Skip to main content

Examining the Impostor Phenomenon in Relation to Self-Esteem Level and Self-Esteem Instability

Abstract

The impostor phenomenon involves feelings of intellectual self-doubt that often occur to people in challenging new roles or in the wake of personal success. Many previous studies appear to have understated the relationship between the impostor phenomenon and self-esteem, and have included only measures of self-esteem level in their designs. In the present study, the impostor phenomenon was examined in relation to both self-esteem level and self-esteem instability. Three-hundred and four undergraduates completed the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale, the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale and a measure of self-rated instability. A subsample was also assessed for statistical instability (n = 38). The impostor phenomenon was negatively correlated with self-esteem level (r = −.62) and positively correlated with self-reported (r = .32) and statistical (r = .57) instability (all ps < .001). A multiple regression model predicting the impostor phenomenon with self-esteem level and self-rated instability revealed a negative main effect of self-esteem level and a significant 2-way interaction. Simple slopes analysis revealed that the negative effect of self-esteem level was weaker among participants with unstable self-esteem, compared to those with stable self-esteem. Results emphasize the critical involvement of self-esteem problems in the impostor phenomenon, indicating that people with low self-esteem are especially vulnerable to impostor feelings, and that people with unstable high self-esteem are more vulnerable to such feelings than are those with stable high self-esteem.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1

Notes

  1. Quadratic effects of self-esteem level, self-rated instability, and self-esteem level X self-rated stability were also explored with hierarchical regression. The addition of quadratic terms to model presented in Table 2 did not significantly contribute to incremental variance explained in the DV (Δ R2 = .01, F(6298) = 1.54, p = .20). Therefore, only linear terms were retained in the final model.

References

  • Aiken, L., & West, S. (1991). Multiple Regression: Testing and interpreting interactions. London: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  • Arena, D., & Page, N. (1992). The imposter phenomenon in the clinical nurse specialist role. Image--the Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 24(2), 121–125. doi:10.1111/j.1547-5069.1992.tb00236.x.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Bernard, N. S., Dollinger, S. J., & Ramaniah, N. V. (2002). Applying the big five personality factors to the impostor phenemenon. Journal of Personality Assessment, 78(2), 321–333. doi:10.1207/S15327752JPA7802.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Bernat, E. (2008). Towards a pedagogy of empowerment: The case of “impostor syndrome” among pre-service non-native speaker teachers in TESO. ELTED, 11, 1–8.

    Google Scholar 

  • Blascovich, J., & Tomaska, J. (1991). Measures of self-esteem. In J. Robinson, P. Shaver, & L. Wrightsman (Eds.), Measures of personality and social psychological attitudes (pp. 115–160). San Diego: Academic Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Borton, J. L. S., Crimmins, A. E., Ashby, R. S., & Ruddiman, J. F. (2012). How do individuals with fragile high self-esteem cope with intrusive thoughts following ego threat? Self and Identity, 11(1), 16–35. doi:10.1080/15298868.2010.500935.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brown, J., Collins, R., & Schmidt, G. (1988). Self-esteem and direct versus indirect forms of self-enhancement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55(3), 445–453. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.55.3.445.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Caselman, T. D., Self, P. A., & Self, A. L. (2006). Adolescent attributes contributing to the imposter phenomenon. Journal of Adolescence, 29(3), 395–405. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2005.07.003.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Castro, D., Jones, R., & Mirsalimi, H. (2010). Parentification and the impostor phenomenon: An empirical investigation. American Journal of Family Therapy, 3. doi:10.1080/01926180490425676.

