Overcoming the imposter phenomenon

imposter phenomenon labels Sep 11, 2019

By Ann-Marie Stephenson

WHEN volunteer

One of the most popular workshops at the WHEN annual conference was about the imposter phenomenon delivered by Dr Terri Simpkin who is an academic consultant and public speaker; and founded Braver Stronger Smarter. She has worked with private organisations, industry representative bodies, public sector organisations and governments across the globe educating on the phenomenon and supporting individuals to identify Imposter Phenomenon (IP) in a work context.

So what exactly is the Imposter Phenomenon?

Impostor Phenomenon (IP), is the feeling of intellectual phoniness and was first theorised by American psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. Clance referred to Imposter Phenomenon as:

“An intense feeling of intellectual phoniness, despite successes”.

Imposter Phenomenon is not a syndrome, it isn’t about self-doubt, or only a personal concern and it isn’t gender specific although it is argued that a larger proposition of women do tend to have this phenomena over men especially in the workplace where women experience a whole host of other culture work barriers,” explains Terri. Not only do women with IP have an internal sense of not being good enough, but the workplace culture and processes also tell them that”.

Dr Terri Simpkins identifies herself as a self-diagnosed ‘Imposter’ and in the session shared her own experiences and explained some of the misconceptions of the phenomenon. As participants, we were given the opportunity to delve a little deeper into understanding how the phenomena can be debilitating and a struggle both in a work and/or private life context.

Listening to examples of how IP can affect individuals added some real value with some of the participants relating enough to Terri’s insights to share some of their own experiences. Through having an understanding of IP, it can help us as individuals question our own life choices giving us an opportunity to think about whether our decisions and paths that we choose are as a result of what we really want or whether IP has impacted on the choices we make, ‘Did I really not apply for that job because it was the right choice or did I think I just wasn’t good enough to get it so why bother putting myself through that?’

Terri’s path into working on the phenomena came about during her time of her PhD
submission. She spoke about the day of submitting her final research paper and the
apprehension of not wanting to submit her work 

“Once my research was out there in the world, I knew that it was going to become very obvious that I should never had gone to university in the first place…..”

Even after Terri was awarded her PhD, she still experienced self-doubt and even had
thoughts that perhaps the examiner had got this wrong and that any day she’d receive a phone call telling her that “we made a mistake and that I hadn’t passed my PhD”. It was during this time, that she felt that she couldn’t be the only person that had experience these types of feelings and so commenced her research to explore the phenomenon further. She found that through initial conversations with fellow academics that she was in fact not alone in these thoughts with one particular academic reflecting on their own experience of considering not attending their graduation, believing that it would be at that point of receiving the certificate on stage that they would be told at that there had been a big mistake and that they did not in fact earn the degree.

“If you don’t secretly feel like you’re faking it, someone around you is”

What does Imposter Phenomenon look like?

- It is an unhealthy relationship with perfectionism
- Fear of failure and scrutiny
- Externalise success
- Being the best all the time is a secret desire

The phenomenon also causes depression and anxiety and has been connected to mental health issues. 

70% of people will experience the Phenomena at some point in their lives and of this percentage:
- 5% will experience a few times
- 29% fairly moderate amount of times
- 60% frequently
- 6% intensely
(Taken from 506 women in STEM occupations)

Overcoming Imposter Phenomenon:

In summary Dr Terri asked the group to consider the following to help with combating IP. Consider this:

- Unpick your ‘labels’

- Change your language (stop staying no and buts…)

- Just say thank you when you receive a compliment or praise instead of being

- Note your achievements and add it to you ‘new’ story

The session was insightful, informative and very much an eye opener to a condition that has been incorrectly sensationalised and even to a certain extent ‘poked fun of’ in social media.

Even if imposter phenomena isn’t something you identify with, the chances are that
someone you know, work with or loved one has experienced or experiences this. Through acquiring the knowledge, we can relate and support those individuals more effectively and through better understanding, this will help towards creating a better working environment giving those individuals better opportunities to be more open to taking a step forward in their working environment, and to be more forthcoming when it comes to leadership, taking on a project, or asking for that deserved pay rise.

“If Imposter phenomenon is learnt remember it can be unlearnt”