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Michelle Obama and imposter syndrome: Would the real imposter please stand up?

Michelle Obama’s admission that she suffers from imposter syndrome made the headlines and exposes a crisis – that some of the most competent and well-liked individuals secretly fear being exposed as frauds.

With 70% of people suffering from this, Lecturer in Psychology, Dr Volker Patent, explores why this revelation has shocked us so much, and explains in depth what imposter syndrome is and how it can be addressed.

Why Michelle Obama’s confession surprised us

Michelle Obama’s disclosure that she suffers from imposter syndrome has made the headlines. Here is a lawyer, a university administrator and writer. She is married to the previous president of the United States, Barack Obama, and she was – and in many ways still is – at the centre of world politics, and history.

It is a surprising revelation because successful people rarely disclose their feelings in such a public way and most of the battle against the inner imposter occurs in private.

Imposter syndrome isn’t restricted to women

Albert EinsteinThe concept of the imposter phenomenon or syndrome was first identified in 1978 by psychotherapists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes who studied it in high achieving women.

However, impostor syndrome is not restricted to women, but found in all groups of high achievers, and is based on the fear that others might discover one to be a fraud, of not deserving of praise and rewards one is receiving.

What people feel – it’s about a threat to reputation

What people experience is a feeling of being phoney and a fear of being exposed. When people are successful, they can attribute this to their internal strengths, or attribute it to external causes.

The problem of feeling like an imposter arises because of faulty internalisation of one’s own success and achievements.

It should be noted that individuals often do not label the experience of imposter syndrome as such and many of the underlying processes play out more subconsciously. What rises to the surface more often is the emotional experience and feeling under-confident, anxious and stressed, while self-deprecating and avoiding opportunities, rather than a definite suspicion that they may be an imposter.

People generally want to be trusted by others, because to be trusted means others can rely on us and reciprocally we can rely on them. This is why imposter syndrome is fundamentally about a threat to our reputation and standing within our community. It embodies the fear that we might suddenly lose the trust others have placed in us. In this way, imposter syndrome is a reputational fear except that this fear is entirely unrealistic and unjustified.

Imposter syndrome is rooted in childhood experiences

Clance and Imes in their original paper distinguished between two main types of origins that are rooted in family experiences. The first group grow up in families with a sibling who is regarded as the ‘bright, intelligent’ one. The child developing imposter syndrome is labelled as the ‘sensitive and socially adept one’. As a result, there is a growing belief that they cannot ever match the accomplishments of the brighter sibling.

imposter syndromeAt the same time they rebel at this label, but despite proving the myth wrong through their academic achievements, the family myth prevails. They can never be the bright one. This process continues into adulthood and the sense of ‘being intelligent and successful’ cannot compete with the expectation of being sensitive, socially adept but not as intelligent as their sibling despite evidence to the contrary.

The belief that they are less intelligent leads to the belief that their success must be undeserved.

The path to imposter syndrome for the second group is based on excessively high expectation. The child is told and learns that they can succeed at everything they want because they possess extraordinary abilities. The family myth is reinforced with every retelling of stories that confirm this myth. However, the experience of the child does not match the myth when they encounter difficulties in their achievements.

Being pinned in-between the reality of their achievement struggles and meeting their family’s expectation, the realisation that they cannot have everything results in an internalisation that they must be dumb. Instead of being bright they must be a fake.

Adults are people-pleasers

Adults who suffer imposter syndrome continue to experience these conflict between their experience and their self-beliefs and identity.

In order to manage feelings of not being good enough and the threat of exposure, they compensate by working harder, longer, seek out more qualifications, and avoid situations that draw attention to their skills. Also they use their abilities and relationship skills to manage their fears and gain some approval and recognition from others. However, this risks misattributing approval to charm, likability, friendship, rather than to one’s skills and achievements.

