Do You Feel Like an Imposter?
Research shows how to face new challenges with hope.
Posted Mar 12, 2020
Years ago, as a new assistant professor, I went to the Santa Clara University faculty club for lunch. But when I saw all those distinguished-looking professors in their tweed sports coats, I was intimidated. So I turned around, walked out the door, and went to have lunch at the student union. I had earned my UCLA Ph.D. and gotten a tenure-track job but my self-concept lagged behind, still in grad school, still stuck in the past.
Psychologists call this the “impostor syndrome,” which makes us feel we don’t deserve our success, that we’re a fraud, that one day we’ll be found out (Clance, & Imes, 1978). Surprisingly, it affects many high-achieving men and women when they approach and achieve new goals. With each new accomplishment, each new chapter, there’s a learning curve, a climb up to the next level, confronting self-doubts and learning valuable lessons along the way.
For years, becoming a college professor was a goal I had dreamed of and worked for, a goal that seemed far off in the distant future. It took time for my self-concept to catch up to my new reality, for the inner critic to calm down long enough for me to be fully present in this new chapter of my life.
We may look successful on the outside, but when entering new chapters of our lives, the inner critic can come down hard on us, telling us that we’re “not good enough,” that we “don’t fit.” According to psychologist Paul Gilbert, this constant self-criticism actually makes us feel that we’re being attacked, triggering the fight-or-flight reaction (Gilbert, 2009). This stress reaction can sabotage us, shutting down our capacity for clear and creative thinking just when we need it most.
What we need at such times is hope. Hope theory, developed by Rick Snyder at the University of Kansas (1994), has three factors: goals, agency, and pathways. Goals give us something to reach for, inspiring us to move forward in life. To achieve our goals, we need agency, the confidence or belief that we can achieve our goals, and pathways, strategic steps to reach these goals.
In our research, “Can Hope Be Changed in 90 Minutes,” clinical psychologist Dave Feldman and I used a simple intervention to help people progressively build their hope. We first tested groups of college students for hope, then showed them how to increase their agency and pathways with a brief hope intervention, retested them, and checked back three months later for a follow-up. We found that learning how to build hope significantly increased their confidence, effectiveness, and goal achievement.
You, too, can try this simple hope intervention. First take out a piece of paper and at the top:
1. Write down a goal you’d like to achieve in the next six months and projected date of achievement. If you’re entering a new season of your life, your goal might be to adjust to this new level with joy and confidence.
2. Begin building your agency. Some ways to do this are to visualize your goal and feel the excitement of achieving it. Or recall a past success, a challenge you overcame and the skills you used, then tell yourself, “I succeeded then and I can do this now.” You can also meet with positive friends to share your goals, encourage each other, and celebrate each other’s progress.
3. Chart your path.
- On your piece of paper, beneath where you wrote your goal, write down three steps across the page that you can take to reach your goal. If there are more than three steps, just right down three of them.
- Next, for each step, think of one obstacle that might come up when you take this step and write the obstacle.
- For each obstacle, think of one alternate step you can take and write an alternate step beneath each obstacle.
- You should now have your goal written across the page with the expected date of completion. Beneath your goal, you’ll have three columns, each with a step, an obstacle, and an alternative step. You will now have a “map” to your goal.
My Goal______________________________by ______________(date)
Step 1 Step 2 Step 3
Obstacle Obstacle Obstacle
Alternate Step Alternate Step Alternate Step
4. The next part of the process is to close your eyes and visualize yourself taking each step. See and feel yourself doing this as vividly as possible. Imagine yourself as you confront each obstacle, take each alternative step and go on to achieve your goal. Then smile as you open your eyes.
Now you can begin using your map as you take the first step toward your goal, moving forward in life with greater hope and positive momentum.
This post is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.
Clance, P. R. & Imes, S. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice, 15 (3), 1-8.
Feldman, D. B. and Dreher, D. E. (2012). Can hope be changed in 90 minutes? Testing the efficacy of a single-session goal-pursuit intervention for college students. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13, 745-759.
Gilbert, P. (2009). The compassionate mind. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Snyder, C. R. (1994). The psychology of hope. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.