6. Feeling like a fraud? Let’s talk about imposter feelings.
Fake it 'till you make it. About letting go of imposter feelings.
Jasmine Vergauwe (°1988) studied Personnel Management and Industrial Psychology at Ghent University, and Clinical Psychology at the Catholic University of Leuven. Afterwards, she started working on a PhD project on personality and leadership. Her research mainly focuses on the relationship between individual differences (e.g., personality, leader behaviour, work passion, the imposter phenomenon) and outcomes and attitudes in the work context, among which (effective) leadership, job performance, employee wellbeing (job satisfaction, burnout) and career success.
From next year onwards, she will be affiliated to the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, where she will teach Social Psychology and Teams and Leadership.
Annabel is a post-doctoral researcher within the Department of Experimental Clinical and Health Psychology at the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Science.
Jasmine: [00:00:01] They are really convinced that other people overestimate their own capacities and will eventually discover that they are not really intelligent but go through life as an imposter. So as a consequence, they constantly live in that fear of being exposed.
David: [00:00:22] Welcome to Unpublished, a podcast about mental wellbeing at work. The podcast has been created by Trustpunt. That's the confidential advisor service at Ghent University. Now in the series, we focus on topics related to academia and the research community. But there's a wealth of information in the series that will be inspiring whatever your walk of life. My name is David Chan. I'm a lecturer at Ghent University and I'm the host of Unpublished. In each episode, we tackle a topic about mental well-being in the workplace. The topics are sensitive and often seen as taboo. They include phenomena such as imposter feelings, cultural differences, and loneliness. Now for each of these topics, I talk to an expert in the field who gives fascinating insights based on their research and professional experience. Alongside our main guest, you'll hear clips of individuals in academia sharing their own personal stories. With this podcast, we hope to create a greater openness towards the issues we cover and to help create a safe, comfortable space in which to talk about mental well-being in a positive way.
David: [00:01:33] Nona, Hello
Nona: [00:01:33] Hello, David.
David: [00:01:35] Now you work for Trustpunt. Can you tell me a little bit more about yourself and about Trustpunt?
Nona: [00:01:40] Of course. I am Nona, I'm a confidential counselor at Trustpunt. Trustpunt is a department for psychosocial well-being at Ghent University. And people can come to us if they want to talk about any issue related to mental wellbeing at work. And this can be discussed with us during a confidential conversation.
David: [00:01:57] Right? So now we're making a podcast to discuss some taboo topics about mental well-being at work. In this episode, we're going to be talking about imposter feelings. Why is it important to listen to this episode?
Nona: [00:02:09] Well, we have a lot of conversations with researchers struggling with imposter feelings. The expectations in academia are high, and there's a lot of pressure to achieve certain results. And we noticed that a lot of researchers feel insecure because of this, and they often think that they are the only ones feeling like that. But actually, we believe that a lot of people can relate to this phenomenon at a certain point in their careers. Merely the awareness of not being the only one with these imposter feelings can make a difference. So that's what we want to do in this episode.
David: [00:02:39] Right, and absolutely, it is indeed of great importance also to raise awareness. I've had a chat with Jasmine Vergauwe. She's a postdoctoral researcher at Ghent University and specializes in the imposter phenomenon. But we'll first listen to the testimonial of Annabel Nijhof, a postdoctoral researcher. She talks about her experience with imposter feelings.
Annabel: [00:03:03] My name is Annabel. I'm 32 years old and I'm a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Ghent, particularly at the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Science. I would like to share a little bit about my experiences as a researcher and about the feelings of imposter syndrome that go together with that. I'm sure I can tell that from my own perspective because I pretty much have experienced those feelings throughout my entire research career. I think the feelings for me of being an imposter started already quite early, so when I was doing my Master's. My supervisor was asking if I wanted to do a Ph.D. if I'm interested in that. And maybe if I wanted to write a research proposal about a topic that would interest me to do research on. And I just felt like I cannot do this. Everyone around me knows how to do this. Everyone around me has original ideas. But me, I don't know anything. I mean, I can pass a test, I can do an exam and do good on that. But really being a researcher and having ideas, I felt like that's impossible. I'm really not capable of that. And so I was postponing it forever. That was, I think, the first time that I really felt very strongly this feeling that I'm not supposed to be here.
