How To Not Let Impostor Syndrome Get In The Way Of Your Greatness
Psychologist Fabio Ibrahim and his collaborators discuss their new research on Impostor Syndrome.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | October 6, 2021
A new research article appearing in Frontiers in Psychology identifies six personality characteristics that are commonly associated with Impostor Syndrome, or the tendency to feel like you are not good, or not as good, in professional endeavors as your experience, training, awards, and/or the opinions of others might suggest. They are Competence Doubt, Working Style, Alienation, Other-Self Divergence, Ambition, and the Need for Sympathy.
I recently spoke with Fabio Ibrahim, Johann-Christoph Münscher, and Professor Dr. Philipp Yorck Herzberg, the authors of the research, to discuss their work in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.
What inspired you to investigate the topic of impostor syndrome and what did you find?
I actually came across Impostor Syndrome by chance. While studying, I worked for a start-up company and was asked to develop the content of an online course on the subject of self-confidence. In my research, I came across the Impostor Syndrome, which was unknown to me until then. I bought Clance's book from 1985 and familiarised myself with the topic to learn more about it. Although similar constructs have been explored before, Clance was the first to describe the vivid term "Impostor Syndrome" for successful people who secretly feel they do not deserve that success. These people feel like wearing a mask of success, which could crumble after each performance task. Maintaining the masquerade becomes increasingly crucial, and the fear of failure increases with the fall height. They do not feel successful; they feel like successful impostors.
Even then, I found the topic highly exciting, as I recognized some of the elements described. I knew some people from my school days who fit the construct prototypically. These classmates consistently achieved very good results but showed enormous fear of failure, were never satisfied with their performance, externalized success, and consistently fended off praise from the teacher or classmates. I used to think that this was a form of false modesty, even though the fear of exam results was genuine. Impostor syndrome elegantly explained these components that I had already observed in certain classmates during my school days, which increasingly aroused my interest. The underlying mechanisms, such as the Impostor Cycle and the Superman/Superwoman Complex, also made sense and revealed possibilities for intervention that were close to behavior.
One aspect struck me during the early research. The questionnaire, which is illustrated in the original work by Clance 1985, was one-dimensional. When I did the questionnaire and formed a total score, I asked myself which of the six core elements had the highest expression in order to be able to work on those aspects. I also felt that not all six core elements of Impostor Syndrome were covered within the questionnaire. In particular, the striving for excellence seemed to me to be less covered. This observation led to my idea of a bachelor thesis in which I wanted to develop a multidimensional questionnaire to measure the Impostor Syndrome. My lecturers, Johann C. Münscher and Professor Philipp Yorck Herzberg, were open to the idea and strongly supported its conception and operationalization.
Four years later, the Impostor Profile (IPP30) has been constructed and validated through the Bachelor's and Master's thesis as pre-studies, as well as two further scientific studies.
Our research shows that the Impostor Profile has six subscales. The scales Competence Doubt describes the doubt in one's abilities and the fear of failure. A high score on the Working Style scale indicates a procrastination tendency, while a low score indicates a precrastination tendency.
Alienation describes the feeling of not being oneself. Other-Self Divergence describes that a person perceives others' expectations of his or her abilities as considerably inflated. The subscale Ambition describes the need to be successful and to achieve something significant. A high score on the Need for Sympathy subscale indicates a high need for sympathy.
In addition, we were able to show by applying a bifactorial model that the subscales form a latent trait, the Impostor-Profile total score. Therefore, the Impostor-Profile is applicable on the one hand to measure the facets and, on the other hand, to measure an overall impostor expression.
Some have suggested that people with the greatest self-doubt are often the most gifted. Is there any truth to this assertion?
That is a fascinating hypothesis. Cicero took from Plato's Apology the sentence "I know that I know nothing." So, recognizing the limited scope of one's knowledge already requires knowledge and the ability to self-reflect. We know from psychology the Dunning-Kruger effect, which says that incompetent people overestimate their ability. So I think there is much truth in your statement because usually, the precision of one's performance estimation in a field increases with competence in that field.
However, research on the Impostor Syndrome shows that very high self-doubt is not conducive to a career. The fears lead to not facing challenges and not being able to grow from them. People with high Impostor Syndrome tend to set themselves either very high or very low goals. Very low goals do not pose challenges, and very high goals are rarely achieved, whereby failures can be attributed externally.
However, we know from performance psychology that medium-level goal setting motivates and offers the most developmental opportunity. However, medium-difficulty goals have a risk of failure and are not set so high that failure can be completely explained by difficulty. Medium difficulty objectives are comparable to a mirror. These tasks provide an undistorted view of our abilities. Impostors, however, have the feeling that they are not capable of as much as their environment believes. They are afraid of looking in the mirror because it might confirm implicit assumptions regarding low abilities.
To answer the question conclusively, I would say that particular self-doubts lead to effort and the need for further development. Very high self-doubt combined with a perceived over-competent external image leads to avoidance of challenges and the attempt to maintain an external image as positive as possible. Greatness, therefore, arises from self-doubt and the will to develop through learning from mistakes. The radical look in the mirror and the increasing search for challenges and feedback are mandatory.
Are there any gender differences, or other demographic differences, in the prevalence of impostor syndrome/profile?
So far, no scientific consensus has been reached on gender differences in impostor expression. In the studies on gender differences, the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale (CIPS), which measures a total score, was used predominantly. Some studies show that women are more highly predisposed. However, other studies concluded that there are no gender differences.
