Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Feeling Like an Imposter

 

Altrows, K.J.

 

Dennis Roark had dreamt of being a doctor since the age of nine, when he reconstructed an animal skeleton from bones his family found on their summer vacation. Fourteen years later, in 1982, Roark’s parents waved goodbye to him as he set foot on a train bound to Chicago, where Roark said he was attending Rush University Medical College. By the time Roark began his residency as a surgeon at an Ohio hospital in 1991, his resumé and transcripts were impressive by most standards. It showed him as having bachelor of science degrees in chemistry and biology at Wayne State University (WSU); a medical degree at Rush Medical College; a doctorate and postdoctorate at WSU, clinical assistantships in Livonia and Detroit, Michigan; and numerous awards, scholarships, and memberships in honour societies. By the mid 1990s, Roark had observed and assisted in hundreds of surgeries in the United States and Canada, including amputations, lung transplants, and heart bypasses. He had a new wife and an infant daughter, and his family was proud of his success.

 

In 1997, Roark applied for a position as a thoracic surgeon in a Michigan practice. Linda Nash, one of the members in the practice, did a routine check on his credentials. Noticing that there was no sign of Roark on the computer roster of medical school graduates, Nash decided to call the registrar of Rush Medical College. Roark had never attended the College, said the registrar, and the diploma that she faxed to him was a fake.

 

Thus began months of intensive investigation by the Michigan Attorney General’s office and the unraveling of a web of deceit that had duped four different hospitals, countless patients, and even Roark’s own family. What the investigators found was that Roark had dropped out of Wayne State University, without ever earning a degree. The transcripts that he had produced were forgeries, as were the transcripts from Rush Medical College. While the medical diploma from the College was real, it belonged to a former graduate of the program. Roark’s test scores from the Federation of State Medical Boards were real too, but they belonged to a graduate of the University of Damascus, Syria. And as for his claims to having completed postdoctoral research and clinical assistantships prior to the early 1990s, they proved to be total fabrications. Five months after the start of the investigation, Roark was arrested and charged with two counts of felony fraud. His days as a surgeon were over (Migoya & Swickard, 1998).

 

“Being” and “Feeling Like” an Imposter

Roark’s case may leave some of us with feelings of outrage, disbelief, and fear. We may ask: How could Roark have carried on for so long as a surgeon without being caught? If the medical authorities, in whom we place our trust, could not distinguish Roark from a legitimate doctor, how safe are we when we seek medical care? The fact that Roark fooled even his own family may cause some of us to wonder if we too could be duped by those closest to us. But we may also find ourselves with a sense of fascination and curiosity about Roark himself. What was it like for him to live his life of deception? How did he actually experience his world of impostering? He obviously knew that he was presenting himself in a manner that was fraudulent and deceptive, as he had taken great care to falsify his credentials and hide who he truly was.

 

So, did Roark feel like an imposter? Or did he rationalize his actions in such a way that he could feel quite comfortable in his assumed roles? Did he get so accustomed to his false identity that he felt like most of us? After all, many of us may have some secrets that, if revealed, would throw a different light on who we really are. Or we may have experienced discomfort and uncertainty in challenging situations because we did not feel entirely confident that we could meet people’s expectations. And yet, these experiences of secrecy, uncertainty, or incompetence do not necessarily make us feel fraudulent. Fraud is a legal term for describing Roark’s act of impostering.

 

From the standpoint of Canadian criminal law, a fraud is someone who by deceit, falsehood, or other fraudulent means defrauds the public or another person of property, money, or a valuable security (Canadian Criminal Code, Section 380(1)). The act of fraud is a false representation of fact, made with a knowledge of its falsehood, or recklessly, without belief in its truth, with the intention that it should be acted upon by the complaining party and actually inducing him to act upon it? (Dukelow & Nuse, 1995).

 

The incidence of criminal imposters or fraud artists may actually be quite low. Most people are probably relatively honest about their credentials, work histories, and family backgrounds. These aspects of our identities can be verified by others, for example, through the Bureau of Vital Statistics or a past employer. The irony is that although most people rarely are imposters in a criminal sense, some of us may, at times, feel like one, whereas a real or convicted imposter may or may not feel like an imposter at all.