David: [00:04:22] So I talked to Jasmine Vergauwe. Jasmine is a postdoctoral researcher with expertise in this phenomenon, and I asked her how she first became interested in this area.
Jasmine: [00:04:34] My first research on this topic actually goes back to when I was a university student, as the imposter phenomenon was the central topic of my thesis. Even back then, I found it such a fascinating thing, syndrome, and phenomenon, and I did recognize myself a little bit in it. But at the same time, there was barely some scientific research available and most definitely not in work contexts. So we were actually one of the first to investigate this phenomenon in the work context. While we were also interested in the underlying building blocks in terms of personality.
David: [00:05:18] Clearly, with all of that experience, you are the ideal person to have in the chair to talk to us about this today. When I first came across this topic and thought "there's going to be an interview on this particular topic", I also thought, oh my goodness, yeah, I remember that feeling. I mean, it's something I've certainly had myself before. And I think for many listeners this may well be an experience that they've had or perhaps they're currently having. So perhaps we could start with this idea, well, what is it, the imposter feeling?
Jasmine: [00:05:51] It was first introduced in 1978 to describe really intense feelings of intellectual fraudulence, so often experienced by high achieving individuals. In sum, it's really a feeling like I'm not really intelligent. Despite objective evidence of their intelligence, these people are really unable to internalize and accept their own accomplishments, their own achievements. In other words, they always attribute it to something else. It's not because of their own capability. But they attribute it to external factors like, for instance, luck or charm, knowing the right people, or simply doing a lot more than someone else would do for the same task. These individuals experiencing these impostor tendencies are really convinced that other people overestimate their own capacities and will eventually discover that they are not really intelligent but go through life as an imposter. So as a consequence, they constantly live in that fear of being exposed as an imposter.
David: [00:07:08] In that sense, the word imposter is actually very a very powerful one. That fear of being found out may well have repercussions in terms of it affecting how you function at work. Could you perhaps say a little bit more about what can be some of the consequences if you are suffering from this?
Jasmine: [00:07:27] In our own research, we actually found some negative effects. People who experience these imposter feelings are inclined to be less satisfied with their jobs and show less organizational citizenship behavior, and less extra-role behavior. And we also saw that there was a relationship with continuance commitments, so they really felt like they had to stay in their job. And that's probably also connected with the feeling that they are not good enough to function elsewhere in a job. So that's what we found in our own research. But from other research, we also know that it can have a negative impact on well-being indicators. We also know that it's related to feelings of burnout, for instance.
David: [00:08:20] Very interesting, the idea that you feel that you are an imposter, yet you stay with the job.
Jasmine: [00:08:27] And you don't like it, but you stay.
David: [00:08:29] That sounds to me like you are trapped. What part of the idea of staying in the job is because you feel that eventually, you will be able to justify what you think you should be in terms of fitting this job?
Jasmine: [00:08:44] I think it's a bit related also to the imposter cycle. It was related to a theory that was raised in the eighties. It usually starts with an achievement-related task, and then it starts these feelings of worrying, anxiety, and self-doubt. People with these feelings can do two things. Either they extremely overprepare stuff or they first procrastinate, followed by extreme preparation. When they usually succeed in these tasks, and that's followed by a short feeling of relief. But then that actually reinforces the idea that they are an imposter. I did much more than other people would have done for accomplishing this task. It shows, again, that they are an imposter to themselves. So instead of increasing their feelings of self-confidence, it just increases the feeling of being an imposter. And then it goes all over and over again with every achievement-related task. So that's the theory. But now it's only been very recently that they have actually tested that idea, like the relationship between imposter feelings and performance at work. And it doesn't seem like they are always actually performing better. There are only a few studies available, yet they actually show that they can perform worse and not better. And I think that's actually not that strange, as you know, that these imposter feelings could be really emotionally exhausting. And usually, that doesn't predict a lot of good things.
David: [00:10:40] I think I want to draw back to what you've said about it being a repeated process, the idea of a cycle. It suggests to me that it's often a long-term part of someone's experience. Or is it something that if you feel that at a young age you may well be prone to feeling this throughout your career?
