Actually, I can’t do all that, my success is just a facade – an interview with the former “Vogue” boss makes you sit up and take notice. We spoke to personality psychologist Kay Brauer. He did research on the so-called impostor phenomenon.
FOCUS online: In January, the former editor-in-chief of German “Vogue”, Christiane Arp, gave a deep insight into her inner life. Arp led the well-known magazine for 18 years and claims to have felt “like the rabbit in front of the snake” at the beginning: she believed that she was not up to it all. And that at some point she would be exposed as an imposter because it turns out that she has no sound knowledge. Is the secret fear of failure typical of successful women? Kay Brauer: It’s a prejudice that the so-called high stacking, which is actually more of a low stacking because you feel small inside and hide your qualifications and skills, affects women in particular. I think this cliché can also be understood from the historical context: 50 years ago, female managers were comparatively rare. And the few that made it to the top were particularly interesting for research.
In fact, the term impostor phenomenon was introduced in the 1970s. Two American psychologists interviewed successful professional women at the time and found that many considered their performance to be below average, despite clear qualifications.
Has science corrected the distorted picture in the meantime? Or are you just assuming that even successful men sometimes live in constant fear of being caught?
Brauer: No, that is proven. In my scientific work, I have placed great value on cross-gender data collection. The results are clear: men are just as affected as women.
So also super players from politics and business?
Brauer: I would assume so, yes. All in all, the phenomenon does not only affect people who occupy top positions. Teachers, doctors, scientists, craftsmen and women, even artists – the “successful failures” can be found everywhere.
How common is the impostor phenomenon?
Brauer: Numbers that are sometimes mentioned range between twelve and 20 percent. As a scientist, however, I have to say here: Unfortunately, I can’t help with a numerical classification from little to extremely badly affected. The reason is that the impostor phenomenon is not a defined disorder. Rather, we understand the whole thing as a personality trait that can be found in the most diverse shades in every human being. It can be assumed that every person experiences thoughts and feelings of the supposed pile up at least once in their life.
The former Vogue boss has revealed that she suffers from depression. But that’s rather alarming, isn’t it?
Brauer: You have to be careful with remote diagnostics and we would have to see what values it achieves in a standardized test. But what she said in the interview sounds to me as if the phenomenon is relatively pronounced in her case.
One is surprised when one is allowed to look behind the facade of such a top career. How can it be that nobody has seen what was really going on for so many years?
Brauer: How well can the impostor phenomenon be perceived by outsiders? You could actually investigate that. However, I am not very confident that positive results will be achieved here. After all, it’s about internal processes. Those affected brood, experience enormous fears – unnoticed. You are, so to speak, permanently busy maintaining what you call a facade.
Don’t they take away a little bit of the chance to break through the suffering?
Brauer: I would see it that way, yes, the exchange with others is ultimately a good opportunity for self-reflection and even bosses who are approachable are likely to find most employees more sympathetic than a superman or a superwoman. If I’m a bit transparent, I’m more likely to see what’s behind my behavior and beliefs on a deeper level. Roughly speaking, two patterns can be distinguished here.
What kind of?
Brauer: There are those who throw themselves into tasks to the point of physical and mental exhaustion, they just don’t want anything to go wrong. If the goal is then achieved with flying colors, it is said: That was coincidence or luck. The other group tends to procrastinate and achieve goals only under great pressure and at the very last moment. Anyone can do that, these people conclude. In any case, once I have defined the pattern that is often used subliminally, I can recognize it more easily in the future. And I can consciously decide to free myself from it step by step.
By saying: Chacka! I’m really good! So?
Brauer: No master has fallen from the sky, I would say more like that. Or also: You grow with your tasks. In moderation, there is something healthy about celebrating yourself and then step by step what you have achieved. If you basically say “yes” to yourself and are willing to set off, you have the confidence to do something. Even with a lack of experience and skills. Upcoming challenges are then more likely to succeed, and confidence increases. Highly stacked contemporaries, on the other hand, suffer. In research, we found these people to have an increased tendency to depression, which would again fit the descriptions of the “Vogue” boss. What would you say to someone like the former Vogue boss if you were asked for advice? Brauer: That it is practice to grow into other thought patterns. It can be helpful, for example, to keep a success diary in which you regularly write down when you receive positive feedback or have achieved small and large achievements. In moments of doubt, it can be very beneficial to take a look at this book.