Impostor syndrome is more common than you think

September 29, 2019

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Impostor syndrome is more common than you think

The impostor syndrome, a phenomenon that manifests when people feel like frauds even if they are actually capable and well-qualified, affects people both in the workplace and in the classroom. A new study reveals that perceptions of impostorism are quite common and uncovers the best – and worst – ways to cope with such feelings.

Findings of the study revealed that 20 percent of the college students in their sample suffered from very strong feelings of impostorism. The researchers conducted interviews with students in an elite academic program to understand the various coping mechanisms students used to escape these feelings, but one method stood out above the rest: seeking social support from those outside their academic program.

The findings of their interview study suggest that if students “reached in” to other students within their major, they felt worse more often than they felt better. However, if the student “reached out” to family, friends outside their major, or even professors, perceptions of impostorism were reduced.

What the researchers say: “Those outside the social group seem to be able to help students see the big picture and recalibrate their reference groups,” said the lead author of the study. “After reaching outside their social group for support, students are able to understand themselves more holistically rather than being so focused on what they felt they lacked in just one area.”

Along with seeking social support, the study also uncovered negative ways students coped with impostorism. Some students tried to get their mind off schoolwork through escapes such as video games but ended up spending more time gaming than studying. Other students tried to hide how they really felt around their classmates, pretending they were confident and excited about their performance when deep down they questioned if they actually belonged.

The study also reveals that perceptions of impostorism lack a significant relationship with performance. This means that individuals who suffer with the impostor syndrome are still capable of doing their jobs well, they just don’t believe in themselves. Researchers also explain that social-related factors impact impostorism more than an individual’s actual ability or competence.

“The root of impostorism is thinking that people don’t see you as you really are,” said the researchers. “We think people like us for something that isn’t real and that they won’t like us if they find out who we really are.”

The researchers believe that implications from this study should be applied in the workplace. “It’s important to create cultures where people talk about failure and mistakes,” said the lead author. “When we create those cultures, someone who is a victim of impostorism will be more likely to get the help they need within the organization.”

So, what? This study ties in with previous work on “fragile high self-esteem” which affects many high-flying professionals. Their feelings of competence revolve around their ability to succeed in just  one area—getting new clients or being the best eye-surgeon for example. Once this is challenged their sense of self-worth vanishes. The fear of this may lead to impostorism—the constant threat of being found out.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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