 

Of course, the phrase “feeling like an imposter” does not really apply to an imposter. To say that a person feels like an imposter usually means that he or she is not an imposter (except, perhaps, where that person has extreme delusions, like a person who believes that he is Elvis). So, are being something and feeling like something different experiences? Can we say that we feel like something that in fact we already know ourselves to be? In some situations that may be the case. For example, a mother may say, When my child hugged me I really felt like a mother. But what this mother is expressing is not so much a new feeling, as much as a more intense or meaningful experience of her motherly relation to her child. If the mother were to ask, Why do I feel like a mother? then this would indeed be a strange question. We would say, But you are a mother!?

 

Similarly, if Roark were to say, I feel like an imposter, we would say, But you are an imposter!?It is entirely possible that Roark may not have felt like an imposter. Although we do not have his own side of the story, we might imagine that Roark identified fully with being a surgeon, so that for all intents and purposes, he could say: I am a surgeon. For Roark, being a surgeon may have been more a matter of knowledge, competencies, attitudes, and behaviors than of legal credentials. He may have seen a medical license as unimportant or incidental to what it means to be a surgeon. In contrast to Roark, a newly graduated medical student may feel like an imposter at times, even though he or she is properly licensed and has all the professional qualifications to practice as a physician. What, then, is involved in the experience of feeling like an imposter?

Amy, a second year law student, recalls a time when she first entered law school:

At the beginning of my first year, I felt overwhelmed at getting in. It seemed quite amazing; especially since the faculty kept telling us how there had been over 300 applications, and only 30 people were admitted. A group of us were talking about that after class one day and about our different backgrounds and experiences. I kept looking at all these people with all their qualifications, who had done all these wonderful things. And then there’s me. I didn’t feel worthy to be there, and I was afraid that they would figure out that I wasn’t like the others. (Amy)

Feeling like an imposter seems to be an experience of uncertainty and insecurity about one’s qualifications. It is as if we are trying to pass off as someone with qualities or traits that we do not possess. In some settings we may feel like we are trying to pass off as an insider while being an outsider to a special group of people who all have the qualifications and characteristics that we do not have. We feel separate and out of place, different from the others. Fran works as a consultant at a top investment firm.

Unlike most of my colleagues who seem excited about being here, my heart isn’t into the work I am doing. I stay with the company because I keep hoping that things will change for the better. Also, the managers keep giving me new responsibilities because they know I can do the job, and I don’t want to disappoint them. However, the longer I stay, the more I am plagued with nagging self-doubt and the fear that my colleagues will discover that I really am not one of them. I dare not tell anyone at work how I feel, and as a result, I feel very alone. (Fran)

Amy’s sense of feeling different is grounded in doubts about her academic qualifications, and Fran feels that she does not belong in the company because she is not excited enough about her work. Both experience a sense of being separate from the others in the group. But do Amy and Fran both experience the sense of feeling like an imposter? We can feel like we do not belong without feeling like an imposter. For example, a child who has recently immigrated to Canada and who does not speak English may feel out of place in a classroom where only English is being spoken. However, although the child would be likely to feel separate and different from the other children, he or she would be probably not feel like an imposter.

 

In various social settings, people experience expectations and beliefs about what someone in their position is supposed to think, feel, or do. Is the experience of feeling like an imposter associated with the feeling that we are not who we should be and that we are somehow falling short of the standards and expectations for someone in our position? Fran believes that she is not as passionate about her work as her fellow workers. Amy thinks that her qualifications do not measure up. In this sense both may feel that they are impostering someone with qualities or qualifications that they do not have. But what separates them from real imposters is that they actually are who they may think or feel they are not. It is not that Amy and Fran fail to measure up to the persons they are supposed to be, but they fail to see who they truly are. Both Fran and Amy qualify for the positions that they occupy, and they are both competent at what they do. So is feeling like an imposter just a matter of self-perception of inferiority?

 

Amy cannot see that the other students are no more qualified or competent than she is; Fran assumes that no one else in her firm has mixed feelings about her or his work. People who feel like imposters seem to believe that everyone else fits the ideal except them. There seems to be a blindness to the fact that no one is perfect and that most people do not expect us to be perfect either (even though we might expect perfection from ourselves).

