Feature

As a graduate student, Leila Durr, PhD, dreamed of what it would be like to finally finish her dissertation. She expected relief, exhilaration and a lightning-bolt recognition that after all these years she was finally a psychologist.

But after defending her dissertation, Durr felt surprisingly--disappointingly--the same.

"There was something anticlimactic about it," she recalls. "I kept waiting for someone to say, 'Oh, just kidding. It wasn't really good enough.'"

In fact, Durr felt a little bit like an impostor--and although she didn't know it, she was in good company. Most people feel like a fake at some point in their lives, says Gail Matthews, PhD, a private practitioner and psychology professor at Dominican University of California. Grad students are particularly susceptible, she notes.

Impostors unmasked

Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, and Suzanne Imes, PhD, coined the term Impostor Phenomenon in the 1970s. At the time, Clance was working at Oberlin College. As she got to know her students, she noticed that even though they had stellar grades and test scores, they still seemed skeptical about their achievements.

"I realized it wasn't just me," Clance says.

The two psychologists set out to understand why so many achievers felt like frauds. They hosted workshops on the subject, inviting successful women to discuss their impostor feelings.

What they discovered surprised them. Even though the women had resumes bursting with accolades, they still agonized about whether or not they were truly intelligent. Instead of owning their successes, they found ways to diminish them, attributing achievements to chance or charm.

"There is that sense that, somehow, they were in the right place at the right time, or were able to use their personality to get where they are," Clance says.

Follow-up studies conclude that men as well as women are susceptible to impostor feelings--and that they may develop the gnawing fear that, one day, they could be unmasked.

A perfectionist's trap?

The seeds of the impostor syndrome are planted early on in life, says Clance. The children of highly critical parents, for instance, often feel that no matter what they do, their accomplishments aren't good enough. Sometimes another sibling is designated the family prodigy, so success feels hollow and undeserved.

Then there are the kids whose parents tell them they're superstars and that the sky's the limit when it comes to their achievements.

"That makes some kids think, 'If I can't be the best, I'm not good enough,'" Clance says. When some overpraised children encounter adversity, they feel like failures. After all, things aren't supposed to be difficult for them. "It's a hard line for parents to walk," Clance says.

Parental influence, however, is only part of the problem. There's something seductive about being an impostor, and specialists say self-described impostors develop a kind of "magical thinking" when it comes to maintaining their success. Some think their low expectations protect them from the shock of failure. If they are "found out," at least it won't come as a surprise.

Others use their impostor feelings as a motivational tool. Fearful they will be revealed as frauds, impostors tend to work extra hard, and they see successes as a reward for all their worries.

"This is why it's hard to give it up, because you know it works," says Matthews. "You're afraid to go in feeling confident."

But ultimately, Clance says, feeling like an impostor is simply stressful. "It prevents the feeling of joy," she says.

Grad school fakes

Even the most well-adjusted person, however, can feel like an impostor when doing something new, which makes grad school a fertile field for such feelings. People who have seen themselves primarily as students their entire lives must suddenly work as researchers, clinicians and supervisors.

"Being a student was the one thing I knew how to do," Durr says.

Nancy Graber-Canubida, PsyD, a psychologist with the Institute for Family Enrichment in Oahu, Hawaii, remembers reporting to her first job as a family therapist and looking at her badge to reassure herself that she was qualified to be there. "I had to switch in my mind that I was wearing my psychologist hat," she says.

Durr, now a professor at the University of Florida Counseling Center, says speaking with her mentor after defending her dissertation helped her normalize her fears. "When do I feel like I did it, I'm done?" Durr recalls asking. "I'll let you know when I get there," her faculty friend responded.

But it wasn't until she had to pull rank one day that Durr really owned her doctor status. "I was trying to get a client admitted to the hospital and I couldn't go there and say, 'Hi. I'm Leila.' I have to go in there and say, 'This is Dr. Durr,'" she says.


Jessica Gould is a writer in Washington, D.C.

Further Reading

gradPSYCH extra
Attention graduate students: No doubt you feel a bit of a drought as you wait for your quarterly magazine, gradPSYCH, to return from summer break. To tide you over, here are three stories especially for you. Still thirsty? Check out the gradPSYCH Web site for regular updates and Web-only features.