The proclivity of people to engage in self-enhancement has been well researched, and a large variety of human behavior has been attributed to the motivation of maintaining self-esteem. The Imposter Phenomenon (IP), however, presents a challenge to this widely accepted notion because imposters (or people experiencing imposter feelings) appear to lack this tendency for self-enhancement (Leary, Patton, Orlando, and Funk, 2000). The Imposter Phenomenon, as first termed by Dr. Pauline Clance in 1974 (Sanford, Ross, Blake, & Cambiano, 2015), refers to the experience of feeling that one's successes are unwarranted and to the worry that one is going to be exposed as a fraud (Clance & Imes, 1978). Imposters are discomforted by success, attribute their success to external factors, and deny that they are as capable as their accomplishments would suggest. The belief that they are not as capable as they appear leads otherwise successful people to feel like imposters, and to fear exposure of these inadequacies to the public (Leary et al., 2000).
IP has become a popular area of research during the past four decades. This might be attributable to its compelling face validity, given that many college students and professionals report having experienced imposter feelings on first learning about the phenomenon (Bernard, Sollinger, & Ramaniah, 2002). Originally, IP was believed to affect only women in the professional sphere (Clance & Imes, 1978). However, feeling like a fraud is now known to be widely experienced. Research has shown that Impostorism affects a broad range of people. For example, IP has been observed to affect individuals of both genders, and to be experienced by individuals with vastly different professions such as physician assistants, marketing managers, academics, medical interns, and college students (Sakulku & Alexander, 2011). In fact, it is estimated that 70% of people will experience at least one episode of IP within their lifetime (Sanford, Ross, Blake, & Cambiano, 2015). However, most research in this area has examined IP as a personality trait or disposition as opposed to being an episodic experience or a formal psychiatric clinical syndrome (Sakulku & Alexander, 2011).
There are many potential harms related to IP, including, but not limited to, (a) unrealistic perfectionism (Kets de Vries, 2005); (b) self-sabotage (Kets de Vries, 2005; Want & Kleitman, 2006); (c) burn out (Kets de Vries, 2005); (d) fear of questioning the status quo (Clance & Imes, 1978; Clance, Dingman, Reviere, & Stober, 1995); (e) procrastination (Clance et al., 1995; Kets de Vries, 2005); (f) inability to make a decision (Kets de Vries, 2005); (g) not reaching one's full potential (Clance & O'Toole, 1988); and (h) high rates of employee turnover and absenteeism (Kets de Vries, 2005). Additionally, there has been shown to be a high correlation between negative affect and Imposterism. For imposters, success does not mean happiness. These individuals often experience fear, self-doubt, stress, and feelings of discomfort with regard to achievement. Imposter fears can limit a person's ability to accept and enjoy success and can have a negative effect on psychological well-being. Emotional exhaustion and loss of intrinsic motivation is then reinforced throughout the imposter's experience (Clance & Imes, 1978; Sakulku & Alexander, 2011).
Researchers have identified several influences that contribute to the development of Impostorism including personality traits and family environment (e.g., Clance & Imes, 1978; Kets de Vries, 2005). Links between IP and psychological distress have also been well established as well (e.g., McGregor, Gee, & Posey, 2008). The purpose of this paper will be to review definitions and characteristics of IP, as well as common IP correlates such as family achievement environment and personality, in addition to protective factors associated with IP. In what follows, I will describe IP and the steps inherent to its counter-part, the imposter cycle. Next I will discuss several studies relating family dynamics as well as the 5-factor model of personality to IP and imposter feelings. I will end my paper with a review of studies pertaining to the protective factors of experiencing IP, and then will review the limits to these studies and discuss areas for future research.