The consequences of imposter syndrome

Ultimately it is unknown how much impostor syndrome impacts on the economy through lost opportunity and costs. Available research highlights several consequences to the individual as well as to the organisation

  • Personal career outcomes – Imposter syndrome leads to lower job satisfaction, satisfaction with career and perceived career success.
  • Emotional commitment to work. Some studies have also found evidence of imposter syndrome on commitments to stay with an organisation. There are two ways in which this can occur: The first is that individuals move on before they are ‘found out to be a fake’. The second path is that individuals may be more prone to stay with an organisation if they perceive their opportunities for job change to be limited. Consequently, imposter syndrome may lock people into jobs they feel they do not deserve, ultimately leading to burnout and loss of potential for promotion.
  • Indirect consequences and costs. These are primarily related to stress and depression, such as self-medication through alcohol, health issues and ultimately burnout.
  • Organisational impacts. With an estimated 70% of people suffering from Imposter syndrome to varying degrees, many professionals feel as if they are not meant to be in their roles. Given the consequences above there are costs to organisations in the form of unrealised potential that is lost when employees leave or perform in roles that underutilise their abilities

Competitive work cultures need addressing

Social factors contribute to the maintenance of imposter syndrome. Competitive work cultures that normalise long working hours, that value tokens over substance all have a role to play. There is an implicit assumption in organisations, whereby exposing one’s weakness is akin to career suicide.

For women, unequal pay and discriminatory work practices may also be a significant contributor to imposter syndrome. For example, differential pay reinforces the idea that women’s work is not valued as much as man’s work. Also, this could be one of the reasons why women tend to report more problems related to imposter syndrome than men, as low pay confirms dysfunctional imposter thoughts. Equalising pay for equivalent work is, therefore, an essential intervention in organisational justice that can address the mental health implications of imposter syndrome in women in particular.

Overcoming imposter syndrome

The first step in addressing imposter syndrome is an acknowledgement that there is a problem. This might be awareness that one is holding oneself back as a result of fear, that others are better, more qualified more deserving and so on.

Alternatively suffering symptoms of burnout and stress may lead to an awareness that one’s self-appraisal and perceptions are faulty.

We should commend Michelle Obama’s disclosure because it allows imposter syndrome and its impact to be visible and discussable. Someone in her position is a role model to others, especially young women entering into careers.

Addressing imposter syndrome

An essential task in therapy and coaching is to reframe achievement in a way that positively internalises success. Reframing can be done using lists of accomplishments and exploring the causes for this success, considering any negative automatic thoughts. Other strategies include listing imposter feelings and symbolically striking them out. Learning to accept compliments, taking control of situations that trigger imposter feelings, breaking down tasks to make them more manageable and less anxiety provoking.

In my experience of musical stage fright, gratitude-based approaches, mindfulness and developing a sense of self that does not depend on other people’s approval is particularly useful in letting go of fears. If fears serve any purpose in this context is that they alert us to something we do being important to us.

Group therapy for imposter syndrome can provide a place for sharing experiences and provide insight that other people have these feelings too. For women, all woman-based groups can provide a safe space to discuss aspects of their experience of imposter syndrome that reflect discrimination and empower them to develop strategies for defusing imposter beliefs and challenging discriminatory behaviour and practices.

Awareness and strategies can help

Ultimately there are no quick fixes for imposter syndrome, and for some people, it may be a lifelong struggle. However, awareness and strategies for dealing with it make the anxiety less paralysing. When we talk about our feelings and the fear that others might regard us as imposters, it is always good to remember that the ‘real’ imposters are unlikely to stand up and admit their fakeness.

Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and be seen with our flaws and fears destroys the secrecy of our inner lives, which real imposters need to be able to deceive and maintain their false appearances.

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About Author

Kath works in the Media Relations team within the Communications Unit at The Open University. She is a skilled communicator with more than 15 years’ experience working in both the public and private sectors. She has a BA (Hons) English and American Literature from University of Warwick and specialises in stories from the Faculty of Social Science, Faculty of Education and Language Studies, BBC programmes, and student stories. In her spare time Kath enjoys touring the country in her hand-painted camper van, Trevor.

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