Do You Explain Your Success Away?

How Imposter Syndrome prevents you from internalizing your success

Posted Feb 29, 2012

When I was a young attorney, I attended a real estate closing with a female real estate partner in my office. She had been practicing for years, had successfully navigated the pressure cooker of working in a large law firm, was on several prestigious boards, and had a cache of clients willing to pay her top dollar for her advice. She was the living version of what I thought a successful woman attorney was supposed to be like. While we were in the car traveling to the closing, we talked about careers in the legal profession and balancing it all. Being a newbie, I was anxious to soak up any nuggets of wisdom she might pass along. Instead, she said, "Really, anybody can do what I've done. I was just in the right place at the right time and was lucky enough to have found a good mentor." I remember the panic I felt because what she was telling me was that her success was not of her own doing; and therefore, I was out of luck in trying to replicate it.

When people attribute the causes of their success to luck, the faulty judgment of their boss or company decision makers, or random good timing, they are experiencing the "Imposter Syndrome" or the "Imposter Phenomenon" which prevents them from internalizing their accomplishments. Where the outside world sees nothing but talent, imposters focus on nothing but failure.

While Imposter Syndrome is something many view as affecting mainly women, men are not exempt. From a behavioral standpoint, women who feel like imposters might struggle to speak up, not asking for better projects, raises, or promotions, hoping instead to be picked or chosen for those rewards based solely on the quality of their work. On the other end of the spectrum, some women act aggressively and overly superior so as to cover up their fear of being found out (Reynolds, 2011). According to Langford and Clance, "male imposters may tend to compensate by pushing themselves in a frenetic manner in order to prove their competency." However, men tend to be less likely to let Imposter Syndrome undermine their careers.

A psychological driver of Imposter Syndrome is what Dr. Martin Seligman calls a pessimistic explanatory style. (3) When a woman with a pessimistic explanatory style has success, she thinks the causes of that success are temporary, based on external factors (like luck, timing, or other people), and unlikely to have a ripple effect (that is, positively impact other areas of her life or work). Conversely, a woman with an optimistic explanatory style attributes her success to her own doing ("I worked really hard, and it's paying off"), knows she can capitalize on that success to bring about more success at work and potentially other areas of her life, and can keep the momentum going so that the cause of the success isn't temporary.

What Does This Mean for You?

As you go through your day, pay attention to your thought process and keep track of how you explain the causes of your success. Start focusing on how you contributed to your success and set goals to capitalize on wins.

In addition, say yes to things that scare you. If public speaking is not your thing, but it's part of your job or an additional skill you need to get to the next level, then do more public speaking. It will probably suck at first, but the more you do it, the more ammo you will have to shoot down irrational fears.

Finally, savor each and every success you have. High-achieving women tend to go straight to the next project, and imposters often wonder whether additional successes are lurking around the corner.

A little bit of nagging doubt can push you to drive harder, but whatever you do, don't forget about what you've already accomplished.
Paula Davis-Laack is a lawyer turned positive psychology practitioner, professional coach, and work/life expert specializing in stress, work, and lifestyle issues for high-achieving women. She is also an advocate for empowering women and girls in life and in business. Connect with Paula via:

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Langford, J. & Clance, P.R. (1993). The imposter phenomenon: Recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment. Psychotherapy, 30(3), 495-501.

Reynolds, M. (2010). Wander woman: How high-achieving women find contentment and direction. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2006). Learned optimism. New York: Vintage Books.

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