The following three attributes are most central to IP. The first of these is the sense of being an imposter. The primary defining characteristic of IP is believing that others perceive oneself in a manner that is more favorable than warranted Also, there is the fear of being exposed as an imposter and thus, being regarded as the failure one believes one's self to be. Imposter fears, such as these, can create emotional turmoil. In fact, Imposterism correlates moderately with different psychological distress such as depression, neuroticism, and suicidal ideation (Leary et al., 2000). Furthermore, imposters commonly have difficulty internalizing success and behave in a manner which ensures that they maintain their imposturous feelings (Clance et al., 1995). For example, they tend to attribute success to external factors such as hard work, luck, or being in the right place at the right time (Clance & O'Toole, 1988).
Clance and Imes (1978) indicated that in their clinical work, women were primarily the individuals who reported IP, but that whether or not it occurred with men had to be researched further. Subsequent research, however, indicates that men experience the phenomenon with as much frequency as women (Cowman & Ferarri, 2002). In fact, Topping (1983) found, in her study of university faculty, that the males in her sample were actually even more likely to experience IP than females. Clance and O'Toole (1988) argue that although men do not openly acknowledge IP as much as women do, when asked in a confidential or anonymous setting, they indicate the presence of these feelings at an equal rate.
Imposters will acknowledge that they are aware of how others see them, but that it is clear to them that the accolades which they receive are not earned (Sakulku & Alexander, 2011). To the imposter, a very positive, but false, impression of their ability has been created. Maintaining this false impression then becomes a priority. Lack of internalization of past success, an external locus of control, and a lack of confidence in one's ability to replicate past performance leads to a significant amount of fear associated with impression-management and self-monitoring (Kets de Vries, 2005; Kolligian & Sterberg, 1991).
Imposterism, therefore, is a result of an inability to accurately self-assess one's own performance (Kets de Vries, 2005; Want & Kleitman, 2006). Consequently, in the face of waning self-confidence, the internalization of failure, and an over-focus on mistakes made, feelings of stress and anxiety become constant companions. As a result, imposters try to minimize these responses by working longer and harder than their counterparts and by seeking perfection (Parkman, 2016). In response, the imposter will often exhibit “workaholic” behavior patterns, which eventually leads to exhaustion and burnout (Cowman & Ferarri, 2002).
The imposter cycle is one of the most important characteristics of IP. This cycle begins when an achievement-related task, like school work, is assigned. Individuals experiencing IP then become troubled by anxiety-related symptoms. They may react to this anxiety with over-preparation or with initial procrastination that is then followed by frenzied preparation (Clance & Imes, 1978; Sakulku & Alexander, 2011). Following the completion of the task there is an initial, and transient, sense of relief and accomplishment, but these feelings do not persist. While imposters might receive positive feedback about their performance, they deny that any success which has been achieved is related to their own ability. If they have over-prepared, they attribute their success to hard work. On the other hand, if they procrastinated on the assignment, they might attribute their success to luck or to their superficial charm. Imposters also believe that success via hard work or luck does not reflect natural or true ability, which reinforces the imposter cycle. When facing a new achievement-related task, self-doubt creates a new source of anxiety and the imposter cycle is repeated (Sakulku & Alexander, 2011).
Family dynamics and environment and parenting rearing styles have been shown to affect the achievement values and behaviors of children and influence how individuals learn to deal with success and failure (Sakulku & Alexander, 2011). For example, according to their clinical observations of women with IP, Clance and Imes (1978) suggested that imposters typically fall into one of two groups with respect to early family history. In one group, the imposturous woman is victimized by a family myth where a sibling has been deemed the “intelligent” one and the imposter has been deemed the “socially adept” one. In spite of her achievements, the family continues to attribute greater ability to the intelligent sibling. This leaves the imposter with a sense of doubt about her true intellectual capacity and a lingering question about whether the members of her family might be right. In the second situation, an assertion is made by the family that the imposter is superior in every way, not just socially. However, at the same time, she experiences difficulty accomplishing specific achievements. Given this situation, the imposter begins to distrust her parent's evaluations that she is perfect, and, consequently, starts to distrust her own evaluations as well (Kets de Vries, 1990).
