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The Imposter Phenomenon Among Emerging Adults Transitioning Into Professional Life: Developing a Grounded Theory

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Abstract

This study qualitatively explored the imposter phenomenon (IP) among 29 emerging adults who were transitioning into professional life. A grounded theory was developed that described IP, internal and external contributing factors, and IP's effect in terms of performance and affective reactions. Implications for counselors of emerging adults are discussed.
114 ADULTSPAN Journal October 2015 Vol. 14 No. 2
© 2015 by the American Counseling Association. All rights reserved.
Received 12/23/12
Revised 01/11/14
Accepted 05/08/2014
DOI: 10.1002/adsp.12009
The Imposter Phenomenon Among Emerging
Adults Transitioning Into Professional Life:
Developing a Grounded Theory
Joel A. Lane
This study qualitatively explored the imposter phenomenon (IP) among 29 emerging adults
who were transitioning into professional life. A grounded theory was developed that described
IP, internal and external contributing factors, and IPs effect in terms of performance and
affective reactions. Implications for counselors of emerging adults are discussed.
Keywords: emerging adulthood, imposter phenomenon, transition
The developmental trajectories of young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 have
undergone considerable change over the past several decades (Arnett, 2000). Todays
emerging adults tend to identify with aspects of both adolescence and adulthood
without fully identifying with either (Arnett, 2001). This lack of clear identification
can create identity tension as emerging adults transition from adolescent to adult life
roles, generally in some form of career and/or higher education (Murphy, Blustein,
Bohlig, & Platt, 2010). This identity tension poses a threat to the process of ones
initial transition into professional life, a transition associated with feelings of low self-
efficacy and turmoil (Polach, 2004).
These feelings bring to mind the imposter phenomenon (IP; Clance & Imes,
1978), a construct that has received considerable attention in higher education and
psychological research (e.g., Bernard, Dollinger, & Ramaniah, 2002; Cowman &
Ferrari, 2002; Gibson-Beverly & Schwartz, 2008; Royse-Roskowski, 2010; Sonnak
& Towell, 2001). Given that emerging adults often enter career life—a historically
adult” role—despite subjectively identifying as somewhere between adolescence and
adulthood (Arnett, 2000), it seems possible that IP represents a salient construct for
this transition. Thus, the present study examined the experience of IP among emerg-
ing adults transitioning into professional life.
IP refers to a feeling of incompetence despite evidence of competence (Clance & Imes,
1978). Individuals experiencing IP see themselves as less capable than their peers and have
difficulty internalizing successes (Leary, Patton, Orlando, & Funk, 2000). Moreover, IP
promotes feelings of fraudulence, causing individuals to perceive that their abilities are
overestimated and that others will eventually discover their incompetence (Clance &
Imes, 1978). High-achieving individuals seem most susceptible to IP (Clance & Imes,
Joel A. Lane, Department of Counseling, Oakland University. Joel A. Lane is now at Department of Counselor
Education, Portland State University. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Joel A.
Lane, Department of Counselor Education, Graduate School of Education, Portland State University, PO Box
751, 1900 SW 4th Avenue, Suite 250, Portland, OR 97207 (e-mail: lanejoel@pdx.edu).
ADULTSPAN Journal October 2015 Vol. 14 No. 2 115
1978; Fried-Buchalter, 1997; Gibson-Beverly & Schwartz, 2008). Although imposter
feelings can lead some to work harder and overprepare (Caselman, Self, & Self, 2006),
it can also promote self-handicapping behaviors such as procrastination or lack of effort
(Cowman & Ferrari, 2002; Want & Kleitman, 2006). Common IP correlates include
anxiety (Topping, 1983), depression (McGregor, Gee, & Posey, 2008), low self-esteem
(Sonnak & Towell, 2001), low self-efficacy (Royse-Roskowski, 2010), high neuroti-
cism and low conscientiousness (Bernard et al., 2002), narcissism (Gibson-Beverly &
Schwartz, 2008),
and proneness to shame (Cowman & Ferrari, 2002). Essentially, IP
poses a significant threat to well-being (Clance & O’Toole, 1988).
Several of these psychological challenges—especially anxiety and low self-efficacy—
mirror those experienced when individuals transition into career settings (Cherniss,
1980; Polach, 2004). The challenges associated with this transition are both well
documented and frequently used to explain growing job turnover rates among new
professionals (Saks, Uggerslev, & Fassina, 2007). New professionals report numerous
sources of confusion while entering the workplace, including unanticipated changes in
structure, oversight, and appropriateness regarding interpersonal interactions (Polach,
2004). A study involving a sample of librarians found associations between complex job
duties and elevated imposter feelings, especially among those for whom the complex
duties were new (Clark, Vardeman, & Barba, 2014). Compounding these challenges,
entry into the workforce often coincides with decreased contact with peer and family
support networks (Lane, 2013, in press-b). Perceiving diminished interpersonal sup-
port can stimulate feelings of isolation and exacerbate the psychological difficulties
associated with this transition (Lane, in press-a; Murphy et al., 2010).
