ple con­fess­ing to “im­poster feel­ings”—and the ma­jor­ity of them were women. While there are cer­tainly men who feel this way, Valerie Young, the au­thor of The Se­cret Thoughts of Suc­cess­ful Women: Why Ca­pa­ble Peo­ple Suf­fer From the Im­pos­tor Syn­drome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, the­o­rizes that these feel­ings of be­ing a work­place fraud are more preva­lent among women in part be­cause fe­males tend to in­ter­nal­ize fail­ure while males ex­ter­nal­ize dis­ap­point­ments.

“Women tend to think they flunked the math test be­cause they in­her­ently can’t do math,” she says. “Men think they flunked be­cause the teacher didn’t give them enough time to study.” Young points out that some of these per­cep­tions of in­com­pe­tence come from the fact that women are still judged by a dif­fer­ent stan­dard. As just one ex­am­ple, she points to Swedish re­search that shows that in or­der to get grants, fe­male sci­en­tists had to be 2.5 times more pro­duc­tive than oth­er­wise iden­ti­cal male ap­pli­cants. These feel­ings of in­se­cu­rity are even more com­pli­cated for mi­nor­ity women—some­thing Joyce Roché knows first-hand. As

an African-Amer­i­can who grew up in ru­ral Louisiana, she spent al­most two decades of her high-pow­ered ca­reer in the male-dom­i­nated mar­ket­ing in­dus­try feel­ing like a fraud—de­spite hav­ing earned an MBA from Columbia Univer­sity.

“Each time I’d get a pro­mo­tion, I’d be ex­cited for a minute—and then im­me­di­ately this lit­tle voice would say ‘Oh, this time you’re go­ing to stum­ble. This time they’ll find you out,’” ex­plains Roché, who re­cently pub­lished a book about her ex­pe­ri­ence, called The Em­press Has No Clothes: Con­quer­ing Self-Doubt to Em­brace Suc­cess. It fea­tures in­ter­views with fe­male busi­ness own­ers and ex­ecs, in­clud­ing fash­ion de­signer Eileen Fisher, who share their own “im­poster” sto­ries.

Roché, who de­scribes stay­ing silent in meet­ings be­cause she was afraid a silly idea would ex­pose her, even­tu­ally found a way to quiet “that whis­per”—she gave it a voice: “I took pen to pa­per and wrote to my­self and put those feel­ings down. I would look at them later and say to my­self ‘Boy, that’s re­ally crazy! Where is this com­ing from?’ And I would talk my­self down.” She also found strength in mak­ing a cat­a­logue of her ac­com­plish­ments, so when­ever that in­ter­nal churn started, she had “proof” for why a su­pe­rior would as­sign her a chal­leng­ing project. “Learn to me­tab­o­lize your ex­ter­nal val­i­da­tion—let com­pli­ments come into your psy­che,” she says. (Al­though she ad­mits the im­poster feel­ings still re­turn on oc­ca­sion.)

Al­though Roché came of age in the era of “break­ing the glass ceil­ing,” she has found that her mes­sage res­onates with younger women. This might seem

odd for a gen­er­a­tion who, as chil­dren, were ex­ces­sively praised by he­li­copter par­ents and played in pee­wee soc­cer leagues where ev­ery player, win­ner or not, got a tro­phy. In fact, the op­po­site might be true. Roché re­calls speak­ing with a young univer­sity stu­dent: Raised by par­ents who told her she was the best—and ex­celling aca­dem­i­cally as a re­sult— she was shocked when she ar­rived on cam­pus. “There were a lot of ‘bests’ that looked like her, and she started to ques­tion whether she was, in fact, any good at all,” says Roché. (“In sit­u­a­tions like that, I al­ways tell peo­ple ‘You’re not spe­cial!’” Young weighs in, with a laugh. “Some of the bright­est, most tal­ented peo­ple on the planet feel this way, so why wouldn’t you?”)

Roché has found that for women in their 30s with more work ex­pe­ri­ence, their im­poster syn­drome is more about a sort of per­for­mance anx­i­ety than about be­ing the only woman in the room. “With limited jobs, peo­ple feel like they are con­stantly com­pet­ing,” she says. Cana­dian busi­ness­woman Ar­lene Dick­in­son, one of the judges on CBC’s Dragon’s Den, is fa­mil­iar with that sense of com­pe­ti­tion—and, as a younger woman, feel­ing like an im­poster. Her se­cret to not let­ting it take over? “When you’re feel­ing that way, it prob­a­bly means you’re on the edge of your com­fort zone,” she says. “If you push through it, that makes you reach for places you never thought you would. It doesn’t mean that you’re not ca­pa­ble; it means you’re a striver and you’re in that sit­u­a­tion be­cause you de­serve to be.” In other words...if you think you’re an im­poster, you’re prob­a­bly not one.

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