Additionally, Clance (1985) postulated that imposter fears are derived from certain family dynamics in early childhood and are then later reinforced in adulthood. Clance suggested four characteristics of families that contribute to the perpetuation of IP in adults: (a) the perception of imposters that their talent is atypical for the family; (b) family messages which convey that success is paramount and requires little effort; (c) discrepancies between feedback from the family and others about the Imposer's abilities and success; and (d) lack of positive reinforcement.
Bussotti (1990) also conducted an empirical investigation of the family background of imposters, but this investigation was an empirical one. She focused on the family environment, the relationships among family members, and family structure, using the Family Environment Scale (FES). With a sample of 302 students, Bussotti found that Clance's Imposter Phenomenon Scale (CIPS) scores were negatively correlated with the Family Cohesion and Expressiveness subscales of the FES and positively correlated with the Family Control and Family Conflict subscales. This suggests that, during childhood, imposters are likely to have perceived a lack of support, a lack of communication, and a lack of appropriate emotional expression among their family members in childhood. However, the total contribution of family environment to this study is modest.
Sonnak and Towell (2001) examined the relationship between the CIPS and parental rearing styles in 117 undergraduate students. In their study, parental rearing styles were measured by the Parental Bonding Instrument. They found that perceived parental care was inversely correlated with CIPS scores and that parental control/overprotection was weakly correlated. They, therefore, concluded that parental over protection is a factor in the development of imposter fears.
Want and Kleitman's (2006) study replicated the study of Sonnak and Towell (2001), looking specifically at imposters' perceptions of their mother's and father's rearing styles with respect to 115 participants from a wide range of occupations such as solicitors, doctors, business executives, and graduate students. Want and Kleitman (2006) found that imposter fears were weakly correlated with high levels of control by both mothers and fathers. An inverse relationship was also found between imposter fears and the parental care of fathers. However, there was no significant correlation between imposter fears and the parental care of mothers. Path analysis suggested that an overprotective rearing style of the father significantly predicted imposter fears, while the rearing style of the mother had only an indirect effect on imposter fears via its relationship with the rearing styles of the father. These results were consistent with Sonnak and Towell's (2001) finding that imposter fears are best predicted by parental overprotection, although the relationship is not strong. Want and Kleitman's (2006) study additionally identified the role of the overprotective father in the etiology of imposter fears.
As mentioned above, family messages about the importance of being intelligent and successful with ease are also assumed to influence the expectations of imposters from early childhood (Clance, 1985). Imposters tend to have a strong need to please others (Bussotti, 1990), which may lead imposturous children to alter their behavior in order to prevent loss of affection from their parents (Clance, 1985). Imposters tend to conform to the standards of their families in order to gain positive feedback and, thereby, verify their sense of worth. These modifications in behavior may, in turn, conflict with the needs and capacities of the child. Without psychological support or approval of their accomplishments, these children may feel that their achievements are unimpressive or unimportant (Clance, 1985; Clance et al., 1995; Clance & O'Toole, 1988).
King and Coley (1995) tested this notion empirically by studying the relationship between family achievement orientation and the development of imposter fears in a study involving 127 undergraduates. A weak positive relationship was found between family orientation that emphasized achievement and competition and imposter fears. Although this provides little empirical support for Clance's (1985) observation about family messages regarding the importance of achievement, family messages that emphasize success with less effort have not been studied (Sakulku & Alexander, 2011).
In spite of the fact that a weak correlation between family achievement orientation and imposter fears has been reported, King and Coley (1995) observed that not every child who comes from families that have strong achievement values becomes an imposter. These researchers suggested that the way in which families give messages about their achievement values may play an important role in contributing to the development of imposter fears and that individual differences in children such as personality (to be discussed below), may also be important with regard to the development of IP.