 

Feeling like an imposter may involve thoughts of being incompetent, but it is not the same as feeling incompetent. When we feel incompetent, we usually have negative judgments or beliefs about ourselves, such as I’m not good enough, or “I’m not as smart as everyone else.” We may also be afraid of suffering negative consequences, such as being fired from our job or losing an important relationship, as a result of inadequate performance or mistakes. Still, one can experience all of these thoughts and feelings without feeling like an imposter or a fraud. For example, a father who neglects his children may say, I’m “a poor father.” But he would still say that he is a father and would be unlikely to feel like a fraud.

 

 

Pretending and Feeling like a Hypocrite

I work as an executive assistant in a large advertising agency in Toronto. One of the accounts that I am working on is a fast-food restaurant chain. In my personal life, I have just been reading about the harm being done to the planet through the production of beef. My conscience bothers me about working on the account, because I don’t believe in eating meat or supporting the fast-food industry. The other day, the advertising team met for the screening of a television commercial we are putting together for the restaurant chain. Everyone was smiling and clapping and congratulating each other on a job well done. I smiled and clapped too and put on a good face. All the while, I felt guilty about pretending to be enthusiastic about what we are doing. (Justine)

I was pretending that I was a law student. I was afraid of showing that I did not feel up to it, that I really did not think that I had what it takes to excel in law school. (Amy)

Many of us, at one point or another, have pretended to feel what we do not actually feel. We feign excitement over receiving a gift that we know we will throw away or donate to goodwill the first chance we get, or we fake interest in a story that a stranger shares with us on a flight or bus ride. Obviously, one can pretend without feeling like an imposter.

 

Every culture has norms and practices that accept or encourage some degree of pretense. For example, in some cultures public displays of anger are frowned upon, and angry feelings are covered up with a smile. It seems that when pretense is socially sanctioned or expected, there is no cause to feel like imposters. Even when our pretense is not met with approval, as long as it is out in the open that we are pretending, we do not feel like a fraud. For example, the envious colleague who pretends to be glad about our promotion and who knows that we know that she or he is faking it would not feel like a fraud. Although this person is pretending, we are not deceived.

 

It is somewhat different with hypocrisy. The term hypocrisy derives from the Greek word hypokrisis for acting a part on stage (Purcell, 2001). Being hypocritical and pretending both involve putting on an act, and hypocrisy usually entails some degree of pretense. Hypocrites pretend or claim to have beliefs, virtues, and moral standards that they do not really have. Like the political leader who presents himself as the ideal family man and the defender of family values, but who secretly has a mistress on the side, hypocrites represent themselves as one thing but do another. A person who pretends can also be a hypocrite but is not necessarily so. We are not being hypocritical when we pretend to like the sweater our mother gave us for our birthday; most of the time, we are simply being kind. Amy and Justine were both pretending to feel what they did not feel. But are they also hypocrites? And does being a hypocrite make someone feel like an imposter?

 

Although Amy’s show of confidence is inconsistent with her true feelings of insecurity, she is not pretending to have moral standards or values that she does not really have. It would be another matter, however, if she were to declare, It’s wrong to pretend to feel something that you do not feel, and I would never do such a thing, when, in fact, her actions proved otherwise. When we pretend, we are not necessarily hypocrites as long as we do not attempt to misrepresent ourselves as people who never pretend.

 

Now what about Justine? Some of us might say that she is being hypocritical. She claims that she is opposed to the fast-food industry, yet she supports it through her work. Her actions seem to be in direct contradiction to her stated beliefs. However, with hypocrites, their stated beliefs usually meet a higher standard than their true beliefs; and, as with the adulterous politician, hypocrites are typically less virtuous than they would have others believe. In contrast, when people’s words and actions do not fit with their high moral standards, it might be more accurate to say that they are behaving out of character, or are not being true to themselves, than to say that they are being hypocritical. For example, a boy who believes it is wrong to steal or destroy someone else’s property but who engages in theft and vandalism in order to fit in with his friends at school probably would not be called a hypocrite, although we might say that he is confused or misguided. We could also say that he is experiencing a conflict between some of his morals on one hand and his desire to belong on the other hand. In Justine’s case, we may sense that she truly does care about the welfare of the planet. It is not that she secretly believes in the fast-food industry but is pretending otherwise. Rather, her actions conflict with her true values and beliefs, and her conscience bothers her as a result. If Justine were a hypocrite, she would not really believe what she says she believes, and she would probably present herself as being more virtuous than she really is.