Accordingly, IP could represent a problem of particular relevance to emerging
adults, as ones initial exposure to meaningful career activities most commonly
occurs during this life period (Arnett, 2000). Emerging adults leave behind the
moratorium from responsibilities that adolescence represents to enter adult roles
(Lane, 2013). In doing so, they enter unfamiliar environments with seemingly vague
expectations and are surrounded by more experienced colleagues (Polach, 2004).
The association of IP with narcissism (Gibson-Beverly & Schwartz, 2008) lends
further support to its relevance in this age group, given that some evidence points
to increasingly narcissistic attitudes among present-day emerging adults (Twenge,
2013). Although, intuitively, IP seems like a problem highly relevant to emerging
adulthood, it is difficult to make this conclusion given its lack of empirical atten-
tion. The most pertinent existing research in this regard involves undergraduate
academic settings (e.g., Kolligian & Sternberg, 1991; Sonnak & Towell, 2001) and,
therefore, has limited applicability to emerging adults entering work life.
Recent research pertaining to new professionals more commonly focuses on the
related construct of self-efficacy (i.e., ones beliefs regarding ones abilities; e.g., Al-
Darmaki, 2004). Such research positions low self-efficacy as a normative experience for
new professionals lacking in workplace experience. Although similarities exist between
the constructs of IP and low self-efficacy, so too do conceptual and empirical distinc-
tions. For example, an individual low in self-efficacy might feel incompetent, but an
individual experiencing IP would feel incompetent despite evidence of competence.
Moreover, Royse-Roskowski (2010) provided important empirical support for this
116 ADULTSPAN Journal October 2015 Vol. 14 No. 2
distinction by examining a sample of counseling trainees, finding that previous work
experience improved self-efficacy but not imposter feelings. Essentially, IP seemed
more resistant to prior experience than did self-efficacy. These findings support the
distinction between the two constructs and further underscore the need for a better
understanding of IP among young professionals.
Counseling professionals who work with emerging adults in career, college, or
mental health contexts would benefit from a richer understanding of IP experiences
in emerging adults transitioning into the workforce. Given the aforementioned as-
sociations between IP and numerous negative mental health characteristics, it seems
likely that IP experiences are a relatively common issue among client populations.
IP, however, constitutes an internal experience easily overlooked in therapy (Clance
& Imes, 1978). As such, an increased understanding of IP would benefit counselors
working with emerging adult populations, given that this life phase represents a
likely risk factor for elevated imposter feelings. Such an understanding could assist
counselors in promoting self-efficacy for their emerging adult clients.
In light of these needs, the topic of IP in emerging adult professionals seems
well suited for qualitative methodology. Qualitative research allows for rich un-
derstandings of behaviors and affect (Denzin, 2006), which seems particularly
useful for counselors given the relative commonality with which IP is overlooked.
Despite the apparent utility of this methodology, existing IP research has almost
exclusively employed quantitative methodology, specifically correlational designs.
Although such an approach has yielded helpful contributions, incorporating
additional methodological approaches would enrich our understanding of IP.
Thus, the present study qualitatively explored the experience of IP among emerging
adults transitioning into professional life. The purpose of the study was to develop
a grounded theory (Corbin & Strauss, 2008) to understand predictive factors of IP
and its effect on emerging adult occupational or academic functioning. The follow-
ing question guided each element of the present study: Is IP a relevant construct to
emerging adults entering professional life, and, if so, how is this construct experienced?
METHOD
The present study utilized an emergent grounded theory design. Grounded theory pro-
vided an ideal approach because it affords a systematic method of generating theoretical
understandings with regard to aspects of the social world (Corbin & Strauss, 2008). This
approach requires multiple stages of data collection and analysis (Creswell, 2009). The pres-
ent study was designed in accordance with this requirement: Participants first completed
exploratory qualitative surveys, and then a subsample of the participants gave follow-up,
in-depth individual interviews. Both waves of data were analyzed together to arrive at an
emerging model of IP grounded in the views of the participants (Corbin & Strauss, 2008).
An important aspect of ensuring the integrity of qualitative procedures involves
considering inherent biases the researcher may have regarding the study topic (Kline,
2008). Thus, prior to the procedure development and participant recruitment, I
engaged in personal and collegial reflection to consider my prior experiences and
assumptions. I identified several pertinent experiences. First, my clinical specialty
ADULTSPAN Journal October 2015 Vol. 14 No. 2 117
involves adolescent and emerging adult populations. Second, as an educator, I have
been exposed to many emerging adult students and have observed IP experiences in
both students and colleagues. Third, I considered my age and its relative proximity to
the emerging adult age range. Through reflection with colleagues, I was encouraged to
view these experiences as both risks and benefits to the present study. Clearly, the risks
involved potential biases and assumptions that could emerge as a result of such close
proximity to the topic. The benefits, however, were that such experiences could shape
my expertise with the topic, contribute to establishing rapport with participants, and
contribute to relevant protocol development (Kline, 2008). To minimize the risks, I
determined that all aspects of protocol development and data analysis would utilize
close oversight from numerous colleagues of various ages and experience levels (Corbin
& Strauss, 2008). In each phase of the studys development, I would draft the element
of the study (e.g., survey and interview protocols) and would seek feedback from at
least two trusted colleagues, who would comment on the potential efficacy and bias
of each element. Such an approach was utilized for the development of protocols,
codes, concepts, and categories (Corbin & Strauss, 2008).
