Academic journal article Journal of College Counseling

Attachment, Entitlement, and the Impostor Phenomenon in Female Graduate Students

Academic journal article Journal of College Counseling

Attachment, Entitlement, and the Impostor Phenomenon in Female Graduate Students

Article excerpt

This study examined the utility of attachment and entitlement as predictors of the impostor phenomenon in female graduate students. Findings suggested that individuals with high levels of self-reliance/self-assurance entitlement are able to associate positive feedback with stable internal attributes. Those with anxious attachment and narcissistic expectations/self-promotion entitlement, however, were unable to openly accept positive feedback because of perceived deficits in self-worth. Implications are discussed for addressing these issues with female college counseling clients.


Students whose self-esteem is contingent on academic success are more prone to stress and depression (Crocker, Karpinski, Quinn, & Chase, 2003; Roberts & Kassel, 1997). The impostor phenomenon (IP) has been used to describe individuals who are unable to internalize accomplishments, have a fear of failure, and attribute success to external factors rather than internal characteristics (Clance & Imes, 1978; Fried-Buchalter, 1997). IP is associated with labile self-concept, depression, generalized anxiety, low self-esteem, and lack of confidence (Clance, Dingman, Reviere, & Stober, 1995; Clance & Imes, 1978; Steinberg, 1986).


Originally identified by Clance and Imes (1978), IP describes individuals who are unable to view accomplishments as a result of their own competence but instead attribute them to external factors, such as luck and chance. Characteristics of IP include an inability to internalize positive feedback, fear of evaluation and failure, guilt about success, and underestimating oneself while overestimating others (Clance & O'Toole, 1987). These feelings typically pervade all aspects of life, with academic and occupational endeavors particularly affected. IP has been found to influence perception of accomplishments and seems to be negatively correlated with interpersonal flexibility, locus of control, and well-being (Hayes & Davis, 1993; Niles, 1994; September, McCarrey, Baranowsky, Parent, & Schindler, 2001). Additionally, Kumar and Jagacinski (2006) reported that IP feelings were positively related to test anxiety and negatively correlated to confidence in one's intellectual ability. Researchers have also suggested that those experiencing IP tend to have decreased levels of self-acceptance and environmental mastery, while ascribing failures to stable internal attributes (September et al., 2001; Thompson, Davis, & Davidson, 1998). Individuals dealing with IP believe that others must be unaware of their true, inferior self and think that their secret of inferiority will eventually be revealed (Clance, 1985).

IP has been studied in a variety of populations, including employed professionals, college students, and high school students. For example, Henning, Ey, and Shaw (1998) reported that IP feelings were the single best predictor, better than any other demographic or personality variables, of psychological distress in health professions students. Professional marketing managers were found to have both fear of failure and IP, suggesting that the common characteristics of low self-esteem and low expectation of personal ability may be involved in the development of IP (Fried-Buchalter, 1997).

Previous researchers also suggested that individual with IP experience greater concern over mistakes, overestimate the frequency of mistakes, have less satisfaction with their performance, and feel less confident about their performance than do individuals without IP. This apparently leads to feelings of negative affect and reduced perceptions of control (Thompson, Foreman, & Martin, 2000). Furthermore, Cozzarelli and Major (1990) found that undergraduate college students experiencing IP felt more anxious before an important evaluative event and expected a poorer performance compared with peers who did not experience IP. Following a subjective failure, students with IP differed from other students in that they felt worse, were less satisfied, and demonstrated lower self-esteem. …

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