Jasmine: [00:10:58] In about half of the studies, there were no age effects. We also saw in our own study that these intense feelings were possible in very junior workers, but might as well be occurring in very senior positions, even executive positions. But the review paper was about half and half, so half of the studies found no effects, and the other half found decreasing effects. So that's a bit of a good sign that it could decrease with increasing age.
David: [00:11:33] You mentioned that in studies that you've done, you looked at the possible impact of age. Of course, there are other aspects of an environment or a background that can be significant: gender, culture, ... What are the things that influence our picture of what's required and what the ideal sort of person who does this job. Perhaps gender if it's a male-dominated sort of field or area, perhaps if you're a female researcher, you might have an idea about the job that's skewed towards that male ideal, if you like, and not feel that you're matching up to it. Or if you're from another culture, you might feel that you don't fit in with the culture that you find yourself working in. To what extent are these types of factors in terms of making the situation more difficult?
Jasmine: [00:12:18] I could say that it really depends on the culture here. In Belgium, for instance, we have a really high-achieving culture, so there's a lot of pressure to perform. And I think when we look at the economic times right now, there is a lot of pressure to do well in your job. And that's, of course, a breeding ground for these impostor tendencies that are connected to our culture or the country we live in. But then there are also other components like gender, for instance, people think because it was originally something that should be typical for women, but that's not the case. So Clance and Aimes, who introduced this phenomenon, actually only investigated women. They didn't even look at males. But now, of course, we know that these impostor feelings can arise in both women and men.
David: [00:13:18] So culture is an important factor. But how do imposter feelings manifest themselves? Annabel talks about her first experience with those feelings.
Annabel: [00:13:27] The first time I noticed the feelings of imposter syndrome, was when I finished my master's and I was applying for jobs. Suddenly I had to be original, I had to be creative, write down my research ideas, and then I would come to a panel of ten professors who would judge me on my originality and my research ideas. Those moments that also came back later in my career, were always very, very stressful for me. Afterward, I would always feel horrible and I would just play back the conversation in my head and think like, "Oh, I'm worthless and they must think who is this person? Why does she even think that she can have a career in academia?". And that would really go together with like these typical stress symptoms. Not sleeping well, not hungry, very tense muscles. Sometimes I would wake up with like my muscles aching because I was just so tense. So yeah, that really made me realize, okay, this is not a really healthy way of dealing with being a little bit nervous. It was really quite extreme at some moments.
David: [00:14:32] Jasmine, I wanted to ask you a little bit more about the phenomenon in terms of how widely it is now recognized. Is it that, you know, this has always been a phenomenon, it's just that people haven't talked about it and now it's becoming more recognized? Or is it something that is more recognized now because there is more of it? Because of perhaps the way we organize ourselves, it is a phenomenon that's more socially apparent to us.
Jasmine: [00:15:01] I do think that the imposter phenomenon is really something of our time, at least in our culture. That's also an important addition. So we live in this very high achievement-oriented culture. Yeah, failing is often not an option. So, yeah, within this context, it's not strange that for people who are really prone to developing these impostor feelings and feelings of incompetence, this high achievement-oriented culture can foster these feelings. So I think when you compare it to several decades ago, that it's definitely more something of today.
David: [00:15:45] Let's turn to that idea, that aspect of the work environment. When I was thinking about the topic, I thought, well, perhaps if we have this feeling of being an imposter in our own job, perhaps it's to do with our perception of the role that we're playing. What we feel in our own minds is required. The kind of person, the level of intellect, the level of originality. Perhaps we have our vision of what the ideal person is for this job and somehow we don't match up to it. Where does that perception come from? What are the factors that feed into the picture we have of our role?