Procedure and Protocols
The present study used two phases of data collection. The first phase involved exploratory
qualitative surveys. Individuals who completed the surveys were invited to participate in
follow-up interviews, which constituted the second phase of the data collection.
To facilitate discussion regarding IP, a term with which most are unfamiliar (Clark
et al., 2014), and a construct that represents a private, internal, emotional experience
(Clance & Imes, 1978), both data collection methods utilized a brief reading passage.
Precedence exists for utilizing reading passages in qualitative studies with young adult
populations (Allen & Taylor, 2006; Kruger et al., 2013). The passage contained a
fictional narrative of an individual experiencing IP in a professional setting. Several
of the initial IP-related questions in each data collection method pertained to the
narrative. Utilizing the narrative offered the semantic advantage of defining and
normalizing IP in the hopes that participants would feel more comfortable discuss-
ing their own potential insecurities and feelings of inadequacy. Steps were taken in
both the data collection and analysis procedures to minimize the potential for undue
influence of the reading passage on the results. Any time the participants answered a
question specifically related to the character in the narrative, they were then asked to
compare that answer with their own experiences. Additionally, during data analysis,
responses that solely pertained to the narrative were not coded.
The survey was electronic and consisted of 19 questions. The questions were
generated using previous IP research as well as my prior clinical and educational
experiences (Kline, 2008). Participants were asked to describe their professional or
academic identities (e.g., “Please describe what you consider your primary profession
to be”) and compare their experiences with those described in the narrative (e.g.,
“When you were reading this passage, could you relate to some of the things that
Julie was experiencing? If ‘yes,’ please describe your own similar experiences. If ‘no,’
describe how Julies experiences differ from your own”). Participants were entered in
a prize drawing for a $50 gift card.
118 ADULTSPAN Journal October 2015 Vol. 14 No. 2
I conducted the follow-up interviews, which took place in a private room in a
university counseling center. The interviews lasted 30 to 55 minutes and contained
22 questions and probes. Participants were asked to read the passage and respond to
the questions, which were created to understand the degree to which the participants
related to IP and also to probe for their own potential imposter experiences (e.g., “Now
that weve read and talked a little about IP, how do some of these concepts resonate
with your own personal journey, if they do at all?”).
Participants
The participants were 18- to 25-year-olds who either were not enrolled in an educa-
tional program or were within 1 year of graduating from their respective programs.
The rationale for such parameters was that these emerging adults were likely to be
participating in a profession or preparing to transition into professional life by engaging
in activities such as job searches, résumé development, and career decision making
(Arnett, 2000). Participants were recruited through various means in connection with
a medium-sized, suburban university in the Midwest. Recruitment messages were
sent through various university mailing lists that reach alumni, entry-level university
professionals, and current undergraduate and graduate students. Additional participants
were identified through recruitment messages given during class sessions for several
undergraduate and graduate courses.
Initial participation in the study consisted of 29 emerging adults who completed
the qualitative surveys. This sample was predominantly female (n = 20, 68.9%) and
Caucasian (n = 27, 93.1%). Most participants had earned a bachelors degree (n = 16,
55.2%), whereas others had earned a masters degree (n = 4, 13.8%) or were finishing
an undergraduate or graduate program (n = 9, 31.0%). The sample represented many
professional and academic fields, including business administration, education, student
affairs administration, music, engineering, psychology, and counseling.
Each survey participant was invited to participate in a follow-up interview. Six
total interviews were conducted. The interviewees were mostly women (n = 5, 83.3%)
and White (n = 4, 66.7%). Two participants had undergraduate degrees and were
working in fields related to their degrees, one participant had an undergraduate
degree and was working at a restaurant while looking for a permanent career, one
participant had a masters degree and was working part time in a related field, and
the other two participants were current students.
Data Analysis
I transcribed all individual interviews and closely reviewed all submitted surveys.
