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An Internal Battle: Women and Success

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My best friend Chantelle sent me an interesting article the other day. It was about a study conducted by Atlanta Psychologists Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes. The two analyzed a sample of various women: some attended colleges or universities in the northern and southern regions while others had careers in a range of professional fields. The study focused on a unique type of classification that quickly caught my eye: the imposter phenomenon.

What is the imposter phenomenon?

According to the article, the term imposter phenomenon describes a person’s internal feeling of intellectual phoniness. In this case, those feelings were from women perceived as “high-achievers,” or academically successful college women and professional women who have earned PhDs and professional recognition. These high achievers feel as though they do not deserve the credit for their accomplishments, that they do not possess the intellectual abilities their credentials say they do, and that every success should be attributed to luck, hence the term imposter. This type of woman looks for a further explanation of her success rather than believing it was from her own abilities.

What are the symptoms of the imposter phenomenon?
-Lack of self-confidence
-Diligence/hard work to prevent being “discovered” as a phony
-Withholding ideas and opinions
-Use of charm over intelligence

The article went on to reveal how this phenomenon originated from societal sex-role stereotyping and a woman’s perceived family expectation. Although it was written in the late 70s, it made me wonder: Is the imposter phenomenon still alive and thriving today?

I know many women who can be deemed as “high-achievers.” The women on the EmpowHER team and all who visit and contribute to the site possess some pretty impressive credentials themselves. What about all of us? Deep down, have we ever felt like we were undeserving? Even though we may have worked hard and given it our all, did the notion of being an imposter ever creep into our minds?

This idea of being a phony and attributing success to an external cause is disconcerting to me.

Add a Comment2 Comments

I do relate to this phenomenon as well. In fact I've told counselors in the past that I felt like a fraud--not the same word as you used, but definitely the same idea.
When I was in my twenties and working on a master's degree, I was offered a good professional job with an above-average salary for my field. It was with a company going through a reorganization; a man with a family was laid off and I got his job. I felt guilty and undeserving, and vaguely anxious that the "grownups" running the show didn't really know me. If they did, they wouldn't have such faith in me!
I did very well in that job and earned my keep, but...I always had that niggling feeling that I was a fraud.
I relate to the previous commenter who wonders how her children turned out so well. It makes me realize that I carry this sense of self-doubt as a mother, too. My child is still at home, but I often feel fearful that I'm going to mess up; that I'm not up to the task of parenting her well. That's scary...could it be self-fulfilling prophecy?

July 18, 2010 - 5:37am
EmpowHER Guest

I recognise myself too well in the list of 'symptoms' at the ripe old age of 54. As an example I can only now look back to bringing my kids up on my own as an achievement although I still look to find out why they have become adults who work hard, are caring and loving and not been in trouble with the authorities.

I always seem to search to find whoever or whatever is responsible for my 'luck'.

July 15, 2010 - 11:35pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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