By On February 7th, 2008

Have you ever felt like an imposter, a phony, a fraud?

Have you ever felt like an imposter, a phony, a fraud? Perhaps that is a more normal and healthy response to the demands of life than you think. It is important, however, to under-gird this discussion with the idea that chronic and severe anxiety surrounding feelings of personal inadequacy are not normal and should be addressed by a professional. However, many people, many successful people such as doctors, graduate students, parents, perhaps even presidents, experience a phenomenon that, in the 1970’s, was described as “impostor phenomenon.”

The idea is that one feels as though their personal claims of competency fall short of what one is actually capable of. However, people experiencing the impostor phenomenon, later described as a reflection of an anxious personality, actually strive to perform better; they have an intense desire to show that they can perform better than others. Two psychologists from Purdue University, Shamala Kurmar and Carolyn M. Jagacinski, administered a questionnaire asking participants about their imposter feelings and levels of anxiety and found that female students that scored highly on the measures were in fact found to be more competitive.

The following is an excerpt of an article from the New York Times that reviews several studies surrounding this phenomenon:

Their findings have veered well away from the original conception of impostorism as a reflection of an anxious personality or a cultural stereotype. Feelings of phoniness appear to alter people’s goals in unexpected ways and may also protect them against subconscious self-delusions.

Questionnaires measuring impostor fears ask people how much they agree with statements like these: “At times, I feel my success has been due to some kind of luck.” “I can give the impression that I’m more competent than I really am.” “If I’m to receive a promotion of some kind, I hesitate to tell others until it’s an accomplished fact.”

Researchers have found, as expected, that people who score highly on such scales tend to be less confident, more moody and rattled by performance anxieties than those who score lower.

But the dread of being found out is hardly always paralyzing. Two Purdue psychologists, Shamala Kumar and Carolyn M. Jagacinski, gave 135 college students a series of questionnaires, measuring anxiety level, impostor feelings and approach to academic goals. They found that women who scored highly also reported a strong desire to show that they could do better than others. They competed harder.

By contrast, men who scored highly on the impostor scale showed more desire to avoid contests in areas where they felt vulnerable. “The motivation was to avoid doing poorly, looking weak,” Dr. Jagacinski said.

Click here to read the rest of this article from the New York Times

Click here for more information on anxiety disorders

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