A New Twist on the Gifted Woman as Imposter

Susan Van Vleet

Over 25 years ago we took our two sons, Charlie and Adam, to the Gifted Development Center for testing. Dr. Linda Silverman talked with my husband, John, and me about the work we were doing with the employees of multinational corporations. 
 
Most of these employees are gifted and some are highly gifted. I spoke with Linda about the women I was seeing in our Women Moving Forward® workshop. They acted as if they were just lucky to be employed by these companies and worried that if their companies found out who they really were they would be fired and unable to find a job with another company.
 
I was confused by this behavior—especially since these women were highly educated and appeared to me to be gifted.  That was when Linda introduced me to the article, “The Gifted Woman as Impostor” published in Advanced Development (Bell, 1990), based on Pauline Clance’s (1985) The Imposter Phenomenon. The article describes the Imposter Syndrome that most gifted women exhibit and how it keeps them from achieving. It also describes the way this syndrome develops in women and how to unlearn these behaviors.
 
With Linda’s permission, we started handing the article out in our workshops for professional women: Women Moving Forward®. Women attend these workshops for a variety of personal and professional issues, including setting priorities, balancing career and family, dealing with pent up emotions, understanding organizational power models, challenges with bosses, career changes, self-doubt, life purpose, etc. One woman wrote: “Scared to get married or even date, though I want a husband. Chronic dumbing down to counteract intimidation of male co-workers. Compulsive desire to achieve” (VanVleet, 2007).
 
During the first 20 years, nearly 99% of the women who read the article could relate to it and felt it described their feelings about themselves. They felt relieved because it finally put a name and a framework to what they were feeling and couldn’t articulate. Within the last 5 years, however, we are seeing a new phenomenon when we hand out “The Gifted Woman as Impostor” in our workshops: women who do not feel like imposters in their professional life but they do feel that way in their personal lives. 
 
Most of the women I am describing have been competing equally with males all of their lives—perhaps since they were toddlers in day care. They are not afraid of competition; they welcome it. They own that they are highly intelligent. They have had sufficient support from parents, extended family and educators to be successful in their positions in major corporations. Some have at least one advanced degree and some have two to three advanced degrees. Often I am working with women with two doctorates in microbiology! In fact, they are impatient to move quicker up the corporate ladder. They will “jump companies” to get to the coveted next rung on the corporate ladder. 
 
Many of the younger women (25-35) exude confidence in their professions. They are clear about who they are professionally and do not appear to have any of the behaviors described in “The Gifted Woman as Impostor” in their professional lives. But their personal lives are a different story. It is in their personal lives where I observe that they feel they are imposters. They feel uncomfortable in any personal relationship outside of work; they are afraid to develop these relationships, because they feel they have no ability to carry them through long term.
 
My hypothesis is that these young women have spent so many hours while growing up practicing for their careers, and almost none practicing for human relationships. Many have no friends outside of work and few if any hobbies or activities that are not work-related. They appear scared to develop intimate relationships, unsure of how to initiate them, or uncertain how to maintain a relationship if one should get started.  
 
I have observed very clear self-defeating behaviors in these women as they try to navigate personal lives feeling like they are imposters:
  1. All of their relationships are work-related, either with co-workers or suppliers. This creates a built-in comfort zone of at least being able to talk about work, when sharing personal things feels scary. They live in complexes with other people who work for their company, they attend social events for the company with co-workers and bosses, and they even play only on company sports teams.
  2. When they do have personal romantic relationships, it is very often with older partners who have some experience in relationship and may be married or divorced. That way they “borrow” the “relationship-building confidence” from someone who has already demonstrated these skills that they feel lacking in themselves. In some companies, this is part of the culture.
  3. They will only call people they are in relationship with when they need something for work. They never call in between issues to build a relationship. Sometimes when they call us, they don’t even say “Hello”: they just start in on the reason they called. They don’t seem to understand the value of just calling someone to have a relationship deepen.
  4. Once they have relationships (and some have children), they set impossibly high standards for friends, partners and children, because they have a picture of how it is supposed to look when it is perfect that they feel they must live up to. One woman wanted to take her four year old out of soccer even though he loved it, because he was not good enough to excel at it. She felt he was wasting his time.
  5. Even the smallest personal decision can immobilize them. It took one woman I worked with a year to decide how and when to decorate her apartment, because to decide to decorate it meant she was staying where she was and that closed off options elsewhere. She was also afraid she would decorate it and no one, including herself, would like it. It might not be perfect! By the way, she has a Ph.D. in Biology and is highly successful in her company. 
 
Can this Imposter Syndrome in one’s personal life be unlearned? The good news is, “Yes! It can!” Just as women can unlearn the Imposter Syndrome in their professional lives, as described by Lee Ann Bell in her article, they can unlearn the personal version of the Imposter Syndrome.  
 
In Women Moving Forward® we model the skills needed for relationships. We show women how they must go through some messy times experimenting with relationships to get it right. Just like learning any skill, they will not get it right at first. We remind them they weren’t born with the skill level they have now in their professional lives. They had to learn and practice those skills over time, and the same is true personally. Often when you tell them the truth—that it will be messy and they will fail at first—they will, in fact, put aside their fears and begin to rehabilitate this area of their lives. We give them the time in the workshop to practice relationship building. They begin to see that conversations in which they listen and question are not just “wasting time,” but are the building blocks of their relationships. 
 
If they stay with the new skills and ideas they learn, we have seen these women do great things in their personal lives and not feel like imposters anymore. Interestingly, as a bonus, they appear to become more successful in their professional lives as well. 
 
We also help women understand their giftedness. Participants report that the workshop “helped me be aware that I’m a gifted person” and “helped me to stop ‘down playing’ my abilities.” They learned to celebrate their achievements, trust themselves, become more comfortable with their choices, stand up for what they want, stop giving expected answers, break free of the fear of disappointing people, set limits, put their energies where they can make the most difference, communicate more effectively, and be more present. “I gained a deeper sense of and commitment to myself.” (VanVleet, 2007).
 
Women caught in the “Personal Imposter Syndrome” can change how they relate to themselves and others to have more fulfilling professional AND personal lives.
 

References

 
Bell, L. A. (1990). The gifted woman as impostor. Advanced Development, 2, 55-64. [Volume 2 of Advanced Development is available as an e-journal.]
Clance, P. (1985). The imposter phenomenon. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree.
Van Vleet, S. (2007). Women Moving Forward® Survey Report, Lone Tree, CO: Susan Van Vleet Consultants.
 
 
Susan Van Vleet, MSW
President