Back in the 1970s, researchers coined the term “impostor phenomenon,” which describes what happens when you feel like a fraud and fear that you’ll one day be exposed.
Common symptoms include worrying that your success in life has been the result of some kind of error and thinking that everyone around you is more intelligent than you.
For years, the scientific community believed that the phenomenon was largely confined to high-achieving women. But many of those same researchers are beginning to realize that feeling like an impostor is a more universal experience and that it could be even more problematic for men.
In her new book “Presence,” Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy describes this shift in perception of the impostor phenomenon – also known as the “impostor syndrome” or “impostorism.”
After she gave her TED Talk on power posing in 2012, Cuddy said she received thousands of emails from people who reported feeling like a fraud – and about half were men.
Meanwhile, other researchers were discovering that men struggled with impostorism just as often as women. Men, however, were generally more afraid to talk about feeling like a fraud.
Cuddy quotes Pauline Rose Clance, one of the researchers who came up with the term “impostor phenomenon,” who said: “In private practice, it wasn’t as common for men to talk about it. But when [the survey that diagnoses the impostor phenomenon] was anonymous, men were expressing it to the same degree as women.”
Cuddy explains that “men who deviate from the strong-assertive stereotype – in other words, men who are able to express self-doubt – risk experiencing what psychologists call ‘stereotype backlash’: punishment, which often takes the form of harassment or even ostracism, for failing to conform to societal expectations.”
As a result, men end up hiding their fears, unable to unburden themselves and seek help.
Even the most successful men can struggle with self-doubt.
Cuddy interviewed the author Neil Gaiman, who said that even after his first few books were published – and some landed on the bestseller list – he still harbored nightmares about someone showing up at his door and telling him he didn’t deserve to write every day instead of having a “proper job.”
The problem with impostorism isn’t simply psychological discomfort: It can lead directly to failure.
Cuddy writes that impostorism causes us to self-criticize constantly, to “choke at the worst possible moments, [and to] disengage – thereby virtually ensuring that we will underperform at the very things we do best and love most.”
- Flickr / David Goehring
Unfortunately, as Gaiman’s experience suggests, achievements don’t necessarily alleviate impostorism. In fact, Cuddy says, they may just make the experience worse, because you have new opportunities to feel like you don’t deserve your success.
While there’s no magic cure for impostor syndrome, Cuddy suggests that the best way to get rid of it is to be aware of your feelings and communicate them.
This advice could be especially useful for men who are concerned about sharing their insecurities. In opening up, they’ll likely realize that many other people feel the same way. Despite what they might think, they’re hardly alone.
Moreover, Cuddy says it helps to accept that you’ll probably never completely get over your fears of being “found out.” Her idea of “presence” ultimately comes down to conquering your fears as they come, in the moment – as opposed to finding an inner source of strength that will last you the rest of your life.
In other words, the next time you start feeling like a fraud at work, you can tap into the knowledge that even your boss probably feels similarly. Hopefully, that idea will help you dismiss those fears and act confidently in the face of whatever challenges come your way.