One month before his death, obscure amateur violinist and one-time patent clerk Albert Einstein told his friend Elisabeth (who, at times and less intimately, was known as Her Highness, the Queen of Belgium), “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”
While that degree of humility may seem exceptional, even bizarre, coming from someone whose work had such a tremendous global impact (he really was an amazing violinist)–particularly when he’s the sort of person who hangs out with European royalty–Einstein appears to be expressing a fairly common anxiety known as Impostor Phenomenon.
Originally identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes*, Impostor Phenomenon (also known as Impostor Syndrome or Impostorism) was first noticed among high-achieving women who, in spite of having attained objectively impressive levels of professional and academic success, believed themselves to be undeserving frauds. As Clance and Imes put it:
Women who experience the impostor phenomenon maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. For example, students often fantasize that they were mistakenly admitted to graduate school because of an error by the admissions committee. Numerous women graduate students state that their high examination scores are due to luck, to misgrading, or to the faulty judgment of professors. Women professionals in our sample feel over evaluated by colleagues and administrators. One woman professor said, “I’m not good enough to be on the faculty here. Some mistake was made in the selection process.”
Later research has shown Impostor Phenomenon to effect both men and women in many different fields**.
There may be something uncomfortably familiar about this idea. Many of us have at times found ourselves–whether in school, at work, or in sport–feeling like we were receiving credit we didn’t really deserve or attaining great achievements due simply to good luck. According to one estimate, approximately 70% of people will experience the Impostor Phenomenon at least once in their lives.
Occasional or temporary bouts of Impostor Phenomenon are not likely something to be very concerned about, but when it is recurring and consistent, it is a sign that we are failing to internalize our successes. Our perceptions and beliefs about ourselves aren’t correctly changing with reality. This can then create a lot of anxiety and may even sabotage our future efforts.
A fencer who finds herself suddenly breaking through to higher level results, maybe earning more medals and climbing up the national points lists, may not believe that she really belongs in the higher tier of competitors. She may feel like an outsider whose position as a successful athlete is accidental and temporary. Even after continued success, she might not only still feel this way, but those feelings may actually worsen. And, if it becomes bad enough, this protracted experience with Imposter Phenomenon can result in the fencer, who had previously been competing so successfully, to start losing to weaker opponents in much earlier rounds–which will, naturally, reinforce her internal narrative that she is, in reality, not a top level athlete.
Of course, this is an extreme example of Impostor Phenomenon. Most people will find that many of these kinds of doubts disappear over time. However, it is useful to recognize–for athletes who may be experiencing feelings that they are an “impostor” (as well as for their coaches and parents)–both how common and how disconnected from reality these feelings actually are. The path to the top is often winding and confusing, and generally completely unique. It makes no sense to compare your progress to someone else’s or to look at your weakest results as the most “honest” indicator of your abilities. In fact, there is no absolute indicator of our abilities since, through effort and training, we are always changing and improving (even if we don’t recognize it).
Once we realize that our feelings of impostorism aren’t an objective response to reality, we can start to take steps to overcome them–or, at the very least, manage them so that they don’t get in the way of our goals. There are many different approaches to reframing how we think about ourselves (and a Google search of “Imposter Syndrome” will lead you to many–as will reading through some of the other entries of this blog). As long as you’re focused on improving all elements of your performance, including the physical, tactical and, of course, psychological, you will be able to change your self-image just as you would improve any other aspect of your fencing: through continued practice.
And, after a while, you’ll realize that it was the voice in your head calling you an impostor that was the actual phony the whole time.
*See their paper The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention [pdf].
**For an overview of more recent research see Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander’s paper The Impostor Phenomenon [pdf].