Jasmine: [00:16:21] I can start by saying that some people are more prone to developing these feelings, as is the case for basically all psychological phenomena. It's almost always an interaction of the environment and also personal characteristics like personality traits. So both play an important role in developing these impostor feelings regarding the environment. It has, for instance, been shown that family dynamics or parenting styles are important. So if your parents are, for instance, very controlling or overprotective, if achievements are something very important in your family, then that's, of course, a breeding ground for developing these impostor feelings. But in our own research, we mainly focused on these personal characteristics. Personality might even be more important than the environment. So we considered a really broad range of personality traits in relation to the imposter phenomenon. And it seems that three traits were especially relevant for developing these feelings and that were neuroticism, self-efficacy, and maladaptive perfectionism.
David: [00:17:49] So it's not only recognizing the symptoms, but it's also being able to put a name to the phenomenon. And this helped Annabel to give meaning to her experience.
Annabel: [00:17:58] I think the first time when I heard about imposter syndrome, I really was like, Oh, so that's what it is. And I really recognized it from all those experiences in myself of comparing myself, of not feeling good enough. Just the fact that it has a name and there are studies on it and many people recognize it already makes you feel more normal.
David: [00:18:21] I can imagine it really helps and brings some kind of relief when you can give a name to the thing that you're experiencing. Jamsine and I talked about this awareness as being a first step in addressing impostor feelings.
Jasmine: [00:18:34] Being aware of it, and I think also accepting it as part of your identity also helps, I think. But awareness is already a big thing and you're aware of these feelings that you can also reflect on them afterward. So even a mental list of the achievements that you accomplished, can't all be based on luck or coincidence. And that's something when you let it pass mentally, that doesn't make sense. So rationalizing a bit.
David: [00:19:13] But it is important to look and I think that idea of just drawing up a list, and it's not stroking your own ego, I think it's important just to have a clear picture of your own worth, what you've done. Because we can forget that so easily. You mentioned environment now in professional terms and a university, of course, given the idea that impostor feelings often are something felt by high achieving, high intellect individuals: what are the things that a university can do to help minimize or ameliorate the effects or the chances of this becoming problematic for its staff?
Jasmine: [00:19:50] Well, I think you noticed indeed that academia is a really intellectually challenging environment. It's typical of academia that there is a lot of pressure and publication pressure in particular, and I think that doesn't help at all. And maybe also focusing on a better work-life balance. So that's more of a general input, but I think could be worthwhile to consider in universities or maybe other organizations as well.
David: [00:20:26] There's one thing that comes to my mind here and that's simply giving a compliment to someone that takes me aback, and surprises me. You know, when I compliment somebody and they're genuinely surprised as if they hardly ever get a compliment. And I always think, Oh, my goodness, we need to do more of this. And certainly, I would imagine this would be a big help to those suffering from the impostor feelings.
Jasmine: [00:20:50] Yeah, exactly. We actually also included this in our own study. So I said that imposter tendencies usually have a negative effect, for instance, on job satisfaction. But we also found that social support could actually completely buffer this negative relationship. So people experiencing these feelings can actually be also satisfied in their job when they have social support from good colleagues or from their superiors. So when I'm talking about social support, I think about support on an emotional level, the simple things, like you said, giving a compliment or asking, how do you do? How's your family doing? Just, yeah, connecting with each other as colleagues. But also on a task-related level, when you see that your colleague is clearly overloaded, ask if you can do something to help to lower the pressure, for instance. But our only colleagues, I think the superior can also mean something in this regard. For instance, if they act as a career mentor it's also interesting and also a form of social support that helps to buffer the potential negative consequences of these impostor feelings at work.
David: [00:22:14] Jasmine highlights the importance of social support in dealing with imposter feelings. Annabel also shares that talking openly about it can be of great help for yourself, but also for others.
Annabel: [00:22:25] Once I was on a stage at a conference and I started coughing and my voice started to get really shaky. And then I said out loud, "Oh, I just get so nervous for these things. Sorry, let me just take a sip of water". And all my younger colleagues came to me and thanked me like, "Oh, that's so great that you could honestly, openly tell that you are nervous about these things". They really were surprised to see a senior researcher talk openly about these topics of getting nervous and feeling like an imposter. So now I hope that now people start opening up about it more, but it still tends to be taboo a little bit.