The interviews were analyzed using an inductive microanalysis (Corbin & Strauss,
2008), whereas the survey data were used to test and refine concepts and categories
(Creswell, 2009). Once open codes were generated through the microanalysis, they
were subjected to axial coding to combine similar codes (Corbin & Strauss, 2008). At
this point, clear concepts began to emerge, which were then applied to the survey data
and adjusted where necessary (Corbin & Strauss, 2008). The concepts were developed
and refined against the two sources of data until both I and the auditors agreed that
saturation had been achieved. At this point, the concepts seemed to apply to one of
ADULTSPAN Journal October 2015 Vol. 14 No. 2 119
several categories and were grouped accordingly. Specifically, some concepts spoke
to the IP experience, others referred to contextual factors stimulating or inhibiting
imposter feelings, whereas others described various outcomes resulting from IP. Once
these categories were developed, they were reexamined against the survey and interview
data, audited, and refined until saturation seemed to be achieved. At this point, the
interviewees were invited to examine the concepts and categories and provide feedback
(Creswell, 2009). Two interviewees accepted this invitation, and both agreed that the
findings were applicable and salient to their experiences.
Trustworthiness of the Data
I used various methods to ensure trustworthiness and rigor (Creswell, 2009; Kline,
2008), including consulting with colleagues throughout the design and analysis
processes, analyzing multiple sources of data, analysis auditing using multiple
auditors, and conducting participant checks of the concepts and categories.
These measures maximized the likelihood of credible analysis and minimized
the possibility of misinterpreting the findings (Creswell, 2009). Throughout this
process, I maintained an audit trail in the interest of transparency (Kline, 2008).
RESULTS
Of the 29 participants, an unexpectedly high number (n = 23, 79.3%) indicated that
they experienced imposter feelings, and most offered specific examples of experiences
consistent with IP. All nine of the male participants, and 14 of the female participants
(70.0%), identified with IP. In examining questionnaire and interview responses us-
ing the aforementioned analytic procedures, clear categories and concepts emerged.
These concepts described the IP experience, identified internal and external factors
that either promoted or inhibited imposter feelings, and described how IP engendered
both performance and affective reactions. These concepts constituted the grounded
theory model, summarized below. Participant quotations come from both the interview
and survey data. For each category, the concepts are reported in order from most to
least commonly occurring in the data.
The Imposter Experience
The first—and most commonly described—category pertained to the actual IP
experience. Participants consistently recounted IP experiences in both academic and
professional settings. Despite the range of backgrounds among these participants,
many commonalities existed. The participant IP experiences were consistent with
descriptions from prior literature; they included perceived fraudulence, discrediting
evidence of competence, and self-doubt.
Perceived fraudulence. Many participants relayed a sense of phoniness related to
their abilities or accomplishments. These perceptions were most common when
acclimating to new levels of academic or professional responsibility, but they also
occurred in other situations. Often, participants talked of believing that others would
eventually discover their phoniness. A 25-year-old man who had earned a bachelors
degree in museum studies but was working in retail summarized this sentiment:
120 ADULTSPAN Journal October 2015 Vol. 14 No. 2
“In college classes, I was paranoid that every paper I wrote would be exposed as a
complete lack of knowledge and seen as what a ‘hack’ student would write.”
Discrediting evidence of competence. The data yielded many examples of individuals
minimizing achievements or praise they had received. Repeatedly, participants conveyed
disbelief that their skills or abilities contributed to hirings, promotions, grades, and
even their undergraduate degrees. Rather, they attributed such accomplishments to
luck, good fortune, or some other external cause. Interestingly, the pervasiveness of
their discrediting was such that, when receiving external validation regarding their
accomplishments, many participants questioned the motives or faculties of the person
offering praise. Such was the case with a 25-year-old male professional musician:
Sometimes, I get these superfluous compliments, and I feel like the [person giving the compliment]
just has it all wrong. The other day, I played a show that I could barely get through on the trumpet.
Every note was on the verge of cracking. The next day, a professional jazz trumpet player posted on
my [Facebook] wall that he loved my tone, which was a joke to me because I just got through [the
performance] by the skin of my teeth.
Self-doubt. Participants also commonly believed they lacked qualifications or abilities.
Self-doubt was often described in anticipation, such as when individuals had applied
for jobs or graduate school acceptance and were awaiting responses. Often, partici-
pants expressed an awareness that they possessed impressive qualifications, but were
nevertheless susceptible to self-doubt. This paradoxical thinking was clearly present in
the response of a 23-year-old woman who worked at a document scanning company
but was preparing to enter law school: “I scored in the 99th percentile on the LSAT,
got into a top school with a sizable scholarship, and I still worry that I will do poorly
and not get a job.” Other times, however, self-doubt was described more broadly. In
these cases, participants reported a general sense that they lacked confidence or were
low in self-worth. One participant succinctly yet powerfully summarized this feeling:
“One of my biggest fears in life is that I’m not good enough.”
Internal and External Factors Affecting IP
Frequently, participants attributed their imposter feelings to specific character traits.
They also described external behaviors and situations that either promoted or inhib-
ited IP. Thus, a character profile emerged suggesting that emerging adults who are
highly motivated and perfectionistic, and who have difficulty self-validating, may
be especially prone to IP. External factors that contributed to IP included instances
in which the participants compared themselves with others or received evaluative
feedback; however, gaining experience was an external factor that participants felt
diminished IP.
