A Reality Check for Imposter Syndrome
Lean on those outside of your typical circle for support.
Posted Nov 21, 2019
By Sofia Quaglia
Many people sometimes feel like a fraud—even if they possess the skills to succeed or have already notched key achievements.
This perception of inadequacy and feeling as though others simply aren’t aware of one’s true level of competence is colloquially known as “imposter syndrome” or “impostorism.” It may occur in the classroom or the workplace, and it can undermine one’s performance or lead to an early career exit. It’s also correlated with measures of anxiety and depression.
The pitfalls of impostorism underscore the need to identify effective coping strategies. Turning to people outside of one’s academic or professional circle for support may be a useful approach, a recent study published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior suggests—perhaps because such people can help one reassess one’s value and reflect on priorities.
“These people were able to help recalibrate the person’s perspective,” says lead researcher Richard Gardner, of the Lee Business School at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “They could say, ‘You’re actually doing quite well. You see the good in [your peers], but everybody sees that in you as well.’”
He and his colleagues examined a cohort of young professionals in a rigorous undergraduate program for accounting and finance. They first conducted 20 in-depth interviews, exploring if and why the respondents perceived themselves as impostors and how they addressed or escaped that feeling.
The interviewees reported using a variety of tactics, including both potentially helpful and harmful ones. They engaged in unrelated activities, such as playing sports or videogames, to distract themselves. They masked their feelings of impostorism with false confidence. They shifted who they were comparing themselves to, reflecting on how they were performing on a larger scale. They sought out social and emotional support or provided it to others who may have felt similarly, fostering a sense of community.
The researchers further investigated the role of social support by surveying 213 young professionals in the same program. The participants completed three surveys throughout the year detailing their feelings of impostorism and the kinds of support they received.
The more participants reported receiving support from peers in their program, the more they tended to agree with statements such as “Sometimes I’m afraid others will discover how much knowledge or ability I really lack.” The interviews conducted in the earlier study suggested to the researchers that peer interactions may have fed feelings of incompetence, rejection, and self-doubt and perpetuated the comparison between them and their peers.
By contrast, perceiving general support from family, friends, or a “special person” was associated with lower levels of imposter beliefs. The researchers suggest this may be partly because such close others are the most likely to care for an up-and-coming professional unconditionally—regardless of how they perform in their chosen field. The previously conducted interviews suggested that these individuals may confirm one’s sense of worth and help one put doubts into context and reevaluate perceived inadequacy.
Based on the interviewees’ accounts, feelings of impostorism seemed to be lower when there was a sense of equality in the relationship between the respondent and the person they were going to for assistance, especially within their peer group. That could be because impostorism is fed by a lack of information about how much others are struggling or succeeding, according to Gardner, and may be reduced when others are open about their feelings of self-doubt.
“Having a social support system is great—depending on what they’re trying to reflect back to you,” asks Adam Persky of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who was not involved with the research. Having a parent tell you that you’re great, for example, may still have to be accompanied by practical facts and examples about your accomplishments to dispel feelings of fraudulence, Persky says. “Are these people actually going to provide you with data to remove your cognitive distortion?”
Plus, people in competitive environments need to learn how to accept praise and internalize positive feedback, according to Persky. Raising awareness of impostor syndrome is also key. “Some of these students didn’t even know they had imposter syndrome,” he says. “What does it look like when you see it? What is the trigger? Is it always there?”
Gardner suggests that leaders in academic and professional settings foster a culture of support, making sure that professors encourage students and that colleges and business leaders provide access to counseling for those who need it. Members of competitive communities could also share personal failures and weaknesses to help change how people view their coworkers and readjust warped standards to which some individuals hold themselves. For example, Gardner shares with his students Princeton professor Johannes Haushofer’s curriculum vitae of failures, a public resume of all the times the professor did not get a position, a grant, or a research project.
“These types of experiences bring people down to earth,” Gardner says.
Sofia Quaglia is a Psychology Today Editorial Intern.
Richard G. Gardner, Jeffrey S. Bednar, Bryan W. Stewart, James B. Oldroyd, Joseph Moore. “I must have slipped through the cracks somehow”: An examination of coping with perceived impostorism and the role of social support. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 2019.