Jasmine: [00:23:07] I think there are several reasons why we don't easily talk about it. First, to many people, it's still unknown. When it doesn't have a name yet, it's of course more difficult to talk about. But second, yeah, talking about it when you experience these intense feelings is really full exposure, especially when you think about it in a word context for talking about it with colleagues or your boss. You really have to talk about personal feelings of anxiety and self-doubt, which is not evident in a work context. And I think many people fear that it will have or could have negative consequences for their own career if they put themselves in that kind of vulnerable position or talk about these personal feelings. More and more people are getting familiar with the phenomenon, and I think talking about it normalizes it. And normalizing the phenomenon really works to decrease the potential negative outcomes. Many people have these feelings to some extent. So that really helps the idea that it's not that uncommon or abnormal
David: [00:24:30] And yet there are people we'd look at and say, "Yeah, they have no impostor feelings. I'm pretty sure". Is that actually the case? Can you see certain types of people to whom this is pretty much never going to happen to?
Jasmine: [00:24:43] Never say never. But I think that people who never experience it are actually rare. So yeah, the common perspective on the imposter phenomenon is that everyone feels it to some degree, but some people just experience it more often and more intensely than other people do. So you can really look at it or imagine it on a scale ranging from 0 to 100, and that everyone has like a position on that continuum, on that dimension of impostor tendencies, ranging from very little to very, very much.
David: [00:25:24] And it's a hugely important point that we view this in terms of a continuum, rather than saying you either are or you're not. But actually, the reality is that all of us are at some point in our lives somewhere on that continuum, it's acknowledging that it's not something that's over there to do with somebody else. It actually does involve me as well.
Jasmine: [00:25:45] Researchers used to call it the imposter syndrome, but it absolutely gives the wrong impression of dealing with something clinical, a clinical syndrome, or even a mental disorder. The term syndrome, imposter syndrome is actually giving a wrong impression. That's why in research, we now call it the imposter phenomenon or refer to imposter tendencies, imposter feelings as we have actually been doing right now.
David: [00:26:15] And of course, you know, that's important, isn't it? Because if we're talking about that process of normalizing the topic and increasing the frequency of conversations, and dialogue about this topic, it's important that we have a sense of sensitivity to the language. Now, of course, a lot is said about the negative consequences of impostor feelings, but there can also be benefits. Annabel talks about what was positive for her.
Annabel: [00:26:43] It can also be positive. It helped me in a way by motivating me to do my best and to always strive to achieve and to show people, but especially show myself that I am actually worth it and that I can do things. And I think what is especially positive is when you can share it with others, that you can talk about it and realize that it's a very common feeling that I'm really not alone in it, and then you can actually get some strength out of it because you're sort of in this together and you can recognize with your colleagues that they are all going through the same feelings. So that's actually helpful. When I look back on my path as someone who has a career in academia but also has imposter syndrome, it hasn't always been easy. Sometimes it's caused me to delay things much longer than I would have because I was so scared. Or sometimes it really caused me stress. But at the same time, I also think it helped me to accept myself as I am, to always try harder, to be very motivated, and yeah, also to be able to be vulnerable to colleagues and to students. And hopefully, in that way, I can also be not like this ice-cold academic, but more of a real human being, basically.
David: [00:28:01] I'd also like to get your sense of the potential positives of having impostor tendencies. I think broadly, from what you've said already, I get the sense that, well, clearly somebody tries very, very hard and they're probably very productive and actually do their job very well because they're trying extra hard to try and reach this level that they think they should be at. That's good for the company or for the university. But are there other ways in which this might be positive?
Jasmine: [00:28:29] So I think it all depends on the degree to which you experience these impostor feelings. When these feelings are really intense it's probably more likely that you end up with emotional exhaustion and feelings of burnout. But when you have them to a certain degree, then they could actually be a good thing. So I don't think it's necessarily something harmful. It could, for instance, reflect self-criticality. So sometimes it's a good thing to question yourself, to keep yourself sharp at work. So discussing these things with colleagues, if you're a bit unsure, isn't necessarily a bad thing at work.
David: [00:29:15] Very positive message. I think that this is not a tendency that we should see entirely as negative, that there are aspects of this which can be productive, can maybe enhance our performance and our awareness of what we do.