Internal qualities. Several domains of internal qualities emerged that seemed
to directly contribute to IP, including high motivation and perfectionism, as well
as an inability to self-validate. A response from one participant summarized the
interrelatedness of these qualities: “I dont always feel okay with myself in terms of
accepting the good. I usually look at the negative and how I can improve, and I
dont pat myself on the back with the positives.”
Participants tended to be highly achievement-focused and to hold themselves
to lofty standards. Many reported continually working on self-improvement
ADULTSPAN Journal October 2015 Vol. 14 No. 2 121
and maximizing their potential. Some indicated a perception of relatedness
between motivation and imposter feelings. One participant, who said her im-
poster feelings began recently, differentiated between feeling like an imposter
presently and having less motivation in the past:
I dont think I had these feelings back when I was younger. I dont think I really did anything to
try to achieve like I am now. . . . I think I realized as I got older its more than just getting good
grades. You have to . . . be able to network, and . . . you know, just because you have a 4.0 in
school doesnt mean that youre going to get the job. . . . You need experience and stuff like that.
Participants also expressed a need for external praise to feel confident. Some were
able to identify their inability to self-validate, whereas others lacked this insight. Re-
gardless, the majority of participants, when asked about their sources of confidence,
described only external factors such as receiving a compliment or a good grade.
One male participant, while considering his employment experiences, concluded,
I’ve always second-guessed if what I was doing was right. Always kind of relying on my boss to make the
final say. I’ve never kind of, I dont know, owned what I have to do, unless it was a clear, easy decision to
make. So, I guess, personally, my confidence level has always been a little shaky just because I wasnt sure
if I was [right and] I wasnt getting the affirmation I think I needed.
The fact that many participants looked to others for validation was notewor-
thy given the aforementioned category of discrediting evidence of competence.
That is, participants expressed a desire for external validation and an inability to
provide it for themselves. Yet, when they received this validation, they discredited
it, often going so far as to question the motives of the validator.
External factors. Although participants relied upon external sources for vali-
dation, feedback from others also seemed to affect imposter feelings in several
ways. Participants repeatedly described comparing their performance or per-
ceived abilities with others. They also reported that evaluative periods at work
were instances in which imposter feelings were elevated. The external factor
of gaining experience, however, contributed to diminished imposter feelings.
The theme of comparison was salient among participants. Various types of
comparative behaviors were described, all of which seemed to stimulate impos-
ter feelings. Opportunities for comparison included witnessing peers succeed,
interacting with colleagues on group projects at work, and speculating about
the confidence of others. The relationship between comparison and IP was
multifaceted. The most common description of comparison involved ways that
it increased imposter feelings. Such feelings were stimulated when participants
perceived that others were successful or capable. Participants also speculated
about the confidence of others, believing others to possess significantly more
confidence than themselves. This theme was accurately reflected by a female
participant preparing to graduate from a business administration honors pro-
gram: “I always feel unsure when comparing myself to others, everyone around
me seems so confident and further along on the path than me.”
Conversely, observing colleagues struggle with work tasks seemed to promote con-
fidence and normalize developmental areas. One participant, a 25-year-old counselor,
122 ADULTSPAN Journal October 2015 Vol. 14 No. 2
described her experience witnessing colleagues struggle during group supervision: “See-
ing others struggle, I’ve realized that I’m kind of with them. It’s like a ‘together’ kind
of struggle, so I dont feel like I’m worse than a lot of people. . . . I just feel like were all
together.” Equally salient was the reported sense of relief that nearly every one of these
individuals described as a result of participating in the present study and learning that
others experienced IP as well. One participants response summarized this sentiment:
It is very relieving to find out about the imposter phenomenon. I never questioned that my experience
was genuine, but if other people feel this very specific experience as well, that opens the possibility that
it is in my head.
In addition to comparison, IP was influenced in different ways by receiving
evaluations. Many participants spoke of instances in which in-person evalua-
tions of work or academic performance resulted in particularly strong imposter
feelings, even if the evaluation was generally positive. One participant relayed
an experience in which she was shocked to receive a glowing evaluation during
a quarterly evaluation at her sales position; she had been considering quitting
the job as the evaluation approached because she had been “certain” that her
performance would be negatively evaluated and that she would be demoted.
For others, positive evaluations represented an opportunity to receive external
validation, resulting in feeling competent.
A final external factor affecting IP was experience. Some participants felt that,
as they gained more professional experience, their imposter feelings became less
frequent and pervasive. This was particularly true when the experience allowed them
to feel prepared for future experiences. Conversely, more challenging tasks promoted
significant imposter feelings. Participants who felt that they lacked experience also
believed that gaining experience would help them feel competent, as was indicated
by a recent college graduate: “Right now I feel inadequate, but its probably just
because I dont really have too much experience.”
The Effects of IP
IP affected emerging adults both internally and externally. A few participants
believed that the effects of IP were solely internal, as was the case with one male
participant, who speculated that if one was “watching me work I dont think
you would have seen any difference in how I was working.” The majority of
participants, however, reported that their imposter beliefs affected both their
performance and affect.
