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Feeling like an impostor

by Douglas Eby

"Sometimes I wake up at night and go, What were they thinking? 
Don't they know I'm faking it?" 

This feeling of being a fraud, inadequate, an impostor, is something that many of us have experienced to some degree in trying to realize our talents. 

Actress Renee Zellweger, in the quote above, was talking about getting a new role. Even after the acclaim she had earned for acting in "One True Thing," "Jerry Maguire" and other films, she had this sense of not really believing in her abilities.

Director Jane Campion, acclaimed for "The Piano" and other films, once commented, "I never have had the confidence to approach filmmaking straight on. I just thought it was something done by geniuses, and I was very clear that I wasn't one of those." 

In the TV series "Judging Amy," Judge Amy Gray (played by Amy Brenneman) once made a typical kind of critical statement about her abilities: "What were they thinking, giving me this job? Do they think just anyone can make decisions?"Ê 

Bronwen Aker, who used to be a Planetarium Lecturer at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, is now a web developer and design instructor. In an interview we had a while ago, she talked about some of her own impostor feelings: "I've been avoiding this whole bit of 'Yes I am gifted' for quite a long time. Until the last couple of years, I did anything possible to squelch any creativity. 

"Much of what I was told and being given as valuable had nothing to do with being creative or artistic; it was all intellectual prowess. I did my best to be a good girl, to try to be this wonderful, brilliant intellectual. By the time I was eighteen I was out living on my own, supporting myself. So then it became more a matter of 'Creativity is wonderful, but I have to pay the bills.'" 

In her article "The Impostor Phenomenon" Professor Sue Wick (of the University of Minnesota) notes the term was coined by psychology professor Pauline Rose Clance and psychotherapist Suzanne Imes in 1978 "to describe a sample of more than 150 high-achieving women." 

Wick describes the experience as "the persistent belief in one's lack of competence, skill or intelligence in the face of consistent objective data to the contrary; an internal experience of intellectual fraudulence, particularly among high-achievers; the belief that one is not deserving of his/her career success, and that others have been deceived into thinking otherwise."

Another element is a fear of your ability to repeat past success, and a nagging belief that your accomplishments are not due to ability but rather "luck, fate, charm, attractiveness, or having manipulated other people's impressions."

Professor Wick notes "Certain family situations tend to spawn impostor feelings. These include not receiving encouragement to pursue educational or career aspirations because they conflict with, or at least are atypical of, the gender role, race, or age expectations of the family."

So pursuing a creative career or even interest may result in family conflict, and could help support impostor feelings. 

Sandra Tsing Loh is an accomplished writer, performer and radio program host, but noted in our interview that her family had high expectations for her to follow up on her B.A. in science. 

"It was kind of a failure not to go on to your PhD in physics," Loh said. "To go on to a PhD in English was like a failure, because it was a soft topic. So that was a big crisis. I was the youngest in my family, but the first to break out of that, and it was all very shocking to everyone. And it looked like I was at the beginning of a tragic tumble into living as a street person," she added with a laugh.

Wick summarizes exercises to help deal with impostor feelings: "Document both positive feedback, and your doubts about its authenticity. This exercise will demonstrate how you discount the opinions of other people. Examine the messages that you may have received about yourself from your family and others.

"And imagine telling your peers and superiors how you have fooled them. Realize how ridiculous you would sound."

Bronwen Aker admitted "It's been hard to acknowledge my talents, to be willing to recognize myself as a gifted woman. As I get older, I have fewer inhibitions about blowing my own horn, and the more it's a matter of 'I can do this' and the only one who is suffering if I don't say it is me." 

Also, being able to actualize her talents, she said, has been possible to a great extent because of getting "a lot of support, a lot of confirmation and a lot of validation" from other members of her family. 

She now has her own design firm, StarPixie Productions (www.starpixie.com) and has found real value in networking with other women via the internet: "It's very validating and supportive, and I don't feel isolated anymore," she said. "It's been very empowering. It has allowed me to continue to learn and grow."

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more material on page:  impostor feelings

one of several books on the topic:

The Achilles Syndrome: Overcoming the Secret Fear of Failure by Petruska Clarkson

   related Talent Development Resources pages:

achievement / personal development programs

achievement : articles

achievement : books

vocation / calling resources : articles / sites

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