 

Of course, Justine may still feel like a hypocrite, even if she is not one. But does she feel like an imposter? And is a hypocrite an imposter? Both involve pretense and both attempt to deceive us into believing they are someone they are not. In most cases, both also meet with social disapproval. Yet a person can be a hypocrite without being an imposter. The adulterous political leader, though a hypocrite, is still a political leader. He is not pretending to be a political leader. Conversely, a person can be an imposter without being a hypocrite. Roark feigned his professional credentials, but we do not really know if he misrepresented his true beliefs about himself and the world. It is possible that his words and actions were consistent with his beliefs and values.

 

Justine feels like an imposter because she believes that she is being hypocritical and that she should not be hypocritical. She also thinks that being hypocritical means that she does not really belong in her position. However, Justine’s place in the agency is legitimate. Although some people might respect her less if they believed that she was a hypocrite, probably no one would call her an imposter. A real imposter pretends to be someone who he or she is not and, like Roark, attempts to deceive others into granting a privilege or position that would not have been granted had the true facts of the imposter’s background been known.

 

If Justine is neither an imposter nor a hypocrite, why does she feel guilty? There is an old saying that if you feel guilty, it must mean you have done something wrong. However, to feel like an imposter suggests that we have a moral sensitivity or conscience. We try to be as genuine and sincere as possible in our interactions with other people, and our conscience may bother us we when we believe that we are not living up to our standards. Yet by most people’s standards, we are not really violating a moral code; or if we are, our transgressions are not considered serious. No one is consistently perfect or perfectly consistent. For example, a person may work as an activist for an environmental group and yet drive a car or neglect to re-use plastic bags at the grocery store. Does that mean that he or she is a hypocrite or at least not an environmentalist? It would be more accurate to say that he or she is not a perfect or consistent environmentalist. As much as the environmentalist may feel pangs of conscience every time he or she drives a car, it does not mean that he or she is being immoral. Real imposters, on the other hand, fail by most moral standards.

 

 

Fear of Being Found Out

Stephen is a minister for a religious group in the United States. He describes his experience of leading the services for his congregation:

I’m up at the front, leading the congregation through the chants and prayers. As I look around the room, I see all these people with their eyes on me. The words of the prayer are rolling out of my mouth automatically, but I’m just kind of saying them, without imbuing them with my heart and soul. Though everyone is looking at me, I can’t look them in the eye. I’m worried that someone’s going to see that I’m not really qualified to be here, that I’m an emperor with no clothes. (Stephen)

When we feel like an imposter, we are acutely aware of how others may see us, although we are not really sure how they do. Our sense of self is split between the I who experiences the world through our own eyes and the me whom we see through the eyes of others. We experience a sense of nakedness or transparency in the eyes of a real or imaginary audience. As we squirm under the other’s gaze, we fear being found out for who we “really” are behind our façade. We are afraid that if others were to know the truth about us, they would feel betrayed or disappointed. They would think that they had made a terrible mistake in respecting us or placing their trust in us, and we would be rejected or disgraced. When feeling like an imposter we fear being revealed for who we are. We tend to live with a sense of dread and foreboding that it will be only a matter of time before we are found out.

I was afraid that sooner or later, the professors would find out that they had made a mistake about me, and that I would be exited quickly and quietly from law school. They would say something like, We didn’t really mean to let you into the program. Your application was accidentally paper clipped to someone else’s in your class. We’re really sorry, and we would encourage you to apply again next year. You’re going to have to leave now. (Amy)

Our fear of being found out may often be experienced as a tension in our bodies: we may experience the urge to flee at the thought of revelation, at the thought of being exposed in shame. Justine describes her physical discomfort:

During the meeting, my palms were sweating and my stomach was knotted with fear that someone in the room would see right through me, would see that that I did not belong there. I had visions of myself falling in shame from the glamourous world of advertising. It was a relief when the meeting finally ended and I was able to withdraw into the privacy of my own cubicle, out of public view. (Justine)

And Fran describes her physical sensations of dread in her dreams:

