How To Conquer Imposter Phenomenon In A World That’s Constantly Changing

This post was originally published in Forbes Magazine on October 30, 2020. You can read the post on Forbes website here. Laura Maloney is a member of the Forbes Coaches Council.

A few weeks ago, I was part of a group of women leaders for a multi-day retreat. Afterwards, I emerged with a new appreciation for just how common imposter phenomenon (IP) is, even among high achievers. According to an article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, about 70% of us have experienced IP at some point in our lives, though the fear inherent to IP prevents most of us from talking about it.

While IP can factor into personal relationships, it may be more prevalent and harmful at work. First described in 1978 by Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes, IP was initially observed in women, who are more likely to feel alienated at work, though men can suffer from IP, too. Now that we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, and many of us are working from home, imposter feelings might easily ramp up to a whole new level.

People experiencing IP suffer from a distorted assessment of their own talent and ability, which leads them to believe that their success is due to either hard work or good fortune instead of deservedness or merit. Because they are so fearful of not living up to others’ perceptions and expectations, people experiencing IP are also more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.

The social isolation and subsequent loneliness we’re all going through right now also has the potential to exacerbate IP. The less time we spend interacting and bonding with our colleagues in person, the more we may doubt our individual value as part of a team. The more virtual meetings we have to take from home with our lives happening in the background, the more vulnerable we may feel. And as more Americans lose their jobs, we may question why and for how long we still have ours.

As an executive coach working closely with exceptional leaders, I’ve had the privilege of learning how IP manifests in the most successful people from all walks of life. The good news is that because IP is understood as a reaction to external events (like Covid-19) and not an intrinsic disorder, there are a few key ways we can begin to challenge and even dissolve imposter feelings in order to better enjoy the fruits of our labor.

Initiate honest conversations.

At the launch of our first annual retreat in 2019, nearly every woman introduced herself by saying that she didn’t know why she was invited, because she felt as though she didn’t fit in with all of the other extraordinary women. It was clear that IP was a topic we needed to better understand, so this year we dedicated a special session, which was led by one of the participants. The ironic and unfortunate thing about IP is that most of us feel it, but we have no way of knowing that others are in the same boat unless we have a safe space to open up.

Clance and Imes’ research on IP found that talking about imposter feelings in a group was an effective therapeutic technique. Speaking in a group setting about times when they discounted positive feedback or a colleague’s favorable opinion helped participants objectively challenge their preconceived ideas about themselves and start to reframe self-doubt as self-confidence.

Assess yourself.

Based on this research, the Clance IP Scale was developed to help people determine which IP characteristics they might have, the degree to which they may be experiencing IP and how severely IP may be impacting their life. Most of the women at our retreat scored high for imposter phenomenon using this assessment, even though they were invited to participate because of their extraordinary gifts, credibility and character.

Determining their susceptibility to IP can help people begin to take a more objective look at how they respond to achievement-based tasks and how their approach might reinforce what Clance called the “imposter cycle.” When an assignment causes someone to experience imposter feelings, Clance said, they tend to respond in one of two ways: over-preparation or procrastination.

Procrastination and over-preparation may be situated on opposite ends of the spectrum, but they actually stem from the same root cause: feelings of inadequacy. Once you’re able to pay attention to your behaviors and determine whether work assignments tend to paralyze you or send you into overdrive, you can start to assess how the gravity you attach to a task may be out of alignment with the task itself.

Separate IP from learning.

Another reason IP may be more prevalent and undetected today is the exponential rate at which technology is advancing. Coder Alicia Liu makes important points about overcoming IP in fields where the rate of technological advancement means professionals are always learning and experiencing near-constant failure. She writes, “One of the biggest differences between experienced and novice programmers is that experienced programmers know more things to try.”

Liu cautions, however, that it’s important to determine whether the panic someone feels in response to an achievement-based task stems from a distorted view of their own skill or an actual lack of skill. If the latter is true, chalking performance anxiety up to IP can do more harm than good, because the individual may then miss the opportunity to learn in an environment where ongoing learning is essential.

Ultimately, conquering imposter phenomenon is about understanding where your self-evaluation may be skewed and then, as Liu puts it, “recalibrating” your world view to more accurately assess your skills and abilities. By taking some of the pressure off ourselves where our skills easily meet the task at hand, we can free the energy needed to learn new skills that are vital in a world that’s constantly changing.