Clance (1985) asserted that is difficult for children to internalize their success when their performance is inconsistently reinforced by their parents. For example, a child's family might invalidate the successes of a child by sending the message (directly or indirectly) that the child is a socially adept person (Clance & Imes, 1978). The child may come to doubt their competence if their achievements are attributed to good social skills (Sakulku & Alexander, 2011).
In summary, studies and clinical observation suggests that family background could contribute to the emergence of IP. However, from the review above, correlations between family background variables and Imposterism were not strong.
In addition to family environmental factors, there has been research investigating other common correlations with IP, such as personality traits, or more specifically, the 5-factor model of personality. This model explains that there are five major dimensions of personality which are considered to provide a sufficient taxonomic description of personality. These dimensions are neuroticism, extroversion, agreeableness, openness, and conscientiousness. Neuroticism is the tendency to experience negative affect such as anxiety, hostility, and depression. Extroversion refers to the intensity and quantity of interpersonal interaction, whereas agreeableness refers to the quality of those interpersonal interactions. Openness is the proactive seeking and appreciation of new experiences. Finally, conscientiousness is a reflection of the amount of persistence, motivation, and organization involved in goal directed behaviors (Chae, Piedmont, Estadt, & Wicks, 1995). Although a number of studies have examined various personality correlates of IP such as depressive tendencies, self-criticism, achievement pressures, social anxiety, trait anxiety, and perfectionism (Kolligen & Sternberg, 1991; Langford & Clance, 1993; Ross & Krukowski, 2003; Sakulku & Alexander, 2011), these efforts were limited, and there remains to be a need to seek to better understand IP within the context of a larger framework of personality dimensions.
In the following section of this paper, I will review three studies connecting IP to the dimensions in the 5-factor model. Chae et al. (1995) set out to determine if IP could be reliably assessed in a cultural context outside of American samples, and if so, to evaluate the construct within the context of the 5-factor model of personality. A sample of 654 Korean men and women were selected and administered the CIPS along with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and the NEO Personality Inventory-Revised (NEO-PI-R). Consistent with American studies, results indicated that imposters are introverted types on the MBTI, showing a negative correlation between CIPS scores and extraversion. Results with the NEO-PI-R also showed imposters to be very high on neuroticism and low on conscientiousness. This correlation with neuroticism suggests that emotional dysphoria is at the heart of the phenomenon. Depression, anxiety, poor coping ability, and low self-esteem also seem to play a central role. The negative correlation found with conscientiousness suggests that imposters have a lower sense of competence and are less self-disciplined. The lower aspirational levels of imposters suggests that some of the anxiety which these individuals experienced related to being able to perform may be reality based. IP was also found to be negatively correlated with agreeableness. The results from this study clearly demonstrate that IP can reliably be translated into the Korean cultural context and represents a valid construct (Chae et al., 1995).
In 2001, Ross, Stewart, Mugge, and Fultz conducted a similar study investigating IP in relation to the 5-factor model of personality. Consistent with Chae et al.'s (1995) findings in a Korean sample, within a sample of 129 American college students, IP correlated positively with neuroticism and negatively with extraversion and conscientiousness. In addition, a pattern of correlations was found for IP and facet scales of the NEO-PI-R that is highly similar to those reported by Chae et al. (1995). Using the Harvey Imposter Phenomenon scale (HIP) to measure IP scores, as opposed to the CIP used by Chae et al. (1995), Ross et al.'s (2001) study represents a replication and extension of Chae et al.'s (1995) findings using an American sample. Although, in their study, Ross et al. (2001) found that IP demonstrated significant correlations in terms of many domain scales, multivariate analysis indicated that neuroticism was the most important factor in terms of accounting for the relationship between neuroticism and the HIP scale. Additionally, only the facets of self-consciousness and depression best accounted for the relationship between neuroticism and the HIP scale. These results point directly to the importance of depression and self-focused anxiety in terms of describing the personality correlates of IP. More generally, they serve to demonstrate the high levels of neuroticism that seem to characteristically describe the aspirations of persons who feel like imposters (Ross et al., 2001).
