Feeling Like a Phony. The Imposter Phenomenon

Have you ever felt you wouldn’t be able to figure things out, that you weren’t responsible for your successes, terrified of making mistakes because people would “find out” you really didn’t know what you were doing. Plus, working hard to make sure you looked like you knew what was going on, even while feeling not good enough? Maybe even a little frozen because it feels so fake to claim your knowledge, space, and hope?

This is called the imposter phenomenon and afflicts a number of us at some point in our lives. Especially, those of us who have been given subtle messages about our being, such as, we can do it all without much effort or in contrast that we are not as smart as we really are (Clance & Imes, 1978). According to Bernard, Dollinger, & Ramaniah (2002) “The IP has been defined as an internal experience of intellectual phoniness in high achievers who are unable to internalize their successful experiences” pg 321.

As a result we find ourselves in situations where we feel we are not responsible for our success. Yet our age, experience, education, etc may be telling the world something different. There is incongruence between what the world sees and expects of us and what we believe about ourselves. This creates a sense of falseness or feeling like a fake on the inside.

When we find ourselves in these situations many of us turn up the charm, work harder, and end up in the double bind of proving and dis-proving our worth and brilliance at the same time. This proving/disproving becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy we struggle hard to break free from (Clance & Imes, 1978). Instead of continuing the cycle, there are ways to move beyond our sense of “falseness” and own our competence.

According to Bernard, Dollinger, & Ramaniah (2002), there are two personality traits that interact with feeling like an imposter. One is what’s known as the big five personality trait of neuroticism and the other also a big five trait, conscientiousness.

People with high neuroticism are defined in personality psychology as folks who are more moody and prone to judge situations as negative. They tend to have higher experiences of emotions like sadness, envy, fear, guilt, etc.

This trait combined with feelings of being an imposter are similar to well known dispositions of depression, like attributing success to external sources (i.e. I passed the test because it was easy) but attributing failures to the individual self (i.e. I failed the test because I am stupid).

To work with this trait and increase competence, one must begin to shift personal perception of self and the world. This is not easy. However, by seeking out experiences and opportunities for accurate praise and recognition the person can begin to recognize the truth of their competence. Along the way, it is important to deal with negative emotional states such as depression or anxiety to reap the larger benefits of embracing your true intelligence and brilliance.

Conscientious people tend to be organized, efficient, dependable, and aim for achievement. They like to plan things and have a lot of self-discipline. People scoring low on this scale tend to like spontaneity and sometimes are labeled as unreliable. When it comes to feeling like an imposter, there is negative a correlation with a lack of self-discipline seen in people who score lower on the conscientiousness scale and higher on rates of feeling like a phony. Bernard, Dollinger, and Ramaniah (2002) give a couple of possible reasons. First, it might be that those who lack self-discipline were told and/or expected to achieve with little effort (Clance & Imes, 1978). It might be the case that not only were these people told they were intelligent, bright, talented, and could do or become anything they choose, they also might have experienced ease in achievement especially in earlier life situations (i.e. high school).

Due to these experiences, this group may not have created behavioral patterns that offered structure or opportunities for the positive feelings associated with working hard to reach a goal. As a result, they do not gain a sense of mastery over their personal situations and tend to rely more on environmental factors for success. Others may be working from the notion that effort could equal failure so why try too hard. Which becomes the mantra driving lack of engagement, procrastination, and offering a self fulfilling cycle of self doubt and underachievement.

This leads many people to shrivel and remain small – to risk embarrassment, vulnerability, or judgment of “not knowing enough” is too much, way too costly. So we stay small and stay contained in our “normal” cultural living patterns. We stay complacent rather than push for change in situations we don’t like, and we settle. Then we feel fake, unsuccessful, and limited in our potential. Coupled with the internal feeling like there should be something more, we feel stunted and less than. To break this pattern we need to set goals and follow through, even when it’s hard.