Jasmine: [00:29:31] Yeah, I'm actually convinced that it can keep yourself sharp.
David: [00:29:35] Jasmine, thank you very much for your insights and for coming along today to talk to us about the imposter phenomenon. It's been very, very enlightening and I'm sure very useful for the listeners in terms of their understanding and sort of steps that they can take if they recognize this within themselves. Thank you very much for being here with us today.
Jasmine: [00:29:55] You're welcome.
David: [00:29:59] Right. Well, personally, I think this was a really interesting episode with a lot of new insights on impostor feelings. And it's probably a topic that I think a lot of people can relate to. Nona, is there something that you'd like to add from your perspective as a confidential advisor?
Nona: [00:30:14] There are a lot of people struggling with these feelings. This is important to emphasize because we have the tendency to look at it as a clinical problem, but actually, it's a very common phenomenon and it doesn't have to be that problematic. In my perspective, it might even be more problematic if you never have any self-doubt. Self-reflection can be a source of personal growth, but of course, you shouldn't suffer from it.
David: [00:30:37] And I remember that being aware is the first step in dealing with these feelings. But do you have any other tips?
Nona: [00:30:42] People who have imposter tendencies think in a very critical way about themselves. And this is often a pattern that has been established for a very long time because of who we are as a person and the things we experience in our lives. And it's important to grasp this critical view we have about ourselves. And this is what we call our inner critic. For example, when we had an important meeting, afterward, it's possible that we hear this tiny voice saying, You shouldn't have said that, or that was a really stupid comment to make. And the moment we succeed in noticing this critical voice, we can choose whether we want to believe what it says and act accordingly. Or we can choose to act and think in a more kind and constructive way about ourselves. It's important to note that these patterns cannot change overnight because they are deeply rooted in our personalities. It requires a lot of time and attention, but it is possible to change the way you think and act towards yourself. Now, if we talk about changing the way you think, I can give you another interesting tip, and that's to dig deeper into those critical thoughts you might have. You can ask yourself the questions, when do they occur? What are you thinking exactly? What is your biggest fear? And then the moment you have these thoughts, you can try to challenge them by asking questions such as, is that realistic? Is it true? If it's true, what is the worst thing that can happen? And you might notice that the answer is not as scary as you thought it would be.
David: [00:32:07] Nona, thank you for those really interesting tips there. During the episode, I also mentioned that giving a compliment can have a big impact. Is this also something that you would recommend?
Nona: [00:32:20] Yeah, absolutely. And you can even try to ask for a compliment by requesting someone to sum up your strengths or your talents to actually make a list of them. And also, don't be afraid to celebrate your own successes and to give yourself a compliment once in a while. And it doesn't have to be the big things. Small victories are important as well. For example, getting positive feedback on paper or a constructive meeting, for example.
David: [00:32:44] Nona, thank you very much.
David: [00:32:48] This was Unpublished, a podcast of Ghent University to give insights about mental well-being to our local and international co-workers. Have you been affected by one of the topics in our episodes? Well then don't hesitate to contact a confidential counselor of Trustpunt. But did you find this an interesting episode? Share it with your coworkers. You can find more information about this podcast at Unpublishedpodcast.be. If you found this an interesting episode, then please, by all means, share it with your coworkers. You can also listen to another episode in the unpublished series. Unpublished is a podcast brought to you by Trustpunt at Ghent University and is produced by Chase Creative. My name is David Chan. I'm the host of Unpublished now a big thank you to everyone who has helped to make this podcast a reality. A special thanks to all the experts and those who shared their own stories on the podcast series and thanks go out to everyone involved at Ghent University and Trustpunt, especially the project team Lore Vermeulen, Nona Beele, Pieter Detombe and Sara Drieghe. Chase Creative worked together with Pieter Blomme, Wederik De Backer, Bert Ballegheer, Lara Braecken, Sarah Pardon, Annelies Droesbeke, Ioni Villanueva, Hanne Penninck, Hanne Van Vlaenderen, Jan D'hont en Sven De Coninck.
If you can't beat them, join them! About academic cooperation, rather than competition.
In this episode, Gwendolyn Portzky and host David Chan attempt to break the taboo about mental health.