The following year, Bernard, Dollinger, and Ramaniah (2002) also conducted a study relating IP to the 5-factor model of personality. As they had hypothesized, they found that neuroticism is positively correlated with more severe experiences of IP. Additionally, because of conflicting theoretical and empirical expectations, they were particularly interested in the relationship between IP and conscientiousness. They found a weaker negative relation (compared to that of neuroticism and IP) between IP scales and conscientiousness. These results, which are consistent with those of Chae et al. (1995), to anchor IP within the comprehensive framework of the 5-factor model, indicating that IP is more than just neuroticism. The one minor difference between the findings of Bernard et al. (2002) and Chae et al. (1995) is that Chae et al. found low negative correlations between IP and the extraversion and agreeableness domains, while Bernard et al. (2002) did not.
For several reasons, the finding of a substantial association between imposter feelings and neuroticism is not surprising. IP is defined in terms of negative affect such as self-doubt. Thus, persons prone to trait negativity should be susceptible to the state of imposter feelings. Second, past correlates of the construct are similar to aspects of neuroticism, most notably depression and anxiety (Bernard et al., 2002). Presumably the underlying trait of neuroticism would exist prior to the development of imposter feelings, although this association may also be due to other unknown variables that could contribute to both. For example, it is conceivable that family dynamics could predispose some individuals toward both neuroticism and imposter feelings. As Clance and Imes (1978) noted, few clients come in specifically for treatment of imposter feelings and it seems likely that those individuals who do seek treatment may also experience a variety of associated negative affects prompting their request for therapy.
Less intuitive is the negative association between conscientiousness and IP. Certainly, the negative correlation between imposter feelings and the competence facet is sensible—imposters do not feel competent. However, a common-sense solution to feeling inadequate or unprepared for one's occupational role would be the strategy of the conscientious person, namely excersizing more effort. None-the-less, those individuals who do experience imposter feelings do not seem to be dispositionally inclined toward this style, scoring low on most facets of conscientiousness, especially self-discipline (Bernard et al., 2002).
Two explanations for this pattern of low conscientiousness seem plausible. First, it may be that those individuals who are inclined to imposter feelings place much greater faith in their intelligence than in their effort (or that their parents did so). Innate intelligence might allow some of these persons to succeed, particularly in high school. However, beyond high school, effort would be increasingly necessary because conscientiousness seems to be the primary personality correlate of success in a wide range of careers (Bernard et al., 2002). The lack of conscientiousness combined with neuroticism raises a second possibility, namely that IP is a personality equivalent of the social psychological process of self-handicapping. Self-handicapping strategies are excuse-providing behaviors such as substance use or subjective physical ailments that serve to justify low effort and thus provide ready self-protective attributions when failure occurs (Ross & Krukowski, 2003). For example, a self-handicapper who fails an important exam might still believe in his or her high intelligence because situational factors like physical ailments or too much partying had interfered with his or her ability to prepare for and succeed at a crucial moment.
Although self-handicappers and imposters share a fragile sense of competence, they may differ in their attributions for success in that self-handicappers may focus on internal causes, as compared to imposters who attribute the outcomes of their efforts to external causes (Ross & Krukowski, 2003). This analysis suggests that research in both areas might be advanced by a systematic comparison of IP and self-handicapping. Consistent with this view, a recent series of studies supports the notion that IP reflects a self-presentation strategy designed to minimize the implications of poor performance (Leary, Patton, Orlando, & Funk, 2000).
As noted earlier, clinical and theoretical writings on IP (Clance, 1985; Clance & Imes, 1978) imply that imposters may exhibit high or low levels of conscientiousness. Taking these findings into consideration, along with those of Chae et al. (1995), it appears that the construct of IP should be refined to eliminate the implication of high achievement striving. Alternatively, measures of IP should be revised so that they reflect inconsistency in the imposter's standing on conscientiousness-related behaviors.