  • Chrisman, S., Pieper, W., Clance, P., Holland, C., & Glickauf-Hughes, C. (1995). Validation of the Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 65(3), 456–467. doi:10.1207/s15327752jpa6503_6.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Clance, P. (1985). When success makes you feel like a fake. Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  • Clance, P., & Imes, S. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice, 15(3), 1–8. doi:10.1037/h0086006.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Clance, P., & O’Toole, M. A. (1988). The imposter phenomenon: An internal barrier to empowerment and achievement. Women and Therapy, 6(3), 51–64. doi:10.1300/J015V06N03_05.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Clark, M., Vardeman, K., & Barba, S. (2014). Perceived inadequacy: A study of the imposter phenomenon among college and research librarians. College & Research Libraries, 75(3), 255–271. doi:10.5860/crl12-423.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cowman, S., & Ferrari, J. (2002). “Am I for real?” Predicting impostor tendencies from self-handicapping and affective components. Social Behaviour and Personality, 30(2), 119–126. doi:10.2224/sbp.2002.30.2.119.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dudau, D. (2014). The relation between perfectionism and impostor phenomenon. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 127, 129–133. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.03.226.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Franck, E., Vanderhasselt, M., Goubert, L., Loeys, T., Temmerman, M., & De Raedt, R. (2016). The role of self-esteem instability in the development of postnatal depression: A prospective study testing a diathesis-stress account. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 50, 15–22. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2015.04.010.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Fried-Buchalter, S. (1997). Fear of success, fear of failure, and the imposter phenomenon among male and female marketing managers. Sex Roles, 37(11), 847–859. doi:10.1007/BF02936343.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Harvey, J. (1981). The impostor phenomenon and achievements: A failure to internalize success. Temple University.

  • Hepper, E., Gramzow, R., & Sedikides, C. (2010). Individual differences in self-enhancement and self-protection strategies: An integrative analysis. Journal of Personality, 78(2), 781–814. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2010.00633.x.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Holmes, S., Kertay, L., Adamson, L., Holland, C., & Clance, P. (1993). Measuring the impostor phenomenon: a comparison of Clance’s IP Scale and Harvey's I-P Scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 60(1), 48–59. doi:10.1207/s15327752jpa6001_3.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Kernis, M. (2005). Measuring self-esteem in context: The importance of stability of self-esteem in psychological functioning. Journal of Personality, 73(6), 1569–1605. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2005.00359.x.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Kernis, M., Grannemann, B. D., & Barclay, L. C. (1989). Stability and level of self-esteem as predictors of anger arousal and hostility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(6), 1013–1022. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.56.6.1013.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Kernis, M., Grannemann, B. D., & Barclay, L. C. (1992). Stability of self-esteem: assessment, correlates, and excuse making. Journal of Personality, 60(3), 621–644. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.1992.tb00923.x.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Kernis, M., Cornell, D., Sun, C., Berry, A., & Harlow, T. (1993). There’s more to self-esteem than whether it is high or low: The importance of stability of self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(6), 1190–1204. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.65.6.1190.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Kernis, M., Paradise, A. W., Whitaker, D. J., Wheatman, S. R., & Goldman, B. N. (2000). Master of one’s psychological domain? Not likely if one's self-esteem is unstable. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26(10), 1297–1305. doi:10.1177/0146167200262010.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • King, J. E., & Cooley, E. L. (1995). Achievement orientation and the impostor phenomenon among college students. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 20(3), 304–312. doi:10.1006/ceps.1995.1019.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kolligan, J., & Sternberg, R. (1991). Perceived fraudulence in young adults: Is there an “impostor syndrome?”. Journal of Personality Assessment, 56(2), 308–326. doi:10.1207/s15327752jpa5602_10.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kumar, S., & Jagacinski, C. M. (2006). Imposters have goals too: The imposter phenomenon and its relationship to achievement goal theory. Personality and Individual Differences, 40(1), 147–157. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2005.05.014.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Langford, J., & Clance, P. R. (1993). The impostor phenomenon : Recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment. Psychotherapy, 30(3), 495–501. doi:10.1037/0033-3204.30.3.495.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lindeman, D., Britton, D., & Zundi, E. (2016). “I don’t know why they make it so hard here”: Institutional factors and undergraduate women’s STEM participation. International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology, 8(2), 221–241.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lupien, S. P., Seery, M. D., & Almonte, J. L. (2012). Unstable high self-esteem and the eliciting conditions of self-doubt. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(3), 762–765. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2012.01.009.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mattie, C., Gietzen, J., Davis, S., & Prata, J. (2008). The imposter phenomenon: Self-assessment and competency to perform as a physician assistant in the United States. The Journal of Physician Assistant Education, 19(1), 5–12.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Neureiter, M., & Traut-Mattausch, E. (2016). An inner barrier to career development: Preconditions of the impostor phenomen on and consequences for career development. Frontiers in Psychology, 7. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00048.

