Imposter Phenomenon — What is it and what can we do about it? With Dr. Amy Ahlfeld

Imposter Syndrome flyerDo you feel like you are unsuccessful despite your accomplishments? Do you feel you “got lucky” when receiving an award or getting a promotion? If you answered yes to these questions or others found in this survey, you likely experience imposter phenomenon. Imposter phenomenon, or IP, is not a psychological disorder but it is a very common experience across a broad spectrum of adults. We wanted to learn strategies to overcome IP, so we invited clinical psychologist Dr. Amy Ahlfeld to speak with us for our August 2020 event


One definition of imposter phenomenon (IP): “Individuals who are high achievers who believe themselves to be less intelligent and less competent than others perceive them to be.” Clance and Imes, 1978


IP can manifest itself differently at personal and professional levels. We might think compliments are lies, or that our successes are undeserved. Professionally, we might overreact to negative feedback or assign a “false positive” label to positive feedback. These symptoms can hinder us from applying for promotions or fellowships; we might turn down opportunities because we feel if we go for them we may be finally “found out” or discovered as imposters.  

While conducting her dissertation research on IP in high-achieving women of color, Dr. Ahlfeld found several themes prompting the development of IP. For example, take the first theme she found, “Family Matters.” Dr. Ahlfeld’s participants described their families’ high expectations of their performance. Personality also matters: sufferers of IP tend to internalize high expectations and have a lack of self-confidence despite their demonstrated success.

Although her subject population was diverse, all of the women shared the common experiences of feeling like a phony, downplaying their achievements and mentioned debilitating emotions.

So how can we overcome IP? It was previously advised to just “wait it out” and gain maturity and experience. Dr. Ahlfeld shared some more tangible tips in the “4 R’s” approach:

  1. Relationship – reach out for assistance
  2. Resiliency – summoning resilience
  3. Resourcefulness – embracing the need to learn and grow
  4. Relevance – find work that aligns with a higher purpose

The first three R’s — relationship, resiliency, resourcefulness — are the equipment needed to overcome IP. It’s important to build supportive relationships and find mentors that can model what success looks like to you. Summoning resilience may be the most important and most difficult tool to equip, but Dr. Ahlfeld shared some useful resources found below. The last R, relevance, refers to choosing work that is relevant to society as a whole or aligns with a higher purpose. This is true for me: knowing that my work can potentially impact other research fields alleviates some of the IP symptoms I feel.


“I think the most important thing is to come to the realization that what you think of yourself is the most important because that is the only way you can be true to your values. And to have an understanding of what you do value in life... but it takes a lot of strength to come to terms of discerning your own drummer and then following that drummer and staying true to that and recognizing that there are going to be storms, and maybe you will get off your path sometimes but then you have to stop and listen for your drummer again and get back into that rhythm. And when you’re in that mode, you can do everything that you need to do. And you have peace.” interviewee from Dr. Ahlfeld’s thesis


Highlights from the Q&A

How do you build resiliency?

Resiliency needs to be built up like a muscle. Think about when we fall and scrape a knee. We get back up. When we fail, we get back up. We can’t avoid failure forever, so embrace it, learn from it and get back up. This process builds resilience. Without failing sometimes we will always be afraid of failure. You can become more resilient with small steps, but you have to leave your comfort zone in order to do so.

“By avoiding failure, we avoid success.” Dr. Ahlfeld


Additional resources


Thank you to Dr. Amy Ahlfeld for her time and expertise.

Sydney Wyatt is a PhD student at the University of California in Davis.  

Lindsey Mooney is a psychology graduate student at UC Davis in the Memory and Development Lab at the Center for Mind and Brain.

For more content from the UC Davis science communication group "Science Says", follow us on Twitter @SciSays.

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