Sunday, February 10, 2008

Impostors among us

I will never forget my first week of graduate school. We sat in a circle, ten men and three women, and shared our previous clinical experience. Some talked of having volunteered in homes for the aged and the battered. Others boasted of handling crisis hot lines and rescuing abused children. Me, I had only done an undergraduate degree in psychology. Whatever experience I had that could be remotely categorized as clinical had come about as part and parcel of doing that degree. I had no extracurricular feats of accomplishment of which to boast. So I sat there wondering if the program had made a mistake by letting me in, asking myself if I really belonged there, feeling like a complete fraud.

It was with relief that I discovered the writings of Joan Harvey and her elucidation of the impostor phenomenon among high-achieving academic women. Harvey noted that despite their many achievements, many academic women feel like fakes, convinced that their accomplishments are actually due to luck and chance. Many live in fear of being unmasked as frauds.

It also helped to figure out eventually that most of my classmates had largely been bullshitting. You don’t spend so much time together without the truth coming out. Faced with the anxiety of having to tell our stories, most had embellished, had taken pedestrian undergraduate exposure and presented it as evidence of advanced clinical brilliance.

Researchers have documented a fascinating gender twist on this impostor phenomenon. It turns out that women who score high on measures of 'impostorism' tend often to be more motivated to compete. Men however appear more likely to avoid competing in those areas in which they feel vulnerable. In other words, feeling like a fraud often motivates women to try harder. The same impulse appears to trigger an avoidance response in some men. Men don’t ever want to appear weak or incompetent.

This explains a whole lot, doesn’t it? :D

But what about those individuals who are true phonies? You know the type. The ones that stay up all night cramming for an exam but then declare that they did not study at all. Or the ones who spend hours getting dressed for an occasion and when you pay them a compliment, respond dismissively, “what, this old thing?”

A recent New York Times article on this issue noted that pretending to be a fake may be a social strategy used to lower performance expectations. It helps to take the pressure off.

I thought of this as I was watching the Tennis Channel recently and heard yet another top female professional tennis player say that she had prepared for an important match by telling herself [or was reportedly told by her coach] to "just go out there and have fun". Yeah right, I thought, that is exactly what you are doing when there is a million dollars on the line. It’s a lie, a piece of deliberate fraudulence intended to lower the pressures of performance.

True impostors, it turns out, are those individuals who take false humility too far and pretend not to have abilities when they do. Or who pad their resumes so thoroughly that they have no business getting the job and are unable to perform when required to do so. Do you know any such people?

1 comment:

miko said...