The imposter phenomenon was introduced by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 and largely attributed to women. Karina Mak of the Westpac Group STEM PhD program* is focusing her research on Imposterism and her results reinforce it’s not a female phenomenon at all. The Symes Report interviewed Karina about the causes and implications of Imposterism and the biggest surprises her research has revealed.

*The STEM PhD program, a joint venture between Westpac and the Group of Eight (Go8) universities, offers students with a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics part-time employment with the Westpac Group while they complete their PhD.

How would you define Impostorism?

Impostorism is a form of self-doubt. Despite all objective evidence telling you otherwise that you are professionally or intellectually very capable and competent, you still doubt yourself.

Your reality is different from what everyone else is seeing, in terms of the awards, the accolades, the high pay, or entry into a graduate program. Despite all of this, you say “oh no that’s not really me … I didn’t achieve it because of my skills, abilities or intellect, I achieved it because of luck, I was in the right place at the right time, I knew the right people”. And you’re afraid that someone is going to tap you on the shoulder one day and say, “I have figured it out, you don’t actually belong in this role, you don’t belong in this position.” It’s a fear of failure and success. If you succeed there may be more expectations put on you, more tasks, and needing to replicate that success again and again which means experiencing that self-doubt again.

How common is Impostorism?

This number has been thrown around a lot and I’m yet to find the source, but it’s thought that up to 70 per cent of people at some stage in their life will experience Imposterism.

My hypothesis is that people typically experience this feeling when they are transitioning. For example, going into a new role, transitioning into a new life phase, moving from university into a new job, or being promoted. In those cases, it would be natural to experience those feelings, but for those who experience Imposterism, those feelings are pervasive and continue throughout their careers. I imagine individuals who transition into a new role, at the beginning would feel, “oh I’m a bit unsure about this, am I ready for it?” but then they get to the point where they realise “I’m mastering this, I’m intelligent enough to do this, I’m capable.”

Whilst people who experience the imposter phenomenon continue to doubt themselves despite achieving, despite the awards, despite receiving praise from others saying that they are doing a good job. It’s common across multiple occupations, not just students or academics, we have looked at high performing individuals across various industries, doctors, and lawyers, and regardless of gender they are experiencing it. And some very famous people have experienced it, a famous quote connected with impostorism comes from Albert Einstein “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” — Albert Einstein

Traditionally Imposterism has been associated with women; have you found a correlation with gender?

Initially, it was seen in female clinical populations, but that was because a lot of the research tended to focus on females. We now know that there are limited to no gender differences when it comes to Imposterism. It’s easy to make that connection, to say that it’s women who experience it far more than men. But as a gender, and I say this very generally, women are more willing to talk about our feelings, we are more willing to have conversations about self-doubt, and this is connected to the way in which men and women are educated and socialised. I think men don’t report it overtly as much. When men are studied, however, they tend to report it, because those results are aggregated and confidential. When we tease it apart statistically we see there is no difference between men and women.

What are the implications of impostorism?

If it is not managed well, what the research has shown so far, in the workplace employees experiencing the imposter phenomenon tend to experience lower job satisfaction. And we have seen individuals staying within an organisation largely because they fear to lose the benefits of the role rather than benefiting from connecting with the organisation’s values. So there is a disconnect between being committed because you believe in the values of an organisation versus being committed purely because there’s too much to lose if you leave the organisation.

The negative implications are that we could be potentially losing high performing individuals, next potential innovators, next CEOs, but because of the self-doubt they are not putting themselves in a position to succeed. Or they may leave the organisation because it’s just too overwhelming. That’s costly to the organisation, losing that person, replacing that person, rather than fostering that individual to grow and to succeed and to continue to contribute to that organisation. And in terms of the experience for the individual. It can be linked to anxiety and depression and these could be at clinical levels. If they’re not reporting it or getting help, there could be challenges for that individual which could have very negative ramifications.

How can we prevent it? What is being done?

Within this research area, there are no research projects which have looked at actual interventions. I only know of one study, which looked at perceived organisational support. The organisation supplied descriptions of support employees could have and looked at how that employee would feel if they got that support. Individuals who experienced impostorism, felt better if those mechanisms were in place. At this stage, there’s no actual programs, no specific training that’s been shown to work. But in my mind, if an individual is experiencing impostorism a lot, there needs to be good support systems around them. They need to have sufficient self-awareness to know it’s impacting them and they need to go out and get help. Or the support system around them needs to recognise they’re struggling, see they have potential and are able to offer sufficient support. My hope for the future is that there will be strongly backed evidence-based interventions on how to deal with it.

Have you had any surprises in your research?

My results from my first study indicate that impostorism and perfectionism correlate highly. Which leads to the question, are they two separate constructs or are they the same thing? That’s controversial. Imposter research started in the late 70s and no one has questioned if it’s distinct or if it comes under another umbrella which could be perfectionism. So I haven’t finished data collection for study 2 yet, but when I do we will have an answer to the question whether it is distinct or not.

By Barbara Harvey

Karina Mak, Imposterism Researcher and Psychologist