Performance impact. Participants pointed to a range of performance reactions
related to IP. These reactions included both performance benefits and deficits.
The primary performance benefit was increased motivation to work hard and
feel competent. One participant, who reported that she first felt IP near the
end of her undergraduate degree program, recalled,
I realized that I was going to be graduating and I didnt really have anything to put on my
résumé other than school, so that was when I really started scrambling and finding intern-
ships and jobs and joining clubs, and stuff like that.
ADULTSPAN Journal October 2015 Vol. 14 No. 2 123
Other participants, however, reported that IP negatively affected their perfor-
mance. The most common way in which performance was inhibited was through
avoidance. Participants identified several types of avoidant behaviors in which
they engaged, seemingly as an effort to ignore their perceived incompetence. Such
avoidant behaviors ranged from small activities, such as procrastination or not
asking questions in class for fear of sounding unintelligent, to making major life
decisions based on assumptions of limited capability. Such was the case with a male
college graduate struggling to find a job, who said that the “professional world has
shunned me based upon my choice to go to a not so well-known university. . . . I
chose this university based on fear that I would be exposed at a major university.”
Various verbal and nonverbal nervous habits represented another type of perfor-
mance deficit. The most common nervous behavior pertained to verbal communi-
cation with colleagues, superiors, or prospective employers. Participants described
many instances of “stumbling over their words” and a few instances of feeling like
they were misrepresenting themselves while at job interviews, meetings, or classes.
A few participants also reported various nonverbal behaviors that they felt betrayed
their internal feeling of inadequacy, such as nervous tics or staring at their feet.
Affective impact. Participants also conveyed a sense that IP resulted in vari-
ous affective responses. The most common of these was the experience of fear,
worry, or anxiety. For some, anxiety was a general feeling in response to im-
poster experiences, but others reported specific fears that they would be fired,
be demoted, or fail an assignment or class. A 24-year-old male middle school
teacher explained, “I often consider myself unworthy of my job and worry it
is only a matter of time before they find someone more qualified to replace
me.” Some participants described a temporary sense of relief accompanying the
completion of IP-inducing tasks or evaluations, although their anxiety would
return when they began thinking about new tasks or future evaluations.
In addition to anxiety, many participants described how the discrediting aspects
of the imposter experience resulted in their inability to build upon achievements,
abilities, or external validation. One participant described a pattern of second-
guessing that would occur in response to compliments; this pattern would continue
until “it was as if no one had given me a compliment anyway. Like, the net effect
was missing.” Another participant attempted to articulate the disconnect between
logically recognizing her abilities and allowing them to help her feel competent:
I know [my strengths are] there, I just dont bring them in. You know, like if someone asked me
to say my strengths or whatever, I can write them down, but I just . . . the internalizing part is
where. . . . So like, theyre there, and I know theyre there, I just dont know theyre there (laughs).
A less common but particularly salient affective reaction for a few participants
was the feeling of guilt in response to accolades or achievements. Participants
reported guilt when receiving praise for achievements that they felt were un-
earned or when outperforming peers or colleagues. One participant, a female
graduate student, seemed to provide an example of this concept when asked
about the cause of her imposter feelings:
124 ADULTSPAN Journal October 2015 Vol. 14 No. 2
Its been . . . within the past . . . 4 or 5 years. . . . As I’ve advanced farther, and you know, seen
some friends that kind of stayed behind, you know, stuck in high school days or something
like that. And I feel like I’m advancing and theyre not.
DISCUSSION
The present study provided a model for understanding IP and its experience
in emerging adulthood. Sequential differences were found in specific imposter
experiences: (a) self-doubt was an anticipatory experience, (b) perceived fraudu-
lence was experienced in the midst of completing a task, and (c) discrediting was
a reflective experience. These themes add complexity to current knowledge and
provide confirmation of existing quantitative IP research, notably the demonstrated
link between IP and low self-esteem (Sonnak & Towell, 2001). The descriptions
of participant IP experiences also demonstrate the continued applicability of the
construct proposed more than 30 years ago (Clance & Imes, 1978).
Internal qualities, such as perfectionism and an inability to self-validate,
seemed to promote imposter feelings; so too did the external experiences
of comparison and evaluation. Gaining experience, however, contributed to
diminished imposter feelings, at least with regard to the task for which experi-
ence was gained. This finding contrasts that of the Royse-Roskowski (2010)
study, which found no relationship between IP and experience. Furthermore,
the findings suggest that evaluative periods promote imposter feelings. This
finding echoes that of a study conducted by Thompson, Foreman, and Mar-
tin (2000), which suggested that much of the anxiety caused by IP relates to
the possibility of being negatively evaluated. This anxiety might relate to the
aforementioned inability to self-validate. In tandem, the findings suggest that
needing external validation may actually interfere with evaluation periods, a
time in which potential exists to receive external validation.
