WHAT IS IMPOSTOR SYNDROME?
Most of us have at some time doubted ourselves – whether it’s wondering if we have what it takes to pass a course, earn an advanced degree, or excel in our role at a new job. Setting high standards and overcoming self-doubt to accomplish our goals builds confidence and empowers us to meet new challenges.
But what if holding ourselves to excessively high standards veers into a perfectionist mindset? Self-doubt can escalate into constantly worrying that, despite evidence to the contrary, we aren’t worthy of our achievements. Perhaps we become fearful that the next exam or presentation will reveal our lack of competence—and others will find out we’re a fraud—so we push ourselves to overwork and risk burnout.
Impostor Syndrome’s Relation to Psychology
Caught in a downward spiral of self-doubt, fear of failure, perfectionism, and impostor feelings. If this sounds like you, know that you are not alone. Bravata, D.M., et al. (Journal of General Internal Medicine, Vol. 35, No.4, 2020) stated that up to 82 percent of people face feelings of impostor phenomenon. That’s even higher than the often-quoted 70 percent estimated by Ph.D. psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who, in 1978, coined the term “impostor phenomenon.” Colloquially often referred to as impostor syndrome, it is not an actual clinical diagnosis; impostor syndrome is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
Impostor feelings may include insecurities, but feeling insecure may not be impostor syndrome. Recognizing that you don’t have a background comparable to other people in your graduate program or on the job, you may feel insecure, but you could remedy that by taking supplemental courses or learning new skills. Unfortunately, there is no quick “fix” for doubting your intelligence, abilities, and skills or feeling like a fraud.
While not a diagnosable personality disorder, a perfectionist mindset can negatively affect relationships, academic pursuits, and performance at work. Perfectionism may also aggravate other mental health conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder. Impostor feelings can lead to anxiety or depression. According to the Edge Foundation, people diagnosed with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) are natural candidates for having impostor feelings. Accustomed to hiding their difficulties in school or at work, people with ADHD often grow up feeling they are faking it.
Why Do People Experience Impostor Syndrome?
No one knows exactly why people become perfectionists or feel like a fake. While anyone can have impostor feelings, Clance and Imes initially proposed that it predominated in high-achieving women. Later they recognized that men also develop impostor feelings. The tendency to become a perfectionist could be an inherited personality trait—but perfectionism is also learned. Growing up with family members who were extremely critical, and who reserved praise for significant achievements, may influence us as adults to feel we are never “good enough.” Continuously pressured to perform at an elevated level in school, sports, and later in the world of work—perfectionism can become a way to “earn” approval from others.
If, as children, we internalized negative remarks made about us, we may develop an “inner critic,” which is an inner negative stream of self-talk that demeans and discourages us. Dr. Christina Cruz, Psy.D, a life coach who specializes in low self-esteem, perfectionism, anxiety, depression, and body image, describes the role that early caregivers play: “Their voice and perceptions of us become our voice and become how we relate to ourselves. Because primary caregivers have such a strong role in our lives, it is difficult to develop a sense of self outside of what others believe us to be.”
What Part Does Culture Play?
Forbes Magazine cites a study by KPMG, a U.S. audit, tax, and advisory firm, that suggests impostor syndrome affects women and men differently. Men tend to avoid excessively challenging goals when feeling like an impostor, which leads to poorer performance. Women challenge themselves to prove their worth—but experience stress and anxiety, even if able to perform as expected.
KPMG found 75 percent of high-performing executive women across industries have experienced impostor syndrome at certain points in their careers. The 750 women polled in the study said they believe that impostor syndrome is commonly experienced by women in corporate America. More than half of them have felt afraid they won’t live up to expectations or that the people around them will not believe they are as capable as expected.
The concept of impostor syndrome has been criticized recently because what has been attributed to the individual may be more related to systemic dynamics of discrimination or exclusionary practices at the organizational level. People from marginalized backgrounds often experience self-doubt due to a lack of inclusion in their academic community or workplace.
Under-represented groups, including Black, indigenous people, and people of color, who work in predominantly white companies, often feel concerned their peers won’t accept them and they won’t fit in. Jolie A. Doggett, a reporter for HuffPost and a woman of color writes, “For people of color, impostor syndrome isn’t just an imaginary voice in our heads. We receive almost daily messages from society that we don’t truly belong.”
Joanne Lockwood, contributor to The HR Director, explains that LGBTQ+ workers and the trans community face huge barriers to inclusion. Feeling that they don’t belong contributes to the fear that they aren’t competent or good enough at work, so they feel they must work twice as hard to ‘prove’ their value.
Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey, in an article in the Harvard Business Review, point out that the original definition of impostor syndrome excluded prejudice and bias in the workplace. “Leaders must create a culture for women and people of color that addresses systemic bias and racism. Only by doing so can we reduce the experiences that culminate in so-called impostor syndrome among employees from marginalized communities—or at the very least, help those employees channel healthy self-doubt into positive motivation, which is best fostered within a supportive work culture.”
While undoubtedly prejudices and biases in academic communities and the workforce influence impostor feelings, we can develop a healthier mindset and become more resilient to face those cultural challenges.
HOW TO DEAL WITH IMPOSTER SYNDROME
Accept That You Can’t Always Be Perfect
Do you expect others to be perfect? Of course not. So why is it realistic to believe that you’re not allowed to make mistakes or need to know everything to be considered competent? We can begin to change a perfectionist mindset by realizing that no one expects us to be perfect.
Know You Can Fail
Failing feels uncomfortable—but isn’t it normal to experience failure as we work toward achieving success? Executive Coach Dr. Sam Collins, recommends practicing “routine failing.” She explains, “It means you are actually alive, doing something, moving forward.” Reflecting upon and writing down what you have learned from each failure—what worked, what didn’t, and how you might do it better next time—can help transform feelings of failure into meaningful information gleaned from each attempt.
Be Kind to Yourself
Doesn’t it make you feel good when you show kindness to others? Why not be compassionate with yourself, too? Setting reasonable goals, forgiving yourself for making mistakes, learning to graciously accept compliments from others, and focusing on your achievements are acts of kindness you can and should extend to yourself. Compassionate self-care includes regularly rewarding yourself with time to relax, enjoying the company of friends, and pursuing personal interests.
Track Your Success
Focusing on facts can support your appreciation of your strengths and abilities. Tracking specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals using a chart or spreadsheet provides an objective view of your progress. Journaling is another powerful tool with which you can explore thoughts and feelings. A few minutes a day spent jotting down notes allows you to reflect on what you are learning, as you progress from self-doubt toward increased self-confidence.
Find a Mentor
A counseling professional, friend, or colleague could all be potential mentors. You may want to have multiple mentors who serve as role models or confidants. Good mentors can be trusted to be supportive as you talk with them about your thoughts and feelings. When self-doubt creeps in, reach out to your mentors, some of whom may have worked through their own impostor feelings.
It’s OK Not to Know What You Are Doing
Relinquishing control by accepting that we won’t always know what we’re doing can be challenging at first—perhaps striving to be an “expert” has helped us defend against feeling incompetent. But having to be right also keeps us locked into rigid perfectionist beliefs. Accepting we don’t have to have all the answers opens us to new possibilities and helps us appreciate our genuine talents.
Remember Your Accomplishments
Writing down accomplishments provides tangible proof of your ingenuity, skills, and achievements. When self-doubt resurfaces, you can read the list back to yourself. Remember that while you are “imperfect,” what you have been doing well is of genuine value.
Learn to Reframe Your Thoughts
By becoming mindful of our internal self-talk and being kinder to ourselves, we can make positive choices about how we think and behave. The spreadsheet or list with which we track our progress and accomplishments will help us evaluate when the messages from our inner critical voice no longer resonate with our authentic selves.
As we become more confident, we might decide to mentor other individuals and join forces with people committed to creating supportive, equitable, and inclusive educational and work cultures.
EARNING YOUR PSYCHOLOGY DEGREE FROM JOHNSON & WALES UNIVERSITY
Johnson & Wales University (JWU) offers various psychology-focused degree programs, including a Bachelor of Science in Psychology, a Master of Science in Organizational Psychology, and a Master of Business Administration in Organizational Psychology. In the four-year undergraduate degree program, students learn about human behavior and what drives people to behave as they do. Graduates of the undergraduate program should have the necessary training to pursue an advanced degree in psychology or enter the workforce directly in fields such as human resources, social sciences, sales, criminology, and industrial organization.
The MS in Organizational Psychology is a two-year program that builds on the knowledge students gain in their undergraduate work. This program prepares students for leadership positions in any number of industries. In this program, you’ll learn how to use psychological theories to resolve issues and conflicts in the workplace, how to use professional communication skills to influence individual and group behavior in the workplace, and how to institute ethical and socially responsible practices and policies within an organization.
The MBA in Organizational Psychology is similar to the MS program. However, this two-year degree program also stresses workplace dynamics, team building, and project management. All three of these degree programs are offered at JWU’s Providence campus or may be completed 100 percent via online learning, which can be more convenient for students with full-time jobs and family and community obligations.