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Are Narcissists More Likely to Experience Impostor Syndrome?

The surprising link between narcissism and impostor syndrome.

Scientific American

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Imposter syndrome can be a very adaptive self-presentation strategy. Photo by Gandee Vasan/Getty Images

“Some years ago, I was lucky enough invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.

On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”

And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”

And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.”

-- Neil Gaiman

The term “imposter phenomenon” was coined by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 to describe the internal experience of a group of high-achieving women who described feelings of intellectual phoniness despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments. Later referred to as “imposter syndrome”, the defining characteristic is feeling like a fraud-- believing that others perceive you more favorably than is really true and warranted.

Of course, most of us experience imposter syndrome to some degree, and it is perfectly normal to sometimes believe that you are not as competent and deserving of your successes as others think you are, and to worry about how others might react if your “true” level of ability is exposed. Nevertheless, like other traits, imposter syndrome is on a bell curve, with some people experiencing imposter syndrome much more frequently in their daily lives.

Research suggests that this matters. Those who report a high frequency of impostor tendencies are prone to constant feelings of shame (not guilt), depression, and even suicidal ideation. These individuals tend to dismiss praise, downplay the truth of positive evaluations, and behave in ways that maintain their impostorous feelings. For instance, they will brush off successes to factors other than ability, such as luck, being in the right place at the right time, or just plain hard work. What’s more, those with imposter tendencies tend to engage in self-handicapping strategies, actively engaging in behaviors that undermine their performance.

There is a significant self-presentation element to imposter syndrome. We are a very social species, and we often attempt to manipulate how others perceive us to attain optimal interpersonal benefits. Imposter syndrome can be a very adaptive self-presentation strategy. After all, claiming that one’s ability is lower than it appears may lower the expectations of others, prompting encouragement from them and protecting your image if you fail, and inflating the impact of your performance if you succeed.

Indeed, research suggests that those who score high in impostor syndrome tend to express less positive views of themselves and their performance in public than they privately believe to be the case. In fact, those who report high levels of imposter syndrome aren't actually all that bothered when others hold extremely positive impressions of them, which is what you would expect if people actually feel like an “imposter”.

As I was reading this fascinating literature on imposter syndrome, it occurred to me that many of the seemingly paradoxical characteristics of imposter syndrome are strikingly similar to the behaviors of those who score high on a particularly paradoxical flavor of narcissism: vulnerable narcissism.

The Two Faces of Narcissism

Psychologists have long distinguished between an “overt” form of narcissism and a more “closet” form of narcissism. Most people are very familiar with the grandiose narcissist, characterized by their brash, boastful, noisy behavior demanding the spotlight. The psychiatrist Glen Gabbard describes grandiose narcissists as “oblivious” because they tend to have a complete lack of awareness of their impact on others: “They talk as though addressing a large audience, rarely establishing eye contact and generally looking over the heads of those around them.”

The core characteristics of grandiose narcissism include exhibitionism, authoritativeness, grandiose fantasies of power, acclaim seeking, manipulativeness, exploitativeness, entitlement, lack of empathy, arrogance, and thrill-seeking. Here are some items that measure grandiose narcissism:

  1. I like being the most popular person at a party.
  2. I tend to take charge of most situations.
  3. I often fantasize about having lots of success and power.
  4. I aspire for greatness.
  5. I can talk my way into and out of anything.
  6. I will use people as tools to advance myself.
  7. I don't think the rules apply to me as much as they apply to others.
  8. I don't generally pay much attention to the woes of others.
  9. I am a superior person.
  10. I will try almost anything to get my “thrills”.

There exists, however, a quieter manifestation of narcissism characterized by extreme sensitivity to slights and a deep shame over grandiose fantasies that lead these individuals to shun the spotlight. Sometimes referred to as the “vulnerable” or the “hypervigilant” narcissist, these individuals are exquisitely sensitive to how others react to them, scoring extremely high in the personality trait neuroticism. The core characteristics of vulnerable narcissism include a highly fragile self-esteem, constant feelings of shame, a hiding of the self, avoidance of feedback, rage when there is criticism, grandiose fantasies of validation, and distrust of the good intentions of others. Here are some test items that capture vulnerable narcissism:

  1. I often feel as if I need compliments from others in order to be sure of myself.
  2. When I realize I have failed at something, I feel humiliated.
  3. When others get a glimpse of my needs, I feel anxious and ashamed.
  4. It irritates me when people don't notice how good a person I am.
  5. Sometimes I avoid people because I'm afraid they won't do what I want them to.
  6. I often fantasize about being recognized for my accomplishments.
  7. When someone does something nice for me, I wonder what they want from me.