IP affected the sample externally by contributing to both productive (i.e., increased
effort and motivation) and counterproductive (i.e., avoidant and nervous behaviors)
behavioral reactions. These themes support previous quantitative findings linking
IP to various performance benefits (Caselman et al., 2006) and deficits (Cowman
& Ferrari, 2002; Want & Kleitman, 2006). Caselman et al. (2006) argued that the
enhanced motivation that can result from IP might also perpetuate its experience. An
individual who compensates for feeling incompetent by overworking, for example,
could inadvertently validate a system by attributing his or her subsequent success
to the extra effort exerted and not to his or her internal abilities. Such a system
reinforces a message that “I am a fraud, and the only way to match the productivity
of my more capable peers is to work harder than them.”
Finally, the findings suggested various affective reactions to IP, including anxiety,
an inability to internalize success, and, at times, guilt. These reactions share inter-
esting similarities with Bowlbys (1969/1982) attachment theory, specifically with
an anxious attachment style. In theory, an anxious attachment style is associated
with negative beliefs regarding the self and positive beliefs regarding the usefulness
and abilities of others, resulting in feelings of inadequacy and maladaptive inter-
ADULTSPAN Journal October 2015 Vol. 14 No. 2 125
personal dependence. A study of female graduate students identified a relationship
between imposter feelings and anxious attachment (Gibson-Beverly & Schwartz,
2008). In the context of the present study, the consistency of the findings to an
anxious attachment pattern is noteworthy given attachment theorys contention
that insecure attachment strategies become activated in times of elevated distress
(Bowlby, 1969/1982). It is possible that the initial transition to work life may be
particularly distressing for emerging adults (Lane, in press-a). Further research is
needed to better understand the affective experience of this normative emerging
adult life transition.
An interesting aspect of these findings is the mechanism they elucidate by which
praise is received and processed. The findings suggest that emerging adults experienc-
ing IP are caught in a cycle in which they require external sources of validation (e.g.,
praise, comparisons to the performance of others) to feel competent, and yet, when they
receive such validation, they engage in discrediting behaviors that prevent them from
internalizing it. This cycle suggests that the benefits of external validation are temporary
and do little to promote long-term self-efficacy among emerging adults experiencing IP.
Also of interest was the consistent sentiment that participating in the study
and learning about IP was relieving for participants. By discovering that others
experienced imposter feelings, participants learned they were not alone in their
fears, and many began to consider whether or not their feelings were founded. This
finding suggests that normalizing IP could constitute an important aspect of its
treatment, which supports the recommendation of Clance and Imes (1978) that
group counseling represents an effective treatment approach.
One other interesting finding was the unexpected prevalence of imposter feel-
ings among participants. That nearly 80% of the participants identified with IP
is surprising given other prevalence estimates. Sonnak and Towell (2001), for
example, reported that 43% of their sample of university students met the cutoff
score requirements for IP. The conclusions that can be drawn from this finding are
limited, however, as the present study was not designed to examine the prevalence
of IP in emerging adulthood with any degree of rigor. Nevertheless, the finding
was noteworthy and suggests a future research direction.
Limitations
Although steps were taken to ensure credibility, dependability, and objectivity, this
study is not without its limitations. The sample was predominantly Caucasian and
female. The disproportionate number of female participants is noteworthy given
that many have argued that women are more susceptible to IP than men (Clance
& Imes, 1978; Gibson-Beverly & Schwartz, 2008). This assertion, however, has
been disputed by other studies that have reported no significant gender differences
(Fried-Buchalter, 1997; Royse-Roskowski, 2010). Nonetheless, a more representa-
tive sample would strengthen the findings.
Practical Applications
Despite these limitations, the findings provide potentially useful contributions for
counselors working with emerging adults. IP is an internal experience and is not a
126 ADULTSPAN Journal October 2015 Vol. 14 No. 2
common presenting issue (Gibson-Beverly & Schwartz, 2008); however, imposter
feelings may contribute to, interact with, or result from other emotional difficulties
(Clance & O’Toole, 1988). The present findings, then, are useful to counselors in that
they elucidate the IP experience as well as its antecedents and consequences. Thus,
counselors may be better equipped to recognize IP experiences in their clients and,
in turn, actively address them.
Additionally, the findings suggest two concepts of possible relevance to treating IP
for transitioning emerging adults. First, the aforementioned cycle related to validation
emphasizes the importance that emerging adults develop an ability to self-validate.
That is, it seemed common for the sample to have difficulties internalizing positive
beliefs about themselves and their work, and so they sought validation from others.
This validation, however, seemed to provide only temporary relief, perpetuating the
cycle of seeking additional validation. That some emerging adults transitioning into
professional settings would have difficulties self-validating is, perhaps, not surprising,
given that beginning work life often corresponds with decreased proximity to familial,
peer, and institutional support networks (Lane, 2013). Therefore, interventions should
be sought that encourage the development of self-validation skills. It is possible that ap-
proaches such as dialectical behavior therapy (Linehan, 1993) or mindfulness (Rogers
& Maytan, 2012) could represent ideal modalities given their emphasis on teaching
clients to develop self-awareness regarding emotional processes that perpetuate prob-
lematic behavioral reactions. Such modalities could teach emerging adult clients that
their desire to feel competent is healthy and appropriate, but the behaviors they choose
to satiate those desires (i.e., seeking external validation) are not providing them the
enduring relief they seek.
