The Imposter Phenomenon refers to the notion that some individuals feel that they end up at esteemed positions not because of their competence but due to some oversight or pure luck. As a result, such individuals feel like “imposters”.
Because the phenomenon reflects a negative and critical self-conception, it is deemed by clinical psychologists to be occurring at the level of the individual.
The focus on the individual is expressed on multiple levels. While the original authors coined the term “Imposter Phenomenon”, public discourse often refers to it as a syndrome that seems to strengthen its individual and dysfunctional aspects. Empirical research has also regarded individuals’ attachment styles, perfectionism, and personality as antecedents of imposter feelings.
As a result, proposed solutions also focus on the individual, such as clinical therapy, coaching, and confidence training. These individualistic approaches, at best, are unable to address how social context gives rise to the imposter feelings, and at worst reinforce the notion that the individual is ultimately responsible for fixing their situations.
Therefore, we should use the term Imposter Phenomenon, because it takes into account the multi-dimensional complexity associated with the phenomenon. Rethinking it as such allows us to escape from the individualistic mindset and examine the concept from multiple levels.
Imposter Phenomenon on multiple levels
Research has suggested that the individual’s position in the social hierarchy can play an important role in shaping his or her imposter feelings.
Certain marginalized groups, such as women and ethnic minorities, are subjected to negative stereotyping. Because leadership positions are naturally associated with masculinity (in nature, leaders of animal packs are usually males), the woman in these positions may feel like imposters because society constantly signals directly and indirectly that they are not supposed to be there. Certain minorities are also labeled as lazy, unintelligent, therefore members of these groups are more likely to attribute their admission to prestigious colleges to luck.
Overall, the group that someone belongs to and how that group is perceived in society, play an important role in shaping the individuals’ imposter feelings.
The result of negative stereotyping of marginalized groups affects the individuals within their immediate institutional structures (corporate, university, government, etc). For example, women and minorities are under-represented in particular professions, particular roles, and particular levels of organizational hierarchies. They are also paid less for the work they do. Such institutional lack of representation and lower compensation signals that they do not belong to certain places within certain institutions, therefore eliciting the imposter feelings.
How people are treated by their immediate peers is also suggestive of how they conceptualize themselves. In traditionally male-dominated occupations, female employees are often not sought out for advice, or included in work-related discussions. Such subtle signs communicate that their knowledge, experience, and insights are not as valued as others. These signals are also self-reinforcing, in that they perpetuate these behaviors through social conformity.
Therefore, the quality of treatment people receives from others is important in understanding and treating imposter feelings. Individuals may feel like imposters when they are treated in ways that suggest they are. It also suggests that imposter feelings can be mitigated by treating individuals as a person of value and worth.
How Imposter Feelings are created
The original author observes that the imposters typically fall into one of two groups with respect to early family history. Keep in mind that their study focus on women, and especially women in academia.
Group one consists of women who have a sibling a close relative who has been designated as the “intelligent” member of the family, while she is a “sensitive” member of the family. The implication is that she can never be as bright as her siblings regardless of her actual intellectual accomplishment.
One part of her believes the family myth, the other part wants to disprove it. She succeeds in obtaining good grades, acclaim from teachers, but still, her family attributes intelligence to the “bright” sibling despite poorer performance. She continues to seek validation, secretly doubts her ability, and wonders if her success is because of her social skills and feminine charm.
Group two are women who have been conveyed by their family that they are superior in every way. There is nothing she cannot do if she wants to, and she can do it with ease. She was told of her numerous examples of precocity as an infant or toddler. In the family members’ eyes, she is perfect.
However, she begins to experience difficulty and realizes that she cannot do everything she wants to. Yet she feels obliged to fulfill her family’s expectations. She begins to distrust her parents’ perceptions because they praise her indiscriminately. Worse, she begins to doubt herself. Having internalized her parents’ expectations that intelligence means perfection with ease, she realizes she is not intelligent due to the difficulty she has faced.
How Imposter Feelings are maintained
There are at least four types of behaviors that tend to maintain the imposter phenomenon. In the study that originates the term, several women who experience imposter feelings were found to participate in one or more of these behaviors, but seldom all of them.
The first type of behavior involves diligence and hard work. Her fear of being found out motivates her to study or work hard to prevent the discovery. Her hard work and diligence pay off, but only serves to reinforce her unstated but vaguely aware belief that if she were to think she could succeed she would fail. The success remains empty, and good feelings are short-lived because the underlying feeling of imposters remains untouched.
The second type of behavior centers on a sense of intellectual inauthenticity. For example, women in the study have chosen at times to not reveal their true ideals or opinions. Instead, she remains silent in the face of an opposing view or downplays her own opinions. This inauthenticity leaves the impression that, if she was to state her true thought and belief, she would not have done well. This type of behavior prevents her from finding out if authenticity would be sensibly evaluated, thus maintains the imposter feelings.
The third type of behavior has to do with using charm and perceptiveness to win the approval of supervisors. A woman tends to use her charm to be liked as well as intellectually recognized. She finds a candidate that she respects and then seeks out ways to impress this person. She uses her charm, friendliness, humor, sexuality to win the person over. This process of seeking approval from authority cannot change the imposter feelings because she will attribute her preferential treatments to other causes and she believes if she were truly bright she wouldn’t need to seek approval like that. Thus, the efforts to gain approval work to maintain her imposter feelings.