If the concepts above sound like you:

  • Are you negating the reality of others’ opinions telling yourself “if they only knew …” and diminishing their ability to accurately judge the situation?
  • Telling yourself I am not responsible for great ideas,  only for great failures.
  • Or are you stuck in the conundrum between I can and should achieve it all with little to no effort and to show effort would be weak?
  • Stuck believing that if I work hard and fail the cards all come tumbling down and I’ll be found out, so it’s better to self sabotage and let people think “if I would only try I’d be off the charts” rather than try and fail?

Can you:

  • Go out into the world today and actively look for ways you can find honest feedback about your behaviors?
  • Take the challenge of absorbing the compliments of others as truth AND believe them?
  • Recognize that you did contribute to the success of a project or goal attainment, and honestly evaluate where you contributed to the failure without taking all the blame. Allow others to own their portion of the failure, too (and you know how to do this if you’ve been letting others own the success)
  • Commit to working hard for the sense of personal accomplishment regardless of the outcome?
  • Come to believe that showing effort and trying are not signs of being weak or stupid.

Let us know if you are up for the challenge of owning your competence and success in the comments below.

References:

Bernard, N. S., Dollinger, S. J., and Ramaniah, N. V. (2002). Applying the big five personality factors to the imposter phenomenon. Journal of personality assessment, 78(2), 321-333.

Clance, P.R. & Imes, S. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research, and Practice, 15(3), 1-8.

Group Ex Etiquette: Becoming part of the group exercise craze

 When I used to teach multiple classes a week – for a time up to 14 each week! – I always had clients coming up to me stating they would like to be in a class but didn’t know what / how to enter and fit in.

Here’s the basics. First, come a little early and let the instructor know you are new. This way they can help you know what equipment you need to have for the day, how to use it, and ask about any injuries or modification you may need.

Second, find a spot where you have enough room to move and can easily see the instructor. I know beginners like to be in the back row, however if you can’t see and you spend the whole class craning to look around a regular you aren’t going to get the best workout and your experience may be less enjoyable or not feel worth the effort and nervousness.

Third, pick a class that interests you and/or bring a friend. Having a buddy can really help take the feeling of being the newbie away. Fourth, have a good time. The point of group exercise classes is to have fun, not necessarily to be the best dancer or have the most flexible body or lift the most weight/do the most reps. If those were to goals you would be in what we call “training” not group exercise “class”.

And very last – don’t let your fear of looking silly or being a greenhorn in the room stop you from trying out something new. We need new and challenging activities not just for our bodies but also for our minds. Who knows the “class” you thought was interesting may become something you enter into “training” for.

Photo Credits: Rubber Tubing Group & Lunging Group

Finding Healthy Rewards

Often rewards are one of the reasons people stay focused on workout goals. However if your workout goal is also focused on giving into your favorite “sweet foods” because you deserved it, you may find that you are over-indulging and sabotaging yourself along the way. As we begin a workout program we tend to increase our hunger because our body is requiring more calories (aka fuel) to do what’s asked of it. If we are filling those extra calories with junk because “we worked hard” we aren’t keeping our ‘eyes on the prize’, which has been found to help us reach our goals, and instead we are shooting ourselves in the foot. Smart pre and post workout snacking can help balance out those extra cravings and make sure the fuel you are choosing is the right kind for your needs in this part of your training cycle.

Keeping Your Eye On The Prize Matters. Check Out Why ~

If you aren’t going to reward yourself with food … then just what will you get for all that hard work? Answering a few simple questions can really help you define what’s important to you and keep you motivated to reach your goals. Think about:

  • What you really like do?
  • What do you value?
  • What do you usually forgo?
    • a mani/pedi, facial, expensive razor, a day at the driving range, time to read, a Netflix binge episode, sleep, a different/new food (that’s healthy for you), a new fitness tracker, etc.

These are all ways you can help yourself stay focused and excited to reach your goals, without blowing your long term health vision.

