Helping Clients Who Feel Like Impostors
By Jessamyn Perlus
“It feels kind of like someone is going to jump out and say I'm being pranked, that I don't actually belong here. I feel like everyone around me is much more prepared and accomplished than me”- Female Masters Student (Perlus, 2018)
Have you ever received important recognition and been filled with pride and a sense of accomplishment? For some individuals, this feeling is quickly overcome by a larger sense of foreboding: “Was this a mistake? Maybe nobody else applied? I only won because…” The result is that success is not enjoyed; instead, it brings attention that might “uncover” the person as a fraud, causing anxiety or hold the person back from future endeavors. This is known as the Impostor Phenomenon (IP), which was identified and named by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 (Clance 1985; Clance & Imes, 1978). With IP, despite accomplishments, an individual still has an inner feeling of not being good enough, often attributing success to luck or someone else’s oversight. This author’s own dissertation explored IP among hundreds of graduate student women across disciplines, and their stories informed the advice for career practitioners shared below.
Recognizing IP in a Client
Career counselors and specialists can listen for subtle indications of IP. Common sentiments include:
- fearing failure or mistakes
- attributing successes to luck/error instead of their own effort
- dreading achieving a success because it might not be repeated
- isolating themselves because they believe no one else feels this way and speaking about it
- would confirm their fears
- procrastinating, and/or
- having extremely high, potentially unreasonable standards for their own work.
In addition to these potential indicators, career counselors and specialists can look for those trying to “fly under the radar,” for example not submitting applications to positions and promotions of interest. In the author’s study, the women surveyed listed dozens of scholarships, jobs, and opportunities they consciously did not apply for, or leadership positions they avoided giving reasons such as “I’m not smart enough,” “I’m not worthy,” and “I don't want to waste [the reviewers] time.” An academically-inclined client might seek help applying for a master’s program or graduate certificate in their field because they assume they are not “good enough” to apply directly to a doctoral program. Perhaps they are applying for jobs they are overqualified for or not negotiating salary. Another clue of IP might be someone with an extensive CV but an inability to articulate their accomplishments and skills in a cover letter or interview, because they are struggling to own their success and potential.
Some identities may predispose clients to be vulnerable to IP feelings. For example, being a gender or racial minority in their chosen field, an international student, a first-generation college or graduate student, or having a disability can contribute to IP and decreased feelings of belongingness in a discipline or educational program.
Two other situational risk factors may amplify IP. The first is a lack of support from mentors, colleagues, friends, or family members. Women in the author’s study described inaccessible professors and competitive male colleagues affecting their own willingness to ask questions. Second, transitions such as beginning college or preparing to enter the world of work can exacerbate IP-related sentiments. Many participants described a common feeling of being surrounded by high-achieving peers and for the first time not being able to keep up, thus threatening their well-established, hard-earned identity as a “good student.”
Helping a Client Who Experiences IP
There are many avenues to assist someone who may be experiencing IP:
- Normalizing their experience and sentiments can make a powerful difference. IP tends to be a common feeling even among the most outstanding people. One participant advised, “Realize that you are not the only one feeling this way. No one has their life completely together, and everyone feels like an impostor at one point or another.” Naming the impostor phenomenon and giving a label to the sensation was described as cathartic.
- Help clients recognize a need for modifying maladaptive beliefs and behaviors. For example, going into challenges with a mindset oriented towards learning from mistakes can help a client more easily overcome roadblocks and not become fixated in failure. Likewise, provide tangible exercises and insights for building confidence and self-efficacy, but be realistic that these skills will not appear overnight. A useful activity is to track accomplishments in a resume/CV or other written list, and then practice taking credit for them in a mock interview or other conversational setting. It can be awkward or uncomfortable to accept a compliment, so counselors can challenge clients to not downplay and immediately write off positive feedback.
- Referrals to mental health providers such as the college counseling center are appropriate for longer-term work on habits like minimizing comparisons and continual self-care. Therapists can also focus on anxiety, depression, and self-esteem, conditions that co-exist with IP feelings in some individuals.
- Talking about IP can help minimize its effects. IP can be isolating and people may withdraw or mask their fears. However, it can be extremely cathartic to share these feelings with a trusted person, such as counselor, mentor, colleague, friend, or family member. Often, learning that others have self-doubts can minimize the distress it causes.
Importantly, your client may not believe you as you try to help them work through and past their feelings of IP. Individuals may nod along, relieved to finally hear a name for the experience, but still secretly worry they are the one exception and are actually a fraud. That is why ongoing conversations with multiple people – peers, advisors, counselors – combined with intentional practice acknowledging accomplishments are so important.
Most people feel nervous doing something for the first time, particularly at work or school. However, self-doubts and worry can cause serious interference with career goals. As career development practitioners, we can help recognize and challenge unhelpful beliefs in our clients and instill hope.
Clance, P. R. (1985). The impostor phenomenon: Overcoming the fear that haunts your success. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree.
Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241-247. doi:10.1037/h0086006
Perlus, J. G. (in press). Helping Clients with Impostor Phenomenon Manage Work-Life Balance. Career Developments, 35(1). .
Perlus, J. G. (2018, June). “I’m on thin ice and at any moment everything is going to collapse”: Impostor phenomenon and career development. Roundtable Presentation at the National Career Development Association’s Annual Global Career Development Conference, Phoenix, AZ.
Perlus, J. G. (2018, June). On very thin ice. Impostor phenomenon and careers of women graduate students. Unpublished doctoral dissertation.
Young, V. (2011). The secret thoughts of successful women: Why capable people suffer from the impostor syndrome and how to thrive in spite of it. New York: Crown Pub.
Jessamyn Perlus, is a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her dissertation explored impostor phenomenon and educational and career consequences among graduate student women. She is currently a doctoral intern at the Grand Valley State University Counseling Center. Jessamyn can be reached at email@example.com.