Don’t call me a hero… by Kate Atkin

The accolade of being a “hero” has sat uncomfortably on some people’s shoulders within NHS staff and other key workers. High accolades such as “hero”, “amazing”, “awesome” etc while intended to show appreciation, acknowledgement and praise are not always received in that way, and there could be an underlying reason…

Maybe ‘heroic’ accolades invoke feelings of fraudulence, sometimes referred to as imposter syndrome. So what is the imposter syndrome? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills”. In psychological practice, it is known as the impostor phenomenon, and is described as an “internal feeling of intellectual phoniness”.  It was first noted by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. They observed high achieving women who believed their success was down to luck and that they had somehow fooled others. They felt fraudulent and unworthy of their success; i.e. they felt like an impostor.

The impostor phenomenon is not the same as being an impostor and intending to deceive others. Nor does it refer to people who ‘fake it until they make it’, which can be an effective  way of growing self-confidence.  Nor does it refer to those natural moments of self-doubt that we all experience from time to time, especially when trying out something new. Those who experience the Impostor Phenomenon really are successful, they really are good at what they do and there really is objective, external evidence to prove it (though they don’t like to look at it!). The issue is that they haven’t internalised their success. Instead, successes are put down to luck, chance, or someone being kind. Or perhaps to hard work and long hours of careful crafting so no mistakes are made. Or to success being nothing special with the assumption “if I can, then anyone can”.

The Impostor Phenomenon generally affects high achievers, and can occur in many different fields, whether in medicine, clinical practice, nursing or as a parent and even with friends and family. It can be triggered by progressing beyond childhood expectations, or stretching societal boundaries or by being “other” in the room. It impacts men and women. Around 70% of people at some point will experience imposter feelings to some degree (Sakulku & Alexander, 2011). And it is in degrees; some people experience it lightly and their imposter chatter causes no significant issues, but moderate to intense imposter feelings can cause high levels of stress and anxiety as well as self-handicapping behaviours such as procrastination and perfectionism (Rohrmann et al, 2016).

Impostor feelings are not constant, they depend on the situation.  For instance, I don’t get ‘impostor’ feelings when gardening or walking my dog, but they do occur when I am in my PhD research role. It is  important to note that the phenomenon is not a mental health condition (Kaplan, 2009), although it can trigger some mental health issues for some people.

I was first introduced to the Impostor Phenomenon while studying for a masters degree in applied positive psychology at the University of East London.  One of the first, and obvious questions I was asked as a fresher was: “What’s your first degree?”. And then the imposter feelings started, big time! You see, I don’t have an undergraduate degree; I did an Higher National Diploma because I was led to believe that I wasn’t ‘university material’.

When I’m speaking at conferences, whether face to face or online, waves of recognition ripple through the audience or chat room as I introduce the impostor phenomenon. The recent lockdown and impact of working from home has for some people heightened their imposter feelings – juggling home schooling, keeping the house tidy, cooking, being a good enough spouse/parent/sibling/son/daughter. While others report their imposter feelings have lessened, perhaps having more autonomy and less pressure to be productive has helped here.

So, how can you tell if you are experiencing this phenomenon? If you find yourself frequently saying aloud, or thinking, most or all of the following, that is an indication you could be experiencing the impostor phenomenon:

  • Mistakes will prove I’m not up to the job.
  • I can’t let something go until it is perfect.
  • When I get a compliment for my work, I often feel unable to accept it, or I need to justify it.
  • My success has been achieved through hard work.
  • When things go well, I often put it down to luck.
  • When I am successful at something, I feel extra pressure to achieve the same standard again.
  • I often worry about being “found out” not to be as good as others think I am.
  • If I do something well, I am sure others are able to do the same.

So if you recognise imposter chatter in yourself, what can you do?  There is no quick fix, the imposter chatter lessens over time once you start to recognise it for what it is and begin to allow your successes to be believed on the inside. But you may find the following tips helpful:

First and most importantly, acknowledge it to yourself, and to someone else. It helps to talk about it with someone you trust and find you are not alone.

Secondly, accept that no-one, not even you, will be perfect, no matter how hard you try. Ask yourself if 80% would be good enough. The chances are that what you consider to be 80% good enough will be close to someone else’s 100%.

Thirdly, acknowledge the role your skills and abilities have played in your success. Don’t put it all down to luck, timing or hard work.  While these will no doubt have played a role, without your skills and abilities no amount of luck, timing or hard work would have enabled you to achieve what you have achieved.

References

ANON (2017) Impostor Syndrome definition. Oxford English Dictionary Online. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/impostor_syndrome.  Accessed April 25, 2017.

CLANCE, P. R., & IMES, S. A. (1978). The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247. http://www.paulineroseclance.com/pdf/ip_high_achieving_women.pdf. Accessed March 3, 2020.

CLANCE, P. R (1985) Impostor Phenomenon Scale. From The Impostor Phenomenon: When Success Makes You Feel Like A Fake (pp. 20-22). Toronto: Bantam Books. http://www.paulineroseclance.com/pdf/IPTestandscoring.pdf. Accessed March 3, 2020.

KAPLAN, K. (2009) Unmasking the impostor. Nature 459, 468-469. https://www.nature.com/naturejobs/science/articles/10.1038/nj7245-468a. Accessed March 3, 2020.

ROHRMANN, S., EBECHTOLDT, M. & ELEONHARDT, M. (2016). Validation of the Impostor Phenomenon Among Managers. Frontiers in Psychology, 7.

SANDBERG, S. (2013). Lean in: Women, work, and the will to lead (First edition.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

SAULKU, J & ALEXANDER, J (2011). The Impostor Phenomenon.  International Journal of Behavioral Science 6, no. 1 (2011): 73–92.

Further Reading 

BEN-SHAHAR, T. (2009) .The pursuit of perfect: how to stop chasing perfection and start living a richer, happier life. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

CLANCE, P.R. (1985). The impostor phenomenon: Overcoming the fear that haunts your success. Peachtree Pub Ltd.

MANN, S. (2019). Why Do I Feel Like an Imposter?: How to Understand and Cope with Imposter Syndrome. London, Watkins.

SAINI, A. (2017). Inferior: How science got women wrong and the new research that’s rewriting the story. Beacon Press.

Kate Atkin

Kate Atkin MSc is an expert on the Imposter Phenomenon, and runs workshops to enable people to overcome their imposter fears. She is author of The Confident Manager (SRA Books) and The Presentation Workout (Pearson) and is currently undertaking doctoral research into the impact of the imposter phenomenon In the workplace. For more information her website is www.kataetkin.com and twitter handle is @kateatkin

Declaration of interests

I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: none.

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