“You Are Who You Pretend to Be.” My Experience with Imposter Syndrome

“You are who you pretend to be.”  Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut was a favorite book among my circle of friends in college, and that quote, “You are who you pretend to be…” was one of our anthems arguing for authenticity.  Young women of that generation, at least the ones I hung out with, were nothing if not authentic!  I attended an all-women’s college housed within a large university, and we young women were challenged to stretch our minds and stretch our ambition.  We had female professors and a lot of them!  We had classes that were sometimes all women, and we expressed our ideas and argued our points and didn’t worry about impressing the guys at that moment.  There was time enough to do that on weekends.

This was heady stuff in my experience.  While I certainly didn’t come from shy and retiring female stock, I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, and I went on to graduate school eager to become Dr. Love, Professor of Psychology.  Not a single person among the “adults” in my life understood that desire or offered any encouragement.  Wasn’t I in debt enough?  Why did I want to stay away from home even longer?  Wasn’t it bad enough that I spent all this money and still couldn’t really get a good job?  If I really wanted to be a teacher, which is all a professor was anyway, why didn’t I just be a teacher and come home? And, finally, the deepest cut: who do you think you are?

The first graduate school wasn’t for me but on the second try I hit the jackpot and in NYC to boot. I was working hard, qualifying exams complete, living with my now-husband in a fifth floor, one-room walk-up in Spanish Harlem, ready to write my dissertation and I needed a job.  I had strong skills in statistics and social science research methods; it must be possible to find some job in NYC.  That first job was at Family Circle magazine, supervising primary research.  I conducted the research that determined what image would appear on the cover of the magazine every three weeks.  Chocolate cakes sell copies.  My family and my husband’s family finally understood what I did (though no one quite understood why it took eight years of “extra” school and lots of loans to pick which chocolate cake to put on the cover).  But Family Circle was owned by The New York Times and soon I was working at the newspaper.

I was in awe and terrified.  Everyone I met was better educated and seemed smarter than me. The New York Times wasn’t just a company; it was the most important news source in the world. Working at the Times was less like a job and more like a mission.  Many times each day my inner voice would scream, “Who do you think you are? You don’t belong here! You are not as good as these people!”

There is a name for this fear.  Two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, in their 1978 work, called it “the impostor syndrome.”  They described it as feelings of “phoniness in people who believe they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”  While these people are “highly motivated to achieve,” they also “live in fear of being found out or exposed as frauds.”

Years went by – I never did finish my dissertation – and a new executive was made the head of the Research Department.  By now I had received a promotion or two but I still wore a mask at work, particularly with senior people around whom I felt insecure, trying to fit the image of the New York Times executive.  I was afraid that if I dropped it people would see the real me and I’d be found out.  Our new head of the department was a great guy.  Henry wasn’t a researcher and he was put in that role temporarily.  We clicked.  Shortly after he started, he said to me, “Kathi, you should be the head of this department when I move out of here into my next role. I wanted to make sure that my bosses understood that and I talked to them about you.  What they said shocked me.”

Here it comes, I thought.  I’ve been found out.

“Kathi, you are perceived as an arrogant, know-it-all who thinks that you are smarter than everyone else.  Upper management sees you as haughty, unapproachable and you treat others as if they are stupid.  You are not considered a team player.  They think you are very smart but see the only future role for you as an individual contributor.

“I don’t see you that way at all.  I’d like you to think about their perception of you.  If you’ll permit me, I’d like to be your coach as well as your manager.  I think you’re very good and I think together we can change their perception.”

I was too shocked to cry immediately, but the tears came later that night.  Not only had I buried who I really was to try to be perceived as having the right stuff to be a NYT executive, but my mask had backfired.  My insecurity about my background, my education, my very self had led me to develop a mask that was defensive and attacking as a way to try to keep all my fears hidden.

Henry worked with me for six months and I will always be grateful!  He gave me feedback on every look I gave to others, every word I uttered.  We practiced together before every encounter I had with senior management.  Within those six months, senior management complimented Henry on his good judgment about people and his extraordinary management skills.  When Henry moved on, I was promoted to be the head of the Research Department for The New York Times.  That was a long time ago.  Since then I’ve learned the hard way that my real self is enough.


“We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.”

― May Sarton




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