Whether you know it as Impostor Syndrome, impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome, or the impostor experience, this psychological pattern is real. It can affect us all regardless of our job or social status.
According to the International Journal of Behavioral Science study conducted in 2011 by the Behavioral Science Research Institute, what was once believed to only affect professional women, in fact, has an impact on approximately 70% of people. This means that both men and women will experience at least one episode of impostor syndrome in their lives.
The research describes the syndrome as a phenomenon that “causes distress and maladaptive behavior.” Dr. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes revealed after their observations in a clinical setting that individuals with the Impostor Syndrome “experience intense feelings that their achievements are undeserved and worry that they are likely to be exposed as a fraud.”
Many more researchers have identified certain factors that contribute to impostorism: some of them are perfectionism and family environment, fears that, according to the study, if prolonged, lead to clinