The dogs woke me early today and for once I was grateful. I was having a version of a recurring dream. The one where I’m not prepared. This dream comes in various forms. This time I had forgotten I was in school and hadn’t been going to class and now it was the end of the semester and my research papers were not started and I was trying to fake my way through final exams. The worst part was I really respected my professors (all women in this dream) and I felt horrible letting them down. Stressful to say the least. And interesting. Because in my waking life, I am pretty well-prepared – at least in my professional life. I’m not the type to forget I have something due. So why the recurring dream?

In my research for my Masters in Applied Positive Psychology capstone, I came across something called “The Imposter Phenomenon.” It was originally identified back in the 70’s by two researchers, Clance and Imes. They were interviewing high achieving women for a different project but were surprised at some common themes that occurred. Many of these women felt:

  • They were intellectual frauds
  • Their success was due to luck, hard work or charm rather than ability
  • That failure was just around the corner
  • Afraid of being judged
  • Unable to enjoy their achievements
  • Afraid others would discover their incompetence.

These fears lead to a self-perpetuating Imposter Cycle. A woman faces an exam, project, or task. She experiences doubt or fear. She questions whether or not she will succeed this time. She may experience psychosomatic symptoms, anxiety dreams, etc. She works hard, overprepares, or proscratinates, and then prepares in a frenzied manner. She succeeds and receives positive feedback. The whole cycle is reinforced.

On the outside, ”Imposters” are successful. They have high GPA’s and succeed at work. But inside, they are their own worst critics and have a low sense of control over important outcomes.

Ok, Ok, sometimes I feel like an imposter. What do I do about it?

I often talk about the 3 C’s when I’m speaking to women: competence, confidence and courage. I know a lot of very successful women, whom I admire. None of them would consider not being prepared or winging it in their professional endeavors. They are competent. Sometimes, we need to look up from our work and look around in order to realize how competent we really are. This competence should give us confidence. If it doesn’t, we probably have a little more work to do on self-acceptance (a topic for a different blog). In the meantime — fake it.

This is where the third C comes in – courage. It’s well-documented that women don’t try for positions that they’re qualified for in the same numbers that men do. Women have received so many messages that undermine their confidence that it is not surprising. Two ways to counteract this phenomenon are (1) take incremental steps rather than leaps. Put your name in for a project that has high visibility, some risk, but high rewards. (2) Build yourself a “posse” that can give you some confidence when yours is low. People who believe in your abilities, people who want to see you succeed, and ideally that work with you and can support you in those critical moments. You return the favor for them.

I know why I had the dream. I’m preparing a program on Unconscious Bias that I’m going to be delivering later this fall in conjunction with ICAN. I want it to be awesome and I so respect my audience (my professors in the dream) that I will probably over-prepare and worry. Consciously, I know I’m competent and that the program will be great. Now if I could just convince my dreaming self.