Both forms of narcissism-- grandiose and vulnerable-- share a common core of features, including excessive self-focus, entitlement, interpersonal antagonism, and grandiose fantasies. In fact, those displaying the features of vulnerable narcissism often surprise others with their privately grandiose fantasies of superiority!

Curious as to the relationship between these two flavors of narcissism and clinically relevant outcomes, my colleagues and I assessed the relationship between narcissism (both vulnerable and grandiose) and a wide range of outcomes associated with psychopathology, well-being, and authenticity.

What did we find?

Imposter Syndrome and Narcissism

As suspected, imposter syndrome was strongly correlated with vulnerable narcissism (r= .72, p

  • Sometimes I am afraid I will be discovered for who I really am.
  • I tend to feel like a phony.
  • I'm afraid people important to me may find out that I'm not as capable as they think I am.
  • Sometimes I'm afraid others will discover how much knowledge or ability I really lack.
  • In some situations I feel like a “great pretender”; that is, I'm not as genuine as others think I am.

Both vulnerable narcissism and imposter syndrome were linked to other metrics of inauthenticity, including a weak sense of self, self-alienation, and high levels of accepting external influence from others. It appears that imposter syndrome goes along with a general nexus of behaviors that relate to a loss of a sense of self and authentic responding in the world. While these results hadn't been documented before, they were expected. Our findings with grandiose narcissism, however, really surprised us.

Prior research has described grandiose narcissism as the “happy face of narcissism.” Consistent with this prior research, we found that (unlike vulnerable narcissism) grandiose narcissism was associated with lower levels of psychopathology and even higher levels of life satisfaction. While the person scoring high in grandiose narcissism may make others unhappy, they seem to be pretty satisfied with their lives.

Nevertheless, while grandiose narcissists were happy, we found that they were less likely to be authentic or lead a purpose-driven life. Grandiose narcissism was related to various metrics of inauthenticity, including reports of imposter syndrome, as well as lower levels of purpose. While the correlations were not as strong as with vulnerable narcissism, the correlations were still quite substantial.

Upon further reflection, these findings make sense. If imposter syndrome is a self-presentation strategy, it would make sense that both vulnerable and grandiose narcissism would be related to this strategy. At its core, both forms of narcissism are attempts at regulating the need for self-esteem. Vulnerable narcissists have an incessant need to avoid rejection and feedback that may confirm their deepest fear of low self-worth, whereas grandiose narcissists have an incessant need to avoid any indications that they may not be as superior and powerful as they believe they are.

While the extreme assertiveness of grandiose narcissism may provide a protective factor against low levels of happiness, neither those scoring high on vulnerable narcissism nor grandiose narcissism are authentic in their responding; they both are constantly adjusting their behavior to manage the perceptions of others. As a result, they both lose their soul.

From Imposter Syndrome to Authenticity

The German psychoanalyst Karen Horney viewed inauthenticity and self-alienation in terms of the "devil's pact", arguing that “the abandoning of self corresponds to the selling of one's soul.” Unfortunately, a lot of people suffer from extreme imposter syndrome, frequently avoiding the full expression of their self because they are terrified how they will be perceived by others if they do so.

Such a preoccupation on self-presentation has a variety of maladaptive consequences, however. We found that imposter syndrome was strongly negatively correlated with healthy self-esteem, self-acceptance, autonomy, mastery over the environment, personal growth, positive relationships with others, a sense of purpose in life, and life satisfaction (see Table S7).

Nevertheless, I believe these findings can suggest healthy paths to growth and development. In our paper, we discuss a number of clinical implications of our findings, but I believe the most obvious implication is that the path to well-being and the good life is not paved with excessive concerns about self-presentation, but is actually paved with authenticity.

To be clear: these results do not invalidate the fact that most of us experience feelings of impostorism or doubt our ability to make desired impressions on others at various points in our life. Instead, they suggest that no matter where any of us are on the imposter syndrome curve, one potential route to realizing your best self is through dialing down your excessive preoccupation with how you are being perceived by others. Don’t worry about being an imposter; worry about being authentic.

Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., is a humanistic psychologist exploring the depths of human potential. He has taught courses on intelligence, creativity, and well-being at Columbia University, NYU, the University of Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. He hosts The Psychology Podcast, and is author and/or editor of 9 books, including Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, Wired to Create: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind (with Carolyn Gregoire), and Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. In 2015, he was named one of "50 Groundbreaking Scientists who are changing the way we see the world" by Business Insider. Find out more at http://ScottBarryKaufman.com. He wrote the extremely popular Beautiful Minds blog for Scientific American for close to a decade.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to my co-authors Brandon Weiss, Joshua Miller, and W. Keith Campbell for their substantial contributions to the paper. Note that Brandon Weiss is co-lead-author on the paper, and deserves just as much credit as me in the write-up of the findings.

© 2018 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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This post originally appeared on Scientific American and was published September 11, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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