An Informal Analysis of Impostor Phenomenon and Psychological Inflexibility: Getting Your ACT Together!

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By Nelly A. Dixon, Ed.D, BCBA

Kaplan University

“Will the real _____ please stand up?” is a famous tagline from the gameshow, To Tell the Truth (Goodson-Todman, 1956) in which each individual in a panel of three participants tries to convince everyone that he/she is the person of interest being described by the host.  For some individuals, like those who suffer from Impostor Phenomenon (IP), this gameshow is more of a reality show.  The difference is that they already ARE recognized by others for who they really are.  The problem? They don’t believe it themselves…

Individuals with Imposter Phenomenon frequently elicit a common set of behaviors that continuously contact reinforcement for this phenomenon and the perceptions that go along with it.  So, what are the ABC’s of Imposter Phenomenon and how might Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) play a role in unmasking the Impostor?

Impostor Phenomenon

While you may not be familiar with Impostor Phenomenon (IP), it is much more common than you might think.  IP affects highly successful professionals, managers, professors, doctors, minorities, graduate students, and other quite prominent people.  Chances are you have heard of Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster, and John Steinbeck. They are self-admitted Impostors (Allen, 2017). Chances are, you are likely surrounded by a number of Impostors in your place of work or school.  Chances are YOU might be an Impostor, whether you realize it or not! If you want to find out, you can access Dr. Clance’s IP Scale for personal use via her website1.

If IP is a new concept for you, let’s first answer the question…. What is Impostor Phenomenon? Individuals with Impostor Phenomenon experience strong feelings that their accomplishments are under deserved or unjustified, and experience anxiety about the possibility that they may be exposed as a fraud (Clance, 1985).  Often, highly successful individuals suffer from an internal experience of intellectual phoniness (Matthews & Clance, 1985 p.71) and have a fear of being revealed to others as such. Generally, one who suffers from IP firmly believes that successes and achievements are largely due to external factors such as hard work, luck, or chance rather than one’s own natural abilities or talents (Harvey & Katz, 1985).  While certain documented setting events, such as family dynamics (Clance, 1985) and parenting styles (Want and Kleitman, 2006) from the affected person’s younger years are noted as contributing factors to the development of IP, analysis of the Impostors’ behaviors reveal a pattern of environmental contexts and private verbal behaviors that maintain the cycle of the phenomenon.

According to Clance (1985), some key characteristics of the Impostor Phenomenon include:

  • Needing to be recognized as “the best”
  • A perfectionist ideal, in which failure to demonstrate perfection is a failure overall
  • Fear of failure, which elicits a state of anxiety upon request to complete a task
  • Denial of competence, where achievements are attributed to external contexts rather than one’s personal abilities
  • Fear or guilt of success, expecting that being successful will lead to additional demands and higher expectations

Typically, there are two repertoires of behavior that are characteristic of an individual with IP.  If we evaluate the ABC’s of these patterns, the antecedent stimulus that evokes either behavioral repertoire is a request or demand to complete a specific achievement-oriented task, which may be academic or work related (Sakulku & Alexander, 2011).  This demand elicits an internal dialogue (i.e. I’m not good at this… what if I am a failure with this task?) and ultimately leads to one of two behaviors – either extreme over preparation or a period of prolonged procrastination followed by frantic last-minute task completion (Thompson, Davis & Davidson, 2000).  Since Impostors are typically “high-performing” and effective individuals, tasks are completed successfully and in a timely manner, ultimately to be met with praise and positive feedback from others; consequently, the Impostor generally discredits his or her own abilities for the achievement, firmly convinced that competence or skill played no part in the outcome.

Impostorism and ACT

The description of IP conforms nicely into ACT’s Model of Psychopathology referenced in Luoma, Hayes, & Walser’s (2007) text, which outlines a framework of Psychological Inflexibility (p.12). Teasing apart the characteristics and sorting them into the ACT model can fundamentally build a roadmap of treatment strategies for individuals with IP.

The Conceptualized Self – Perhaps this is the overarching domain of psychological inflexibility which affects an individual with IP.  As mentioned earlier, the internal verbal processes that are elicited upon a request to complete a task tend to fuel the fire.  Perhaps the Impostor labels him/herself as a procrastinator (I AM a procrastinator), or has become attached to the idea of not being good enough, or smart enough.  The “story” that an Impostor has written about oneself works as a barrier to envisioning a more positive conceptualized self that is worthy of his/her established reputation.

Cognitive Fusion –  This piece of the inflexibility model can surface in a number of ways; first, one becomes “fused”, or overly attached to the ideas that have been generated about the conceptualized self.  The Impostor becomes habituated to those thoughts and ideas (I’m not good enough, everyone will find out that I am a fraud…) and may have difficulty separating present events from the “story” that has been written about the conceptualized self.  Secondly, the Impostor may get caught up in the negative thoughts that establish the need for frenzied over preparation or procrastination behaviors that are typical of IP.