I kept getting the same nightmare over and over again: I am standing in the doorway of my boss’ office. My boss is leaning back in his chair and his feet are on the desk. He says to me: So you don’t really want to be here, eh? I suspected it all along. I can see a look of disgust on his face. I’ve been found out for the fraud that I am. My legs feel shaky and my heart is beating fast. I want to run and hide. I wake up in a cold sweat. (Fran)

Just like a real imposter, when we feel like an imposter we attempt to hide the truth that we are not who we present ourselves to be. We carefully manage our public image and avoid situations in which we might be caught off guard, without our masks. We dart down a different aisle in the supermarket when we spot our boss out of the corner of our eye. We do not invite others to our home, for fear that something in our home might give us away. Or if we do decide to let others into our home, we stash all our make-up, self-help books, and dirty dishes out of sight.

 

If we feel like hiding when we feel like an imposter, do we feel like imposters when there is something that we are hiding? Does hiding something make us feel like an imposter? Most of us have things about ourselves, whether thoughts, feelings, actions, or information, that we choose not to disclose to others. Van Manen and Levering (1996) write that since we are surrounded by people we cannot always trust, we would be foolish to be perfectly open about every big or little thing (p. 57). Some situations call for a certain amount of reserve and discretion, especially when there is a need to protect our vulnerability. Secrecy, reserve, and privacy often protect us from being harmed by others (Van Manen & Levering, 1996). But when does secrecy become impostering? And when does it make us feel like imposters?

 

Unlike the person who hides something to avoid being harmed by others, a person who is an imposter hides important information about her or his identity in order to influence, deceive, or sometimes even harm other people. In most cases, other people have a right to know the information that is hidden, as they would likely make different decisions were the truth of the imposter’s identity known. Roark hid the truth about his background, including his long history of deceit, from his colleagues and patients in order to be hired on at the hospitals and clinics where he worked. Had the truth been known, he never would have been hired on as a surgeon, and many people might have been spared from harm. With imposters, it is not because they cannot trust others that they need to hide things about themselves. Rather, it is because they hide information that should not be hidden that they betray people’s trust.

 

What about Fran, who hides how she feels from her boss at work? Clearly she is not a real imposter. But is she betraying his trust by hiding how she feels? And does hiding her feelings make her feel like an imposter? If Fran’s boss were to know that Fran did not feel passionate about her job, he might feel slightly disappointed with her or perhaps concerned that she might decide to leave the company. Or perhaps he himself might have misgivings about his work and thus feel a sense of relief in knowing that someone else felt the same way that he does. Regardless of his response, we can hardly say that Fran’s boss has the right to know how Fran really feels or that she should not be trusted because she is keeping a personal secret from him. Fran feels like an imposter, however, because she believes that it is wrong to hide her feelings. What she does not fully appreciate is that it is often appropriate and legitimate to keep some of her personal information and internal experiences to herself.

 

Being Oneself and Playing a Role

I am dressed up in a jacket, suit, and tie. I look okay for the part. But it feels unnatural to me, like another layer of deceit, of a show that doesn’t really reflect what I am feeling inside. It is another layer of saying the right things and doing the right things, part of the whole script. (Stephen)

Each day, I dress the part: high-powered suit, silk blouse, pearls, pumps, makeup, and coiffed hair. I look sharp, riding the elevator to the top floor of the downtown office tower. But the truth is, I feel uncomfortable in my office garb, and I can hardly wait to get home and change into jeans and a sweatshirt. (Justine)

When Stephen and Justine speak of dressing the part or putting on a show, their language may conjure up images of actors performing on stage or in front of a camera. Of course, Stephen and Justine are not real actors. Stephen is not merely acting the part of a minister. He is a minister. Similarly, Justine is not just performing as an executive assistant. She is one. Yet in the roles that they are performing, Stephen and Justine feel like imposters. What is a role, and is there something about performing roles that makes a person feel like an imposter? The word role is derived from the French roule, referring to the roll of paper on which actors parts were written (Purcell, 2001). Roles are socially scripted parts or functions that we are expected to perform in specific situations and contexts. A role is a set of expectations, standards, and guidelines for how to behave, think, feel, and present oneself in a particular social position.

