How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome
New research explores the personalities of people with impostor syndrome.
Posted October 21, 2021 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- People who have impostor syndrome tend to have low self-esteem and a high degree of neuroticism.
- People with impostor syndrome score lower on honesty and humility.
- Their overactive sense of self-doubt interferes with the ability to put their best foot forward.
A new paper published in Frontiers in Psychology identifies some key personality characteristics that are associated with Impostor Syndrome, or the tendency to feel like you are not as good in professional endeavors as your experience, training, awards, or the opinions of others might suggest.
“The most important personality traits correlated with impostor syndrome are self-esteem, attributional style, and neuroticism,” say the authors of the research, led by Fabio Ibrahim of Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg, Germany.
According to the authors, people who exhibit impostor syndrome tend to have low self-esteem and a high degree of neuroticism. They also possess a counterproductive attributional style where they attribute their successes to external factors like luck or chance while attributing failures or negative feedback to internal factors such as their lack of intelligence or potential.
There is also evidence that people with impostor syndrome score lower on the personality dimensions of honesty and humility.
“Impostors seem to have less of a sense of being honest and humble,” say the researchers. “The lower sense of honesty fits with the feeling of piling on and pretending to be competent. The reduced assessment of being modest could result from the fact that impostors are very modest and are too modest in stating their modesty. In other words, you are so modest that you rate yourself as less modest.”
This fits with the narrative that people with impostor syndrome have an overactive sense of self-doubt, so much so that it interferes with their ability to put their best foot forward in professional situations.
“Very high self-doubt is not conducive to a career,” says Ibrahim. “The fears lead to not facing challenges and not being able to grow from them. People with high impostor syndrome tend to set themselves either very high or very low goals. Very low goals do not pose challenges, and very high goals are rarely achieved, whereby failures can be attributed externally.”
The researchers identified six other personality characteristics related to this:
- Competence doubt — the tendency to doubt one’s abilities and be afraid of failure, even when failure could be professionally enriching
- Working style — the tendency to procrastinate at work
- Alienation — a feeling of phoniness or isolation from oneself
- Other-self divergence — perceiving others' expectations of one’s abilities as considerably inflated
- Ambition — the need to be successful and to achieve something significant
- Need for sympathy — placing a high value on being liked by others
Taken together, this portrays a complicated picture of the prototypical individual suffering from impostor syndrome. On one hand, these people tend to possess a keen awareness of their strengths and limitations, perhaps having greater self-insight than most. However, such self-insight can come at a cost, especially when it promotes self-doubt and disengagement from challenges and learning opportunities.
The researchers offer one practical piece of advice for individuals struggling with this: be smart with the goals you set for yourself. For instance, setting medium-difficulty goals are most likely to provide an undistorted view of one’s abilities.
“Imposter syndrome can be a motivational asset as long as these feelings do not become overpowering,” says Ibrahim. “That may explain why feelings of inadequacy and success sometimes seem to coincide. Optimally, one would use this motivation to move forward while managing the negative influences.”
Ibrahim, Fabio. How To Not Let Impostor Syndrome Get In The Way Of Your Greatness. Therapytips.org, 6 Oct. 2021.
Ibrahim F, Münscher J-C and Herzberg PY (2021) Examining the Impostor-Profile—Is There a General Impostor Characteristic? Front. Psychol. 12:720072. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.720072