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Running Scared? Even Big Success, Says a Therapist, Can't Free Some People of Feelings of Failure

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As a psychologist and therapist on the faculty of Oberlin College in Ohio, Pauline Rose Clance encountered a puzzling phenomenon: Dozens of highly successful students were seeking counseling because they lived in dread of the next exam or evaluation. This was no garden-variety insecurity; it was an illogical and enduring fear of failure that haunted the school’s brightest and most consistent achievers. “It emerged so dramatically, “says Clance, “that I talked to other therapists. Many said, ‘I see it too.’ ”

In fact Clance, now a professor of psychology at Georgia State University in Atlanta, where she is associate director of the Psychotherapy and Behavior Therapy Clinic, knew the phenomenon firsthand. One of six children in an Appalachian farm family and a graduate of Lynchburg College in Virginia, she had felt enormous stress when she enrolled years ago in a fiercely competitive graduate program at the University of Kentucky. In her heart of hearts she simply couldn’t believe that a girl from the mountains was qualified to make it in grad school. Now, following 11 years of research, she has written The Impostor Phenomenon (Peachtree Publishers, Ltd., $14.95), an examination of the crippling inability of many talented people to acquire the self-confidence their accomplishments merit. Clance discussed her conclusions with reporter Lee Powell.

What is your definition of the impostor phenomenon?

It’s an internal experience of doubt in one’s own abilities. It occurs in bright, successful people who are unable to recognize their competence and intelligence and therefore fear that they cannot maintain their success in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

What are the symptoms of people who suffer from this?

They do not look ill at ease or uncomfortable. They appear very self-confident, but it’s really just a mask they wear. And they are absolutely sincere in being unable to accept praise. It has nothing to do with false modesty. They are perfectionists who need to perform flawlessly and equate making a mistake with shame and humiliation. They often feel very guilty about the credit they receive for their achievements and concentrate on what they have not accomplished. They are not relaxed or comfortable with their success or themselves.

How widespread is the problem?

At least in the United States, it’s quite common. I wish I could give you a more scientific answer, but when my colleague Suzanne Imes and I first reviewed the psychological literature in the ’70s, no one had written about it. Since we started publishing in 1978, people all over the country have begun researching it, which tells me it’s not just something I see. One California psychologist studied 50 people who are highly successful publicly—actors, best-selling authors, prominent judges. She found that 70 percent of them experience impostor feelings, and that the younger they were when they achieved success the more likely they were to be victims. We’re finding a wide range of ages and occupations.

Does it occur more often in women than in men?

Originally we thought it occurred almost exclusively in high-achieving women. But we’re finding, in clinical interviews, workshops and lectures, that proportionately men suffer as much as women. I think men experience it more in relation to their work than in their other roles, but that may change as men are expected to do more in the home and as fathers.

So the increased number of women in the work force is a factor?

I think as we see more dual worker families, these problems are exacerbated. We still have stereotyped roles: If a woman can clean her house, she’s supposed to. If a man can cut the lawn or install a fan, he should. But when people who suffer from this problem don’t have the time and energy to do these things because of long working hours, they may begin to fear failure in all areas of their lives.

What are the causes of the impostor phenomenon?

One cause is a discrepancy between the messages about himself that a child receives from his parents and the feedback from those outside the home. Because of the inconsistency, the child doesn’t know which messages to believe. It’s a problem when parents put labels on children—”Johnny’s the sensitive one, Susie’s the bright one.” The parents think it’s just a description, but unfortunately the label can put the child in a box. It becomes almost a prescription of how he ought to be. Overly critical parents can obviously cause feelings of inadequacy. The overpraising parent creates pressure, too. The child wonders, “What if I can’t live up to what my parents think I can do?” And if parents think everything a child does is wonderful, then their judgment can’t be trusted.

What are some other causes?

Often someone who has been No. 1 in his adolescent years cannot accept the reality of being one of many special people in the broader world; he doubts that he is good at all if he’s not the best. And many “impostors” are doing something at odds with their family traditions. They are, say, mathematicians in a family of artists or the first in their families to become professionals. Paradoxically, children of prominent and successful parents may suffer because they aren’t sure if they are being rewarded for their own talents or singled out because of their parents’ fame and ability to give them advantages.

When are impostors most likely to feel that they are faking it?

The feeling is most intense among college and graduate students, probably because they are constantly being evaluated. People starting their first jobs or switching to new jobs are at high risk. Intense impostor feelings are apt to emerge when a woman first becomes a mother. She may be overwhelmed by the responsibility for another life and her awareness of her critical impact on the child’s development.

Why doesn’t success help?

There’s a cycle that goes something like this: challenge, anxiety, procrastination or overpreparation, frenzied work, success, relief. But there is a superstitious aspect. You begin to think you have to repeat the cycle every time in order to keep succeeding—that if you accept your success and believe the positive feedback it brings, you won’t succeed the next time.

You say in your book that impostors often resist delegating authority. Why?

It may seem like a lack of trust, but it’s more a feeling of guilt. In trying to deserve success, they need to be the one that works hardest.

So they feel they need to be in control?

I think so. That comes from needing to avoid failures. The myth is that if you’re in control you can prevent mistakes. Of course anyone who accomplishes very much at all occasionally makes a mistake.

How do you deal with impostor feelings in a corporate setting?

Some people probably need to say, “I don’t want to advance. I would like to stay in the job I have.” Unfortunately many companies don’t allow that. But I think that in the next few years people are going to take a look at that question. Do people have to go to the very top to be seen as successful? What I emphasize is for people to make choices based not on fear but on what really gives them a sense of fulfillment. In the long run both the people and their companies will be better off.

If impostors continue to function and succeed, why change anything?

Many impostors are functioning at a pretty high level, but I think their fears can keep them from reaching their highest potential. They can’t relax; they may suffer stress and burnout. Health and personal relationships suffer. Children pick up on their parents’ impostor feelings and may repeat the whole cycle.

How do you get rid of these feelings?

First you need to perceive the problem. It has a name, and you’re not alone. In the workplace, getting familiar with a job and staying with it for a while—rather than changing jobs—frequently seems to help. Staying in the same kind of work over a period of time helps many people. And people who can identify their problem are actually more willing to take risks. Some time ago a woman came to a workshop session I gave and afterward accepted a promotion she had turned down. A year later I checked back with her and she was doing fine. That wasn’t even therapy, just a brief discussion that made her aware of what she was doing to herself. For some people it’s not that simple, and they need counseling to sort things out.

Are there things people can do for themselves?

Yes, there are some tactics I recommend. For example you might choose a task in your work that is not crucial, deliberately spend less time than you usually would take to do it and then look at the results. You may find you are able to succeed with less work. You should also go back and reevaluate the messages you received as a child. And take time to analyze what is the worst thing that would happen if you didn’t do something perfectly.

Do exaggerated fears ever contribute to any form of excellence?

Sometimes, in the short run. But over a long period of time they interfere with creativity, spontaneity and productivity. People need to become realistic about what they can demand of themselves. I like to quote W. Somerset Maugham: “Only a mediocre person is always at his best.”