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Dealing with Depression: The Impostor Phenomenon

Some years ago, I undertook some training to supervise PhDs, and this was the first opportunity that I felt able to talk about the harrowing experience that was the PhD viva because they had all been through it. “Unpleasant” doesn’t come close to describing the day, but “like having your soul dragged out and thrown into the molten core of the nearest volcano” is a little bit of an exaggeration. But I was “pleased” to discover that my experience was not unique and others had found it equally horrific. Then one of the group said that she didn’t feel she deserved her PhD. She had done all the work, honestly, but had this nagging doubt at the back of her mind that someone would discover that she was an almighty fraud and take her degree away from her.

Thank God, I thought. Because I’d had those thoughts from the day my PhD was awarded. The facilitator of our group said that this was a common occurrence, and there was even a name for it. It was called “The Impostor Phenomenon”.

I was at one of the darkest points of my life just before my degree was awarded. It’s ironic, because I’d finally received confirmation that all the hard work had paid off. But I explained to my parents, in one of the more salient moments, that my mood was likely to plummet to even lower than it was at that point. First, I would think that I didn’t deserve the degree – that I had cheated in some way to achieve it, or that someone would notice that I was an enormous fraud – and second, if they gave a PhD to me, then my rationale would be that they probably just gave these degree to anyone. So, I summed up my years of research that either I didn’t deserve the degree or it wasn’t of any value. (The irony of the horrific viva was that, I really had to defend my thesis, I REALLY worked for it – my examiners didn’t just give it away).

After I had heard of the “Impostor Phenomenon”, I bought a book by Dr Pauline Rose Clance, who identified the condition. Naturally it then sat on my shelf for a few years, but I finally got round to reading it. The subtitle is “When success makes you feel like a fake”. As I read through, I highlighted some characteristics that I recognised in myself. At the end of this blog, I’ve included the Impostor Traits that Clance has listed at the beginning of her book.

One of the simplest ways of describing the Impostor Phenomenon is by looking at the way many of us aren’t very good at taking compliments and it seems immodest to “boast” about achievements. One of Dr Clance’s clients describes how she “downplays the importance of her position [where she works, and] never lets [her family] know about the awards and excellent evaluations she has received.” I’m speaking for myself, but when I receive an evaluation, I only see the negative points, not the positives. When I went for a promotion and didn’t get it (despite being told I had a really strong application) that voice who sits on my shoulder told me that I was foolish to apply in the first place.

On the other hand, in relation to my recent appointment as Programme Leader for English, Clance described a client who dismissed her achievements and said, “I worked my head off – they had no choice but to give it to me.” I recognise that attitude, but also the little voice tells me that no one else wanted the job, that’s the only reason I got it.

Some “impostors” fear success because they don’t feel that they are entitled to it. So, having achieved something that they feel they don’t deserve, they try to sabotage those achievements, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously. A lack of confidence in one’s abilities may be as innocuous as second guessing yourself and so leaving an email in the drafts folder. Another client that Clance cites had taken preparation to a fine art “where he tries to delve into every possible ramification of a decision … and he usually finishes his work … at the last possible minute.” And so, feels unsatisfied with the result. Again, that’s something I recognise – planning to achieve things on a day-by-day basis, but working on several projects at once, so none of them seem to be going anywhere. And if everything seems to be going according to plan, then throw another deadline in to make sure that the pressure is REALLY on.

As well as a feeling that someone doesn’t deserve their achievements, there are those who choose not to reach high for fear of failing. “I’m not good enough,” they say, “therefore I won’t try.” As I write this I am reminded of an adage from my past: “It’s better to try and fail, rather than not try at all.” I am trying to remember what context this came from, because it’s very true, but then failure to achieve brings with it a whirlwind of negativity and depression and a self-fulfilling prophecy “I failed this time. Next time will be the same.”

I don’t agree with all Clance’s conclusions. There was a point where the focus of these negative thoughts come from some childhood thoughts, for example, a denigrating comment from a parent or teacher which has become a subconscious mantra. She also suggests that such thoughts could come when a sibling is repeatedly praised, and in particular, that you feel you mustn’t OUT DO your sibling; or that there is an unconscious desire to impress the father figure. These seem to be a transference of blame for an attitude – however irrational – which can be processed in a number of contexts such as depression or inexperience. However, she argues that with gentle mindfulness, it’s possible to overcome this feeling – by taking a moment to acknowledge your success. It’s a difficult undertaking, but it’s possible.

It’s very hard to think about savouring success and enjoying your intellectual ability when there’s a voice that is constantly telling you that you’re rubbish. But, just take a moment: you got your degree because your tutors collectively agreed that you had produced work to a certain level and that was the classification for your degree. You got your job because your employer (and their colleagues) saw something in you that impressed them. But the chances are that one of the principal traits of someone coping with the Impostor Phenomenon is that they have impossibly high standards (perhaps to OCD levels) which are impossible to maintain, and Clance asks some interesting, and important questions: are those high standards really needed? What would happen if I do not do this perfectly?

And would it really be so bad if we listened to someone who said, “You did ok today”?

Impostor Traits 1. I usually succeed on tests I fear I’ll fail

2. I appear to be more competent than I really am 3. I avoid evaluations whenever I can 4. I’m afraid I can’t live up to other people’s high expectations 5. I sometimes think I’ve succeeded because of good timing, connections, hard work – or just plain luck 6. I’m afraid people important to me will find out I’m not as capable as they think I am 7. I send to remember the times when I’ve failed more than the times I’ve succeeded 8. I rarely do a project as well as I’d like to do it.

Pauline Rose Clance, The Impostor Phenomenon: When Success Makes You Feel Like a Fake. London: Bantam Books, 1986.

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