In our study, women showed a slightly higher total score. Nevertheless, we shifted the question by investigating whether there are gender differences at the facet level. Because the same total score could be the result of different subscores. Interestingly, there are more marked gender differences at the subscale level. For example, women show higher scores on the scales Competence Doubt and Need for Sympathy. On the other hand, men show higher scores in the Ambition subscale. The resulting compensation strategies would therefore differ between the genders. For example, women try to compensate for their perceived low competence through relationship work, and men tend to collect evidence of their competence through certificates. This finding is one explanation for the lack of consensus on gender differences. We believe there are smaller gender differences in the total score, as the sub-facets counterbalance each other. However, when looking at the subscales, these differences become more visible.
What practical advice does your research hold for people struggling with impostor syndrome?
Feelings of imposterism are fairly common in academia. It is especially seen in fields in which a lot of work has already been done by others one can easily feel out of place and underqualified with a huge burden to perform. We have heard many accounts from friends and colleagues who feel this way. Obviously, this is also happening in different situations. These feelings can also be a motivational asset as long as they do not become overpowering. That may explain why feelings of inadequacy and success sometimes seem to coincide. Optimally, one would use this motivation to move forward while managing the negative influences.
This is why we feel assessment is an essential first step in dealing with Impostor Syndrome. When we learn the magnitude and nature of the problem, we can start the work to solve it. We recommend that all affected first get a picture of the current manifestation. The various questionnaires are particularly suitable for this. The Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale (CIPS) is the most widespread instrument and can be completed quickly with 20 items. The reader can also use our instrument, the Impostor Profile (IPP30), free of charge. You can get direct feedback on your test result at https://ippenglish.formr.org.
As a second hint, we would like to recommend that learners get an external picture of themselves. Ask your colleagues, your family, and your friends. Interesting aspects would be how those around you view your abilities. How your environment perceives your personality and whether it differs in different situations. Whether the insecurity you feel when faced with challenges is perceived by those around you.
Obtaining an external image is like synchronizing the internal with the external world. If we seldomly ask for others' perceptions of ourselves, we start to estimate. Social feedback is vital to triangulate ourselves in the psychosocial space. As a result, we gain security and structure.
A third indication concerns the structuring of inner-psychic processes. Our questionnaire shows that the Impostor Syndrome is characterized by numerous aspirations and motivations that counter each other. Competence-Doubt and Ambition can both be highly expressed but lead to the avoidance of challenges on the one hand and the simultaneous desire to achieve something great on the other. The subscales Alienation and Need for Sympathy are also opposing because sympathy is generated through authenticity, but alienation describes feeling inauthentic and unfamiliar in interaction situations. Other-Self Divergence describes the perception that others overestimate you. As a result, people with a high degree of Other-Self Divergence try to maintain this perceived image of others and have the feeling that they are increasingly playing a role. They feel like an impostor.
An important step towards resolving these inner-psychic conflicts can be the method of the inner team. Different inner-psychic tendencies are named and recognized as separate personalities within one's person. Working out this inner team together, for example, with a psychologist, makes it possible to recognize these tendencies sooner and deal with them. It makes it possible to give the positive team members more space within your mental structure and turn down unwanted voices. We, therefore, decide who should become the leader in the inner team, but we still have to get to know the team members in a conversation first. This method can help.
What are the upsides, if any, to having a certain degree of self-doubt?
I think a quote by Joe Rogan sums up the answer to this question well: "Fuel yourself with the screw-ups." (Joe Rogan). A certain degree of self-doubt forces us to work. A certain level of nervousness is necessary so that we reach the maximum level of performance. The optimal level of arousal, which can be seen in the Yerkes-Dodson-rule, describes this connection very precisely. So, we should not strive to feel no arousal from challenges. However, these challenges should not overwhelm us. We reach this state of excitement when the task seems important to us, and at the same time, we are convinced that we can master it successfully. The experience of self-efficacy should not be impaired by too much self-doubt. At the same time, certain self-doubts enable us to maintain motivation because a positive result is not a matter of fact but is achieved through diligence.
Trust also plays a big role in this process. Not the trust that we can successfully fool others despite our lack of ability. But the trust in our ability itself combined with the trust in our surroundings that we will not be excised if we fail. Other people can and will help if we trust them to do so. Our doubts can be informative and tell us that we may need something, maybe from others. Maybe some more time to work, space to think, or assistance. In the end, it often comes down to a leap of faith. To go the next step despite doubting. That becomes easier with time and we can learn to identify when our doubts have served us enough and trust needs to take over.
What other personality traits is impostor syndrome related to?
The most important personality traits correlated with Impostor Syndrome are self-esteem, attributional style, and neuroticism. The strong associations of these personality traits with the Impostor-Profile provide insight into the construct and its implications for personality. Impostors tend to have lower self-esteem and higher neuroticism scores, which was not surprising, especially given the fear of failure. Moreover, impostors show an internal attribution style for failure and an external attribution style for success. This attributional style explains that positive performance feedback does not lead to a build-up of self-esteem, as it is attributed to chance, luck, or the liking of others. Negative performance feedback, however, is attributed internally. This leads to lower self-esteem and a low self-efficacy expectation. These findings correspond to Clance's theoretical construct and could be confirmed by our research and numerous others.
An interesting finding on our part is that the Impostor Syndrome is negatively correlated with the Honesty-Humility dimension of the HEXACO. Impostors thus seem to have less of a sense of being honest and humble. The lower sense of honesty fits with the feeling of piling on and pretending to be competent. The reduced assessment of being modest could result from the fact that Impostors are very modest and are too modest in stating their modesty. In other words, you are so modest that you rate yourself as less modest. However, this working hypothesis would need to be tested in research.