Comparing Your Insides to Other's Outsides - Understanding the Impostor Syndrome
By | Feb 08, 2012
A couple of weeks ago, at a small gathering at a friend’s house, I fell into conversation with a young man who is a very successful entrepreneur. He got very animated when I mentioned The Empress Has No Clothes. “Can I get an advance copy?” he said. “No matter how well the company does, I still feel like I’m playacting every time I go to a conference or sit on a panel.”
He thought a moment. Hesitated. And then continued, “It must have been particularly hard for you...being a woman and African-American.”
“You know,” I said, “being a Black woman made things tough at times, especially as I started my business career, but as I have thought about what first triggered my feeling like an impostor, I realized that it was the fact that I came from a low-income family, more than anything else.”
I could tell that the man was surprised and a bit confused, so I continued. “The first time I really remember feeling that I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t was in high school. I went to McDonough 35, which was the public school for African-American kids in New Orleans in my day. Most of the other kids came from middle class families. And I had to work weekends just to have a little spending money and to help out my Aunt Rose and Uncle Charles, who I grew up with. For example, one Saturday, my entire class was going to a downtown movie theater to see The Sound of Music. I wanted to go really badly. But I couldn’t. So I lied and said I didn’t want to see the picture. There was no way I would admit that I couldn’t go because I had to work that day.”
That conversation got me to thinking about how often I felt out of place when I was in high school and college. I was a student, just like my peers, but I was no longer a kid. The change had come after Uncle Charles had had a stroke. He couldn’t work any more. And Aunt Rose had to give up most of her work as a domestic to take care of him. I was just going into high school, and I knew that I’d have to assume a whole lot of responsibility for myself. I felt like I had to become an adult now, even though I was only 14. But I didn’t want anyone to know about that.
For me, this disunion between the inside and the outside came to be at the center of feeling like an impostor. It took me a long time to realize that what I was actually doing was wearing a mask in order to fit in, comparing my insides to other people’s outsides. This became especially clear after I first started speaking about my own experience with the impostor syndrome. Everyone, it seemed, from young women just entering college to male CEOs of blue-chip companies, wanted to talk about their own fears of being unmasked as frauds.
Through all these conversations, I kept thinking what a shame it was that these smart, talented, accomplished people were so tortured by doubt they could not enjoy the success they worked so very hard to achieve. I knew first-hand how awful it could be never to feel quite sure enough of yourself to relax, and I wondered what caused so many of us to feel such anxiety.
As I began to look for answers to this question, I came across what I later learned was the seminal article on the subject of impostor feelings published in 1978 by two psychotherapists, Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D. and Suzanne Imes, Ph.D., “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.”
The article, based on the doctors’ work with “over 150 highly successful women,” defined, for the first time, the impostor phenomenon:
Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the impostor phenomenon persists in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample object [sic] evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief.
Dr. Clance has gone on to become the leading expert on the impostor syndrome, studying the experiences of people who suffer from it, the root causes of the phenomenon, and ways of treating it. Her later research also identified that the impostor phenomenon is gender neutral and that men experience the phenomenon as well as women. Her informative, thoughtful website, http://paulineroseclance.com/impostor_phenomenon.html
, offers many resources on the subject. I especially encourage you to take the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Test, which provides an objective measure of how seriously the impostor syndrome interferes in people’s lives.
As people have shared their stories with me and as we have interviewed people for The Empress Has No Clothes, it has become clear that the root causes of impostor feelings are complex and manifold. And so are the situations that trigger them. For some people it’s gender, or race, or class. For others, it’s education or religion.
The point, as I have discovered, is not necessarily to answer the question why exactly you might feel as an impostor but to focus on the fact that you don’t need to allow the feelings to define your life. The essential work of managing and ultimately conquering the impostor syndrome lies in learning how to use external validation as a vitamin to build your strength to rely on internal validation. And then it becomes much easier to remember never to compare your insides to other people’s outsides.
 Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D. and Suzanne Imes, Ph.D.: “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.” Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice, Vol. 15, #3, Fall 1978.