Removing the Mask:
Understanding the Impostor Phenomenon
“I don’t belong here”
“I’m a fraud”
“I’ll get found out”
If you’ve felt like this, you are certainly not alone. It is thought that somewhere in the region of 70% of people have had these kinds of thoughts at some point in their life, and these thoughts are related to what is often referred to as Impostor Syndrome. The Impostor Phenomenon (IP), commonly referred to as impostor syndrome, was first researched in 1978 by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes and centres around the personal, internal belief that one’s success or achievements are down to luck, other people, or extraordinary factors. The original research focused on women although more recent evidence shows that this is a phenomenon that spans men and non-binary people too. Most often seen in high-performing professionals, the impostor phenomenon can seriously impact mental health leading to impaired performance, reduced productivity, and poor job satisfaction. In my (delayed) second blog for SuperWellness, I write about identifying the impostor phenomenon in yourself and others, and critically, ways to move past it.
A syndrome or a phenomenon?
First, let’s talk about the language around impostorism and professional fraudulence. You will most likely have heard about impostor syndrome, but the term ‘syndrome’ is defined as “a combination of medical problems that shows the existence of a particular disease or mental condition” , so isn’t necessarily accurate when thinking about this subject. Imposter syndrome does not appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the tool used by clinicians to diagnose and treat mental disorders, and therefore a move back to original term of impostor phenomenon is used here and in other more recent articles and publications. That said, there have been recommendations in recent research papers for the inclusion of the phenomenon/syndrome in the DSM so watch this space!
So, what is the impostor phenomenon? In short, it is the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of an individual who does not believe themselves to be good enough at an activity. It could be very specific – public speaking, for example – or more generic, such as believing themselves to be unable to do all aspects of a job. I started my role as Wellbeing Strategy Consultant for SuperWellness a little over four months ago and, after a traumatic experience in a previous company, I was understandably anxious about starting a new role – especially one where I was the expert with a clear remit to grow the psychological pillar of wellbeing for the business. However, I made a very conscious decision to believe that I had been hired because I was the right person for the job, I was the best candidate technically and emotionally, and that I deserved a great new role because I have worked hard and am clearly passionate about wellbeing and creating happy, healthy workplaces. For three months this worked a treat and then I decided to write a webinar and blog about the impostor phenomenon which opened a veritable can of worms…
Another thing for you to think about?
It probably feels that this is a problem for the individual and not yet another thing for you as line managers and decision makers to have to deal with. However, often people aren’t aware they are even experiencing the phenomenon and simply spend their professional lives feeling miserable and anxious. Or perhaps, as a leader in your organisation, reading this really resonates with you but you’re uncertain what to do with the information. The reason it is so important to identify and address feelings of impostorism is because it has a direct impact on both the individual and the organisation in which they work.
A recent review of the available literature  determined that up to 82% of people will experience the impostor phenomenon at some point in their lives. These are usually high-performing senior members of teams and leaders within organisations. In a business setting this equates to fewer ideas and less innovation, a smaller pool of talent, time wasted through procrastination, the list goes on. Impostor phenomenon has the potential to devastate people both personally and professionally. The impostor cycle (fig.1) – where an individual gets caught in a pattern of working to create success and then needing to recreate that success by working harder and harder – is downright dangerous and can lead to stress, burnout, and presenteeism. Conversely, the perfectionist tendencies experienced by many can be emotionally debilitating, halting creativity and completion of projects. This reduction in productivity and efficiency can lead to employees being placed in remedial HR situations (e.g., performance improvement plans) that speak directly to that individual’s perpetual sense of not being good enough.
What can you do to help?
- Ideally, a good start is to identify the type of impostor you are or you are working with. Work by Dr Valerie Young  outlines the various ways that people present with impostorism, the root cause of this, and how to navigate it. The impostor phenomenon is problematic in that there is very little peer-reviewed research around ways to reduce or avoid it entirely, especially as often there are genetic and environmental factors that lead to someone experiencing it. However, some simple tips for negotiating this for yourself and those around you include:
- Assessing the evidence – Make a list of the evidence for and against your belief and you will soon see that you don’t have that much, if any, proof of your perceived incompetence
- Collect kindness – I keep messages from people in my professional life that congratulate me on a project completed or a job done well. I might only view them again once a year, but they always give me a boost
Try mindfulness – Yes, I know it’s all anyone talks about these days but the very act of remaining present-minded means you can’t possibly dwell in the past or worry about the future. Give it a go.
For more information on how SuperWellness can help you and your teams to identify and overcome the impact of the impostor phenomenon, visit www.superwellness.co.uk. The new webinar The Impostor Phenomenon: Removing the Mask is now open for bookings!
 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.
 Bravata, D.M., Watts, S.A., Keefer, A.L. et al. (2020). Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. J GEN INTERN MED 35, 1252–1275. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-019-05364-1
 Young, V. (2011). The secret thoughts of successful women. Crown Publishing Group.
Next month, I’ll be writing about the importance of courageous conversations and navigating communication in the workplace.
About the Author
Joh Foster is a positive organisational psychologist and wellbeing strategy consultant at SuperWellness. Joh also teaches the postgraduate certificate in the psychology of kindness and wellbeing at the University of Sussex.
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