[March 2020] I am Lonely at the Top: Overcoming Imposter Phenomenon

By Dr Heather Douglas, PhD, B Psych (Hons), University of Newcastle, Australia Lecturer in Psychology and e-bilities Consulting Psychometrician

The imposter phenomenon describes high-achieving individuals who are under-confident, have persistent self-doubt and fear being exposed (Bravata et al., 2019). Imposterism increases the risk of career exit, avoidance of career advancement, and poorer job performance (Neureiter & Traut-Mattausch, 2016). It precipitates career decision-making hesitancy, lower career optimism and adaptability, and lower self-rated knowledge of the job market (Neureiter & Traut-Mattausch, 2017). Worryingly, under-confident individuals avoid leadership positions (Douglas & Cunningham, 2019; Neureiter & Traut-Mattausch, 2016). Affected employees are likely to experience increased levels of stress, burnout, and decreased job satisfaction over time (Crawford, Shanine, Whitman, & Kacmar, 2016; Hutchins, Penney, & Sublett, 2018; Vergauwe, Wille, Feys, De Fruyt, & Anseel, 2015).

 The imposter cycle (Figure 1) suggests that achievement-related tasks active imposter feelings. The experience of anxiety results in either over-preparation or procrastination. Once the task is achieved, an immediate feeling of relief is followed by positive feedback from others. This feedback is ignored. Imagine you had over-prepared for the task. You would attribute the positive feedback to your unsustainable effort on the task, and experience self-doubt as a consequence. If you had procrastinated, you would experience the positive feedback as merely good luck. This would enhance your feelings of fraudulence. The cycle starts again when the next achievement-related task is imminent.

Rosemary Clance originally identified the syndrome in the 1970s among high-achieving professional women (Clance & Imes, 1978), but more recent research has documented these feelings of inadequacy among men and women, in many professional settings, and among multiple ethnic and racial groups (Bravata et al., 2019). Women and men are different in how they approach their imposter feelings. Women with higher imposter feelings experiencing negative feedback worked a lot harder to overcome it, while men in the same situation experienced more anxiety and withdrew from performance tasks  (Badawy, Gazdag, Bentley, & Brouer, 2018). This suggests that while women might put themselves at higher risk of over-work and subsequent burnout, men with the same feelings might procrastinate important work tasks.

The advice on overcoming imposter feelings is anecdotal, but useful. The key is to remember that you are not alone! According to some estimates, imposter feelings are experienced by at least 70% of people at least at some point in their lives. Lots of people feel this way, and it can help to talk about it. Instead of focusing on your deficits, think about what you are good at! One way to do this is to find someone objective that you trust, and ask them to reaffirm your talents and successes. You can keep a gratitude journal by writing down something that you achieved every day. You should also watch out for the perfectionism monster. There is always a gap between your ideal and your actual performance. The trick is to focus on what you have done well. Finally, remember that the situation triggers these feelings! Keep an eye out for what sets off your IP feelings – it is very likely an area of sensitivity that will help you to manage the feelings better.



Badawy, R. L., Gazdag, B. A., Bentley, J. R., & Brouer, R. L. (2018). Are all impostors created equal? Exploring gender differences in the impostor phenomenon-performance link. Personality and Individual Differences, 131, 156-163. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2018.04.044
Bravata, D. M., Watts, S. A., Keefer, A. L., Madhusudhan, D. K., Taylor, K. T., Clark, D. M., . . . Hagg, H. K. (2019). Prevalence, predictors, and treatment of impostor syndrome: A systematic review. Journal of General Internal Medicine. doi:10.1007/s11606-019-05364-1
Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241-247. doi:10.1037/h0086006
Crawford, W. S., Shanine, K. K., Whitman, M. V., & Kacmar, K. M. (2016). Examining the impostor phenomenon and work-family conflict. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 31(2), 375-390. doi:doi:10.1108/JMP-12-2013-0409
Douglas, H. E., & Cunningham, M. L. (2019). A poor match between ability and confidence in high-performance individuals: Evidence for the imposter phenomenon in working adults. Paper presented at the Australian Conference on Personality and Individual Differences, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane.
Hutchins, H. M., Penney, L. M., & Sublett, L. W. (2018). What imposters risk at work: Exploring imposter phenomenon, stress coping, and job outcomes. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 29(1), 31-48. doi:10.1002/hrdq.21304
Neureiter, M., & Traut-Mattausch, E. (2016). An Inner Barrier to Career Development: Preconditions of the Impostor Phenomenon and Consequences for Career Development. Frontiers in Psychology, 7(48). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00048
Neureiter, M., & Traut-Mattausch, E. (2017). Two sides of the career resources coin: Career adaptability resources and the impostor phenomenon. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 98, 56-69. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2016.10.002
Vergauwe, J., Wille, B., Feys, M., De Fruyt, F., & Anseel, F. (2015). Fear of being exposed: The trait-relatedness of the imposter phenomenon and its relevance in the work context. Journal of Business and Psychology, 30, 565-581. doi:10.1007/s10869-014-9382-5



Dr Heather Douglas, PhD, B Psych (Hons) is an interdisciplinary applied psychologist with expertise in social psychology and personality, including individual differences assessment and measurement. Heather has applied this expertise to organisational psychology, the study of academic outcomes for non-traditional university students, multi-tasking in healthcare professionals, and using technology to hack the learning process. Most recently Heather has applied her expertise to developing more accurate assessments of imposter feelings, including the individual and situational factors that contribute to feeling like an imposter.

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