“I don’t deserve to be here”

Two thirds of students at the Harvard Business School have experienced imposter syndrome. 70% of subjects in a separate study have felt it too.

Statistically, most people will endure the imposter experience.

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Presence by Amy Cuddy

I’m reading “Presence” by Amy Cuddy. Cuddy is a social scientist who champions “presence” as a vital element of personal and professional success. Cuddy defines presence as “the state of being attuned to and able to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values and potential”.

Cuddy wrote her book off the back of a globally well-received TED talk on the same topic. I seem to have missed this particular TED hit, so I’m no doubt one of the few people who bought the book before listening to the talk. After starting the book, and realising that it was a sequel to the TED talk, I did watch the talk. You can watch it for yourself…

Cuddy speaks and writes about the time she spent studying at a number of prestigious US Universities. During her student years, Cuddy was unable to shake the feeling that she “didn’t deserve” to be there. As Cuddy graduated and became an academic at those same Universities, she noticed students, particularly young females, expressing the same reserve – feeling that they didn’t deserve to be there. She realised that this fear was more common that she’d ever known.

In “Presence”, Cuddy dedicates a chapter to the theory of “imposterism”. She discusses clinical research by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes from the 1970s, which led to the publication of the first academic paper on the imposter phenomenon (IP). Clance and Imes defined IP as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness in which people fear having what they believe to be their true abilities (or lack thereof) exposed”.

Clance and Imes developed a scale to measure the extent to which a person did or did not feel this way. To inform this scale, participants were asked to provide a “true” or “false” response to a series of questions. The questions were these:

  1. I’m afraid people important to me may find out that I’m not as capable as they think I am.
  2. Sometimes I feel or believe that my success in my life or in my job has been the result of some kind of error.
  3. When I’ve succeeded at something and received recognition for my accomplishments, I have doubts that I can keep repeating that success.
  4. I often compare my ability to those around me and think they may be more intelligent than I am.
  5. If I receive a great deal of praise and recognition for something I’ve accomplished, I tend to discount the importance of what I’ve done.

Have you ever had these thoughts?

Statistically, it is likely that you have. That you have felt a degree of imposterism in your everyday life – at University, at work or in a social setting. The research shows that around 70% of us will.

I must say that I was surprised by these statistics. Though, as Cuddy explains, my surprise is unsurprising. The research indicates that one quality of imposterism is that people feel alone in the experience. Even when we learn that other people have similar fears, we don’t take it to heart. Instead we say “Fine, except your fear is unfounded, while I am truly a fraud.”

Cuddly quotes a successful businessman (aged 40) as saying: “I’ve spent the better part of my life convinced that I don’t belong, am lucky, or a fraud. Never, not once, did it ever occur to me that other people felt that way”.

Natalie Portman, Academy Award winner and Harvard graduate, said in her 2015 Harvard Class Day speech: “Today I feel much like I did when I came to Harvard Yard as a freshman in 1999. I felt like there had been some mistake, that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company, and that every time I opened my mouth I would have to prove that I wasn’t just a dumb actress”.

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Even Cary Grant wants to be Cary Grant

I think that there is a fine line between feeling humble and feeling undeserving. I think it is important to be grateful for the opportunities that come our way, and to fully exploit those opportunities by doing the best we can for the benefit of ourselves and others. But, we should not be blind to the path that led us to those opportunities, and we should acknowledge when our efforts or talents have paid off. If we assume that our personal and professional trajectories are the results of luck or mistake, then we risk “downgrading” our ambition in fear that our luck will run out or an error will be found and we will be found undeserving.

Cuddy remarks that imposterism steals our power and suffocates our presence. If even you don’t believe you should be here, how will you convince anybody else?

In writing “Presence”, Cuddy interviewed Clance, the interview taking place decades after the publication of Clance and Imes’ seminal work on IP. In this interview, Clance signalled one regret. She said that if she could do it all over again, she would call it “the imposter experience”, because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness. It’s something almost everyone experiences.

Thought leader(s): Amy Cuddy

Book(s): Cuddy, A (2016) “Presence: Bringing your boldest self to your biggest challenges”, Orion. 

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3 thoughts on ““I don’t deserve to be here”

    • Good point. Well the book is about presence, which is like being aware of yourself and what is influencing you, which is the first step to controlling and managing impulse and influence – like imposterism. She says that if we know it’s a thing, and we know it affects almost everyone, when we feel it coming we can identify it for what it is, and not let it overwhelm us. Or we can talk about it. A problem shared (even with ourselves) is a problem halved, I think?

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