Second, a common sentiment among participants was that learning about IP
through the surveys and interviews was relieving. It is possible that normalizing
IP experiences can aid the treatment process for emerging adult clients. Clance
and Imes (1978) first articulated this idea, suggesting group therapy as an ef-
fective intervention for individuals with imposter feelings. The group context
promotes universality and vicarious learning (Lane, 2013). By discovering that
other emerging adults experience imposter feelings while they transition into
career settings, perhaps clients would be encouraged to consider a developmental
perspective regarding their own imposter feelings, in which such feelings are a
relatively common experience during this transition. Such a perspective would
likely help reduce the power of imposter narratives.
Implications for Future Research
This study examined IP in emerging adults transitioning into professional life. Its find-
ings suggest that further research in this area would be useful. Primarily, the findings
underscore the importance of adding to the presently sparse literature examining IP
in emerging adulthood. Much of the existing IP research was conducted during the
1980s, a time that predates many of the societal shifts that have influenced todays
18- to 25-year-olds. Moreover, future research should quantitatively test the grounded
model and examine the generalizability of the model with other populations. Ad-
ditional qualitative research seeking to understand how the experience of IP changes
ADULTSPAN Journal October 2015 Vol. 14 No. 2 127
over time would also be of use. Finally, given that 80% of the sample identified with
IP, quantitatively examining its prevalence among emerging adults seems warranted.
These studies would aid researchers and counselors in better understanding the degree
to which emerging adult life transitions stimulate IP.
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... This perception and social comparison may lead individuals to question their goals and to consider dropping out of their academic program (Canning et al., 2019). Following periods of transition, those with impostor phenomenon may dismiss their own talents, and experience the perception that they are lacking in intelligence if they are not the very best (Lane, 2015;Polach, 2004). When facing an achievement-related task, they may then subsequently experience significant levels of anxiety due to their fear of failure and self-doubt. ...
... Impostor phenomenon has also been associated with behavioural responses (e.g., Lane, 2015) that are not otherwise captured in the existing measurement scales. For example, there are significant patterns of self-handicapping behaviours associated with impostor phenomenon (Cowman & Ferrari, 2002;Ferrari & Thompson, 2006;Ross et al., 2001). ...
... This included increased impostor phenomenon during times of transition, namely for graduate students in their fourth year, who reported significantly greater impostor phenomenon compared to other graduate years. This heightened level of impostor phenomenon could be associated with the pressure of fourth (typically final) year graduate students as they navigate the upcoming transition to professional life (Lane, 2015), while also completing course and dissertation requirements. ...
Thesis
Despite growing attention surrounding impostor phenomenon (also known as “imposter syndrome”), recent reviews have suggested that current measures may be inadequate in capturing the complex and multifaceted nature of this construct (i.e., thoughts, feelings, and behaviours). The objective of my dissertation research program was to clarify the theoretical conceptualization of impostor phenomenon based on experiences in an achievement-oriented setting, and to develop a novel and psychometrically valid method of measuring this construct. I began by conducting an extensive review of the literature and developing an item pool for a novel impostor phenomenon assessment. I then conducted exploratory factor analyses (Study 1) and confirmatory factor analyses (Study 2) to assess the initial item pool and to determine the factor structure and initial psychometric properties (e.g., convergent and divergent validity) of the novel Impostor Phenomenon Assessment (IPA; Study 2 and 3). As an extension to Study 3, I also examined the longitudinal stability of impostor phenomenon and correlates with trait variables and psychological distress across the academic year (baseline and six follow-up timepoints). Results suggested excellent psychometric properties for the novel IPA. Longitudinal findings demonstrated that impostor phenomenon was relatively stable in individuals over time, with intercepts significantly varying as a function of gender and academic year. Model findings for impostor phenomenon showed that self-esteem, self-critical perfectionism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and rigid perfectionism were significant predictors. Additionally, cross-lagged panel analyses suggested partial support for a causal effect of impostor phenomenon on psychological distress across time. These findings offer preliminary evidence for the reliability and validity of the IPA as a novel measure of impostor phenomenon and are the first to examine the stability of impostor phenomenon in individuals over time.
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Mindfulness for the Next Generation is an easy-to-use online guide that details a four-session mindfulness-based program, called 'Koru,' aimed at helping young adults cope with anxiety, navigate the tasks they face, and achieve meaningful personal growth. The authors, who developed the Koru program, discuss the unique challenges this group faces, identify effective teaching techniques for working with them, and review the research supporting mindfulness for stress reduction in a scientifically rigorous yet reader-friendly way. This resource explains the specific model created by the authors and describes each session in a 'mini-manual' format.
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