 

Stephen and Justine are presenting themselves in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. Their facial expressions, along with their manner of dressing, moving, and speaking, feel like a public façade that masks their private experience. Do we experience feeling like imposters when we present a façade to other people? Most roles carry with them some expectations about the image to be presented in public. For example, a flight attendant is usually expected to present an image of courtesy, calmness, and composure in the face of stress. Although he may really feel flustered or annoyed behind his calm exterior, he may not necessarily feel like an imposter.

 

So if it is not necessarily the presentation of a façade that leads a person to feel like an imposter, what makes Stephen and Justine feel like one? In his role as a minister, Stephen feels like there is a layer surrounding and concealing who he really is. He is experiencing a sense of separation or distance between himself and his role. At some level, he is aware that although he is playing a role, he is not his role. Indeed, a role is something that we may have, be given, take on, or be in; but it is never something that we are. For example, although one might say, I have taken on the role of vice president, one probably would not say, I am the role of vice president. However, we can be aware of our separation from the roles that we play without feeling like an imposter. When a department store clerk says to an irate customer who is shouting at her, Look, I’m just doing my job. I have feelings too, she is acknowledging the separation between the role that she performs at work and who she is apart from her role. She may or may not feel like an imposter.

 

When Stephen says that how he presents himself does not reflect how he feels inside, it can also mean that he does not completely identify with his role. To identify with something means to feel an association or likeness to that thing. When we say, I can identify with what you are saying, what we mean is: I can relate to it, because I feel that way too. Or when we say, I really identify with the hero of this book, it means that we see ourselves in him. The more we identify with a role, the less separate and distinct we feel from it. Conversely, the less we identify with a role, the more aware we become that we are not the role that we play.

 

Does a person feel like an imposter when she or he does not identify with the role or an aspect of the role being played? And how is this different from the experience of a real imposter? A young woman working as a cashier at McDonald’s may feel that certain aspects of her job, such as wearing a McDonald’s uniform or asking customers if they want fries with their burger (when they have not asked for any), may not reflect who she really is. But although she does not fully identify with her role, she is hardly an imposter. Stephen and Justine feel like imposters neither because they fail to completely identify with their roles nor because they feel a sense of separation between themselves and their roles. Rather, it is that they believe that they should be fully identifying with their role and that there should be no separation between the role and how they really feel. A real imposter, on the other hand, may sometimes feel comfortable and identify with an assumed role even more than someone who is not an imposter. What makes the difference is that imposters do not have the right to the roles that they play. For example, Roark may have identified with the role of surgeon, but without the appropriate credentials, he did not have the legitimate right to his role.

 

We are constantly trying on roles for size and evaluating how well they fit with who we are. When we find a role that suits us, we may become so identified with the role and so accustomed to it that we forget that it is a role at all. It is as if we become asleep to our true selves. Moreover, as Goffman (1959) and Berger (1973) state, we generally want consistency, continuity, and wholeness in ourselves, and we tend to become uncomfortable when we experience a separation between ourselves and our roles. We also want and expect a certain amount of consistency in others. However, no one is completely whole or consistent, and no role will fit us in our entirety. We have many selves, and each is continually in the process of change. Perhaps the experience of feeling like an imposter comes with the awareness of the ever-shifting tension between ourselves and the roles that we play. Without this awareness, we risk losing ourselves in our roles, thereby losing the freedom to try on new roles and discard those that no longer fit. In the end, our experience of feeling like an imposter may awaken us to our true selves and what it means to be free.

 

 

References

Berger, D. (1973). Invitation to sociology: A humanistic perspective. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press.

Dukelow, D. A., & Nuse, B. (1995). Pocket dictionary of Canadian law (2nd ed.). Toronto, Canada: Carswell.

Goffman, E. (1959). Presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Doubleday.

Migoya, D. & Swickard, J. (1998, June 3). Man is accused of lying his way into surgical residencies and medical jobs before a background check revealed a history of deceit. Detroit Free Press. Retrieved January 5, 2002, from http://www.freep.com

Purcell, J. (Ed.). (2001). New Oxford Dictionary of English. New York: Oxford University Press.

Van Manen, M., & Levering, B. (1996). Childhood’s secrets: Intimacy, privacy, and the self reconsidered. New York: Teachers College Press.