  • Newman, L. S., & Wadas, R. F. (1997). When stakes are higher: Self-esteem instability and self-handicapping. Journal of Social Behavior & Personality, 12(1), 217–232.

    Google Scholar 

  • Noser, A., & Zeigler-Hill, V. (2014). Self-Esteem Instability and the Desire for Fame. Self and Identity, 13, 701–713. doi:10.1080/15298868.2014.927394.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Okada, R. (2010). A meta-analytic review of the relation between self-esteem level and self-esteem instability. Personality and Individual Differences, 48(2), 243–246. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2009.10.012.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Pedhazur, E., & Schmelkin, L. (1991). Measurement, design, and analysis: An integrated approach. Hilldale: Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rosenberg, M. (1965). Society and the adolescent self-image. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Ross, S. R., & Krukowski, R. A. (2003). The imposter phenomenon and maladaptive personality: Type and trait charactersitics. Personality and Individual Differences, 34(3), 477–484. doi:10.1016/S0191-8869(02)00067-3.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Simmons, D. (2016). Impostor syndrome, a reparative history. Engaging Science, Technology, and Society, 2, 106–127. doi:10.17351/ests2016.33.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sinclair, S., Blais, M., Gansler, D., Sandberg, E., Bistis, K., & Locicero, A. (2010). Psychometric properties of the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale: Overall and across demographic groups living within the United States. Evaluation & the Health Professions, 33(1), 56–80. doi:10.1177/0163278709356187.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sonnack, C., & Towell, T. (2001). The impostor phenomenon in British university students: Relationships between self-esteem, mental health, parental rearing style and socioeconomic status. Personality and Individual Differences, 31(6), 863–874. doi:10.1016/S0191-8869(00)00184-7.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Thompson, T., Davis, H., & Davidson, J. (1998). Attributional and affective responses of impostors to academic success and failure outcomes. Personality and Individual Differences, 25, 381–396. doi:10.1016/S0191-8869(98)00065-8.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Topping, M. (1983). The Impostor Phenomenon: A Study of Its Construct and Incidence in University Faculty Members. University of South Florida.

  • Topping, M., & Kimmel, E. (1985). The imposter phenomenon: Feeling phony. Academic Psychology Bulletin, 7(2), 213–226.

    Google Scholar 

  • Want, J., & Kleitman, S. (2006). Imposter phenomenon and self-handicapping: Links with parenting styles and self-confidence. Personality and Individual Differences, 40(5), 961–971. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2005.10.005.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Webster, G. D., Kirkpatrick, L. a., Nezlek, J. B., Smith, C. V., & Paddock, E. L. (2007). Different slopes for different folks: Self-esteem instability and gender as moderators of the relationship between self-esteem and attitudinal aggression. Self and Identity, 6(1), 74–94. doi:10.1080/15298860600920488.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Zeigler-Hill, V., Chadha, S., & Osterman, L. (2008). Psychological defense and self-esteem instability: Is defense style associated with unstable self-esteem? Journal of Research in Personality, 42(2), 348–364. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2007.06.002.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Zeigler-Hill, V., Enjaian, B., Holden, C. J., & Southard, A. C. (2014). Using self-esteem instability to disentangle the connection between self-esteem level and perceived aggression. Journal of Research in Personality, 49(1), 47–51. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2014.01.003.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Zeigler-Hill, V., Holden, C., Enjaian, B., Southard, A., Besser, A., Li, H., & Zhang, Q. (2015). Self-esteem instability and personality: The connections between feelings of self-worth and the big five dimensions of personality. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(2), 183–198. doi:10.1177/0146167214559719.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nick Schubert.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of Interest

Nick Schubert declares he has no conflict of interest regarding the publication of this article.

Anne Bowker declares she has no conflict of interest regarding the publication of this article.

Human Participants

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study. This article does not contain any studies with animals performed by any of the authors.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Schubert, N., Bowker, A. Examining the Impostor Phenomenon in Relation to Self-Esteem Level and Self-Esteem Instability. Curr Psychol 38, 749–755 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-017-9650-4

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-017-9650-4

Keywords

  • Impostor phenomenon
  • Perceived fraudulence
  • Self-esteem
  • Self-esteem instability
  • Self-esteem fragility