While the implications of being highly neurotic on IP have been discussed, being highly neurotic does not mean one will necessarily suffer from the negative consequences of IP. In fact, recent literature has even begun to examine what protective factors are available to mitigate imposter feelings in the workplace. For example, Sanford et al. (2015) conducted a qualitative study in which 29 women in leadership roles were interviewed, and results showed that the majority of them did not espouse imposter feelings. The respondents in this study resisted IP by turning to mentors, other women in leadership, and romantic partners. Within these relationships, participants found (a) courage to try new things and (b) confirmation or comfort. Successful romantic relationships, in particular, were cited to have a large influence in terms of mitigating imposter feelings. In addition to courage, confirmation, and comfort, there were three other positive attributes that the participants discussed when it came to successful romantic relationships: (a) having partners who share house duties; (b) having partners who are not jealous or intimidated by success; and (c) having partners who possess an understanding of specific career expectations (Sanford et al., 2015).
Additionally, Crawford, Shanine, Whitman, and Kacmar (2015), empirically investigated whether workplace social support alleviates employees' imposter tendencies. Their results indicated that perceptions of strong social support can indeed temper some of the negative effects of Imposterism. The authors argue that this buffering effect could be due to more adaptive coping strategies used in cases of high social support perception. More specifically, they suggest that imposters who perceive more social support may choose to engage in active coping strategies and may be more effective in addressing the sources of their stress. By contrast, imposters experiencing less social support might rather choose to engage in avoidant coping strategies to deal with stressors and the exhaustion resulting from partaking in the imposter cycle (Crawford et al., 2015). Results from both studies point to social support as a potential buffer to imposter feelings.
As discussed above, imposter feelings are felt by many in across cultures as well as across genders (e.g., Chae et al., 1995). In this paper, I have discussed the nature of imposter feelings, the imposter cycle, common correlates relating to family environment and personality, in addition to possible mitigating factors associated with IP. From this review, several facts are clear regarding common familial dynamics and the personality dimension of neuroticism as they relate to IP. First, there appears to be a positive correlation between IP scores and paternal overprotection (Want & Kleitman, 2006), neuroticism (Chae et al., 1995; Ross et al., 2001; Bernard et al., 2002), and a negative correlation between IP scores and perceptions of strong social support (Crawford et al., 2015). However, as previously discussed, correlations between family background variables and IP were not strong across the reviewed studies. There was some modest support suggesting that imposters are likely to perceive that there had been a lack of support, communication, and emotional expression among their family members of origin (Bussotti, 1990); however, there was an overall weak correlation between family achievement orientation and imposter fears (King & Coley, 1995). Additionally, imposters may exhibit either high or low levels of conscientiousness based on individual differences.
Given the inconclusiveness of the above described results, future research should be conducted in an effort to examine the impact of both the family environment and the personality dimensions of agreeableness, extraversion, and conscientiousness on the development of IP among both children and adults. Additionally, more longitudinal research is needed to examine children with self-perceptions of incompetence, rather than during adulthood, in order to help investigate the process underlying IP.
Further empirical research should address the following limits of the presented studies. First, most studies reviewed relied upon self-report measures, which can lead to biased representations, especially as a result of the tendency to down-grade oneself when experiencing imposter feelings. Further research should collect peer and family ratings as well as self-report measures to ensure the validity of the measures. Additionally, the use of cross-sectional design has made it impossible to draw firm causal conclusions regarding common IP correlates. More longitudinal research is needed to examine the relationships between commonly correlated expressions of IP and the development of this phenomenon. Further research might also consider using a more heterogeneous sample in order to make its results more generalizable, as most of the studies reviewed used samples of students in their experiments. Finally, more investigation is needed to determine the impact of different coping styles on the relationship between Imposterism and psychological distress.
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