Throughout the rest of January, we will tackle the topic of impostor phenomenon, aka impostor syndrome. Today we will mainly unpack the definition, look briefly at demographics, how it shows up, and some key points from my perspective. We will unpack why it matters and practical steps to gain some relief in the following weeks. Finally, we will discuss tips for interacting with those experiencing intense impostor symptoms.
So, what exactly is impostor phenomenon (IP)? Essentially IP is a severe thought distortion in which an individual dismisses their inherent abilities, skills, or talents and attributes their successes to other factors – luck, a mistake, someone calling in a favor, personal charm, etc. They then live in fear of being discovered to be a fraud and hide behind a persona involving perfectionism for protection.
Working with family medicine residents, faculty, and early career physicians, I often hear clients admit they feel like frauds. There is a firm belief that they’re not as intelligent or skilled as people give them credit. They feel the need to prove themselves to keep up the charade and often measure themselves against the yardstick of perfection. They hide their insecurities as they wouldn’t want the others in the program to know the “truth” about themselves. Sound familiar?
Dr. Clance and Dr. Imes, psychologists who defined the phenomenon in the ’70s, described a cycle of IP. A task arises -->the person reflects on their lack of skill or intelligence --> they fear failure and being exposed --> they become immobilized either by procrastination or sidetracked with over-preparation --> they perform last-minute panicked work --> they have success -->they either dismiss it altogether or have short-lived fleeting happiness. They never internalize the success or experience fulfillment. They see the overworking as evidence they aren’t naturally smart or deserving. They have reinforced their belief about themselves. The cycle starts again with the next task.
Dr. Jennifer Hunt describes five dysfunctions of IP: My take of those are 1. Emotional Dysregulation - either emotional outbursts or internal flooding of emotion; 2. Inner Critic Amplification - we’ve talked about this a few times in our blog; 3. Self-sabotage - when you overdo one of your strengths, making it a saboteur. An example could be a person who has good attention to detail becoming a stickler; 4. Masking for Perfection -hiding behind a performance-based persona or avatar, and 5. Feedback Distortions -in which positive feedback is dismissed, and constructive is seen as negative and magnified. She cites some statistics in family medicine residents, in which 1/3 at the time were actively experiencing IP side effects.
According to Drs. Lisa and Richard Orbé-Austin, more recent studies IP occurs in up to 70% of the population at some point in their lives. And up to 50% of the high-achieving population experience IP behaviors and feelings almost weekly. It occurs equally across the genders, though Drs. Lisa and Richard Orbé-Austin found that it manifests differently between men and women (more on that next week). They also found in their research that underrepresented minorities experience a “Double-impact” in which their IP gets reinforced not only by their own thoughts but also by the culture that they’re in. They are told in various manners they really aren’t qualified for the job. This leads to further negative impact with the Stereotype Threat described by Steele in 1995.
There are a couple of things I’d like to highlight:
Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale (CIPS). From The Impostor Phenomenon: When Success Makes You Feel Like A Fake (pp. 20-22), by PR Clance, 1985, Toronto: Bantam Books. Copyright 1985 by Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., ABPP. Use by permission of Dr. Pauline Rose Clance. Do not reproduce/copy/distribute without permission from Pauline Rose Clance, [email protected], www.paulineroseclance.com
For this week, I ask you to reflect on yourself. Take the CIPS. Reflect and see if you can identify triggers of your IP tendencies and think back to your first memories of having this pattern.
Next week, we will dig a little further into why it matters.
Have a joy-filled week!
Residency programs can benefit from our Flagship 6-week hybrid coaching course for resident or faculty groups. Learn more here