The final type of behavior has to do with the negative consequences that women likely face when they display confidence in their ability. Research indicates that a woman’s femininity is called into her question by her success. Many women are motivated to avoid success because they fear they may be considered less feminine. Maccoby (1963) asserted that “the girl who maintains qualities of independence and active striving necessary for intellectual mastery defies the convention of sex-appropriate behavior and must pay a price of anxiety”. Maintaining a sense of imposters allows a woman to live out her achievement to a large degree while mitigating some of her fears about the consequences of being a successful woman in our society. As long as she maintains the notion that she isn’t bright, she imagines that she can avoid societal rejection.
A personal anecdote
On an interpersonal level, individuals may feel like imposters when they are treated in ways that suggest they are. On a societal level, there is a constant negative stereotyping of marginalized groups, such as women and ethnic minorities. These facts suggest that those with imposter feelings are prone to interpret ambiguous social interactions in a manner consistent with the negative stereotyped portrayal of their groups.
For example, I once made a joke which my friend seemed to have taken as a suggestion that she was hired only because of her femininity. That is not what I meant, but in hindsight the reception was reasonable.
In the context of everyday conversations, jokes are one of such interactions that can be classified as ambiguous, or open to interpretations. I am a huge fan of the idea that you can joke about anything. It’s all about how you construct the joke.
Things like rape don’t seem right, but you can joke about it. I believe you can joke about anything. It all depends on how you construct the joke. What the exaggeration is, what the exaggeration is. Because every joke needs one exaggeration, every joke needs one thing to be way out of proportion. George Carlin
Jokes bring about perspectives and laughter. The ability to hop in and out of different perspectives is valuable to intellectual development. The ability to assume different perspectives and let them battle out characterizes effective thinking. That being said, I also do not want to hurt people I care about.
When a joke is offensive, it is often because of a misunderstanding of the author’s intention. For example:
“Like when people tweet, it’s very easy to piss off one side. The art is you have to try to get everybody. So you tweet stuff like “Trump is such a dope, he’s going to make me vote for a woman”. And then you just sit back and watch them react. That’s what I wanted!”Bill Burr
The joke emphasizes the fact that certain groups are hypersensitive and quick to cancel people to a ridiculous degree. It is very easy to offend one group that is for or against an issue, but the exaggeration here is to target both and offend all of them. The humor disappears as soon as it’s explained, but the point of the joke is not to degrade women. However, it’s only reasonable that some may interpret it as such. After all, it is difficult to discern people’s true intentions, especially with jokes because they are too open-ended.
I may not agree with never making jokes about sensitive topics, but I think that you shouldn’t make such jokes early in your relationship (friendship or otherwise). In the early days, it’s very much about confirming that the other party does not have malicious intentions. Without the trust that characterizes later phases of most relationships, our natural response is to look at the dangerous side of ambiguous social interactions, because we lack sufficient information about the other party to tell malevolence and benevolence apart.
People tend to overestimate risks and underestimate opportunities. Evolutionarily speaking, the cost of missing a threat (say, a lion) is far worse than the cost of missing an opportunity. Our brain is like plastic, capable of assuming various shapes and forms to deal with new situations, hence the term neuroplasticity. The brain, to be that plastic, reuses brain circuits like crazy. Specifically, the circuits in charge of recognizing physical threats are also the same ones responsible for recognizing social threats. In other words, our bias for detecting predatory risks that kept our ancestors alive is also rewired for social interactions.
Therefore, without trust, it’s only natural that people underestimate the opportunity for a laugh, and overestimate the risk that the other party is trying to launch a personal attack.
I think early into relationships, you should be nice, reasonable and upfront about your beliefs, so that the other party can come to trust that you are not the type of person who would degrade women or launch personal attacks at them. Only with this type of trust can they correctly discern your jokes from malicious intents.
In conclusion, we should start replacing the term Imposter Syndrome with its original term – Imposter Phenomenon. The original term takes into account the multi-dimensional complexity associated with the phenomenon. This enables us to examine the phenomenon from multiple levels: societal, institutional, and interpersonal.
Many behaviors perpetuate imposter feelings, being aware of them helps us to consciously decide whether or not our behaviors reflect our faulty beliefs. Only with such awareness can we begin to change ourselves by examining our core beliefs.
People are naturally prone to interpret ambiguous social interactions as personal attacks. Marginalized groups are particularly likely to have imposter feelings due to societal negative stereotypes. Therefore, they are more even more likely to register ambiguous social interactions (such as jokes) as personal attacks.
When building personal relationships, it is best to build trust first and delay jokes about sensitive topics until an appropriate point where the other party has enough trust to discern your true intentions.
Feenstra S, Begeny CT, Ryan MK, Rink FA, Stoker JI and Jordan J (2020) Contextualizing the Impostor “Syndrome”. Front. Psychol. 11:575024. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.575024
Cohen, E. D., and McConnell, W. R. (2019). Fear of fraudulence: graduate school program environments and the impostor phenomenon. Sociol. Q. 60, 457–478. doi: 10.1080/00380253.2019.1580552
Kets de Vries, M. F. R. (2005). The dangers of feeling like a fake. Harv. Bus. Rev. 83:108.
Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0086006