Conceptualized Past and Future – Individuals with IP may perseverate on events that happened in the past and experience a fear of future events or outcomes.  The inability to experience the present situation without deliberating on past events or future possibilities serves to limit an Impostor’s capability to open up to new patterns of behaviors.  In essence, the preconceived notions about the final outcome dominates the thoughts and actions of the Impostor, which may lend itself to what we, as behavior analysts, know as superstitious behavior.  Engaging in prior patterns of frenzied preparation or procrastination were essentially reinforced by successful task completion and an escape from anxiety in the past, so continuing similar patterns of behavior should subsequently lead to the same types of reinforcement (Weir, 2013).  On the other hand, approaching the task with a “new” or alternate plan of action may sabotage the effort and lead to inevitable failure. Should this occur, the Impostor’s façade could be discovered.

Inaction, Impulsivity, or Avoidant Persistence – Psychological inflexibility can be a considerable barrier to committed action (a desired outcome of the ACT treatment model).  This facet of the inflexibility paradigm may embody the Impostor’s desire to access more immediate reinforcement (e.g. escaping the task) by engaging in potentially self-defeating behaviors (e.g. procrastination); this is a product of the combined influences from other facets of the psychological inflexibility noted previously.

Lack of Values – In the ACT model, values are a driving force towards making changes in behavior.  Often, the term ‘value’ is confused with the term ‘goal’, whereas a goal is based on an evaluative measure and a value drives a genuine meaning or purpose for action.  Impostors may become so caught up in the perceived evaluation of the outcome rather than allowing values (i.e. passion/purpose) to guide the work.  For the Imposter, maintaining a focus on the evaluation of one’s work may have a significant effect on experiential avoidance.

Experiential Avoidance – According to Luoma, et al., (2007), this facet of psychological inflexibility is “an attempt to control or alter the form, frequency, or situational sensitivity of an internal experience” (p. 11) which happens when one tries to evaluate or predict an outcome or circumstance. It is a cognitive process of internal language that evokes behaviors to avoid a perceived negative experience. So, in assessing the Impostor’s function of behavior, given the analysis of the characteristics and how these characteristics fit into the model of psychological inflexibility, the notion of experiential avoidance seems to provide the behavior analyst with valuable information needed to begin establishing a treatment plan designed to increase psychological flexibility and work towards reducing the barriers that the Impostor Phenomenon holds for affected individuals.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has six core processes that support an individual’s journey towards psychological flexibility. These core processes included Acceptance, Diffusion, Self as Context, Being Present, Defining Values, and Committed Action. If you are new to the concept of ACT and its processes, the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science has extensive resources for learning more about this evolving “third wave” behavioral therapy. Approaching the concept of the Impostor phenomenon from the perspective of developing greater psychological flexibility can benefit many individuals (not just Impostors!) in many ways.  Increased psychological flexibility allows an individual to adapt to different demands within the environment and reorganize one’s cognitive resources.  More importantly, psychological flexibility allows for a shift in perspective (i.e. a change in relational frames) (Kashdan & Rotterberg, 2010) that can promote more positive thought processes grounded in the context of the present moment and driven by one’s values rather than arbitrary goals.  By identifying the elements of psychological inflexibility and implementing strategies from ACT’s core processes, the Impostor may be able to finally remove the mask that hides the true abilities and contributions that he/she has to offer, feeling liberated at the thought of rising from the chair when the host at the podium says, “Will the REAL ____ please stand up”?

What do you think?  Let us know how ACT fits with the Imposter Phenomenon in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

1 Note. From The Impostor Phenomenon:  When Success Makes You Feel Like A Fake (pp. 20-22), by P.R. Clance, 1985, Toronto:  Bantam Books.  Copyright 1985 by Pauline Rose Clance.  Reprinted by permission.

 

References

Allen, S. (2017). 6 notable people who experienced impostor syndrome. Grammarly blog. Retrieved from https://www.grammarly.com/blog/notable-people-imposter-syndrome/

Clance, P.R. (1985) The impostor phenomenon: When success makes you feel like a fake. Toronto: Bantam Books.

Goodson, M. and Todman, B. (1956). To tell the truth [Television Series]. New York City, NY: Columbia Broadcasting System.

Harvey, J. C., & Katz, C. (1985). If I’m so successful, why do I feel like a fake?: The impostor phenomenon. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Luoma, J. B., Hayes, S. C., & Walser, R. D. (2007). Learning ACT: An acceptance & commitment therapy skills-training manual for therapists. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger & Reno, NV: Context Press.

Matthews, G. and Clance, P.R. (1985). Treatment of the impostor phenomenon in psychotherapy. Psychotherapy in Private Practice, 3(1), 71-81.

Sakulku, J. and Alexander, J. (2011). The impostor phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioral Science, 6(1), 73-92.

Thompson, T., Davis, H., & Davidson, J. (1998). Attributional and affective responses of imposters to academic success and failure outcomes. Personality and Individual Differences, 25(2), 381-396.

Want, J. & Kleitman, S. (2006). Imposter phenomenon and self-handicapping: Links with parenting styles and self-confidence.  Personality and Individual Differences, 40(5), 961-971.

Weir, K. (2013). Feel like a fraud? gradPSYCH 11(4), 24 – 27. Retrieved from http://www.gradpsych-digital.org/gradpsych/201311?folio=24&pg=26#pg26

 

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this detailed description of a little-known behavioral phenomena! An informative and fascinating article! Harla

    • Thank you, Harla! I appreciate the feedback! I hope to provide a bit more on how ACT can support the treatment of IP in a future article…stay tuned!!

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