There are a few rules to the above answers. First, make sure you stick within your budget. If you end up healthier but then strapped for time to pay it off, you are apt to return to your old behaviors and lose your gains. Second, consider timing. I am a mother of 3, I might like a binge watching episode of Netflix, but if it interrupts my family time, it might not be sustainable or as enjoyable, leaving me demotivated. Third, plan for a variety of rewards. This way you won’t get bored doing the same activities over and over, get stuck in a rut and you are likely to resort to old unhealthy coping to beat the boredom. That’s a no-win.

Finally, remember the reward should be fun and shouldn’t be so far off and unavailable that it seems impossible to get. Once I gave myself a new pair of workout shoes, however the price tag on the ones I wanted was so much on my salary I had months of saving before me. That reward was too far out for me to stick with it. One time, I also gave myself a facial appointment if I met my goals, problem with this reward –  it seemed so unlike me and too pampering. I wasn’t motivated to reach my goals to get it. It felt too uncomfortable at the time. I backed that goal down to something that felt better for me and had a massage instead.

Once I was able to switch the way I thought about “what I deserve” after apply hard work and big effort, finding unique and motivating rewards got a lot more fun. See what you come up with to give yourself today.

Here’s some other ideas:

If this article was helpful you might like these older posts I wrote: 10 Rules of Motivational Rewards  or look at how you might honor your hard work and get ready to crush your next goal in Harvesting Your Fitness Garden

Living Free From the Numbers

It’s the 4th of July!!! For today, think about letting go of all the numbers you associate with your health.

Let go of checking your weight. Instead go by do I feel better, am I sleeping better, do my clothes fit better, am I better able to do the movement my daily routine requires?

Let go of how many minutes you move. Instead plan to move more often than not throughout the day and tell yourself you are going to take all the opportunities that exist to move when they arrive – that picnic game, yeah you’re in it – the foray into the water, yeah you join – that sunset walk, yeah you did it.

Maybe even take a break from the negative self-talk you have regarding your healthy lifestyle behaviors. Are you one to tell yourself you can’t do something or won’t reach your goal or you’re such an idiot because you didn’t pay attention to how much potato salad you put on your plate? Instead fill your head with compassionate self-talk. You are doing the best you can, given these circumstances, in this moment, with the knowledge you have right now. It may be that taking extra potato salad taught you that next time you don’t need so much, but hey – you didn’t know that when you filled your plate, or if you did what else is going on that may need attention and learning?

Today embrace the freedom of living healthy, choosing the best options for yourself in the moment with compassion, and staying focused on your goals without being ridged about them.

Today be free to be the person you want to be and know that being that person takes practice and time. In every moment you have either a lesson or a blessing – see how many of each you can find, while knowing that as you make healthy choices in each moment you are on your path to living healthy and free.

What Does Clean Living Mean to You? 

This was a contest I entered on Instagram. 

I thought it posed an interesting question that lead to simple or complex answers. It made me think beyond the New Year’s detox diets, breaking up with sugar rules, and weight loss desires. 

My answer included all aspects of my life, my food & beverages, my exercise habits – do I train too hard? Too light?  Not enough? Too much? The things I let into my awareness  – news, music, people, TV, photos, etc, and the concept of who I want to be. All these role together to create my concept of clean living. 

Check out my response below & visit the two health coaches who sponsored the program on Instagram – Sarah Teddy Klein @wholehealthlab and Karen Wojciechowski @realenergyfood #wholecleanliving

Here was my response… 


Clean living is about burning away all the choices that clog you up. Living clean is about staying grounded enough to be open to the possibilities that cross your path. 

One cannot do that without feeling well. For me to feel well and remain open I must be vigilant about my daily movement, my food, my spaces, and my social times. 

I must honor myself in each choice doing just what is needed to move me in the direction I want to go. Doing too much will clog me up, doing too little will clog the path. 

To remain clean I must focus on the pleasure of treating my mind, my body, my heart, and my soul well. It starts simply with movement and is followed by what I allow in. Will this food item, news report, musical song, person help or hinder me? 

Then I must choose wisely, burn away all that is no longer serving me, let go of all I no longer need, and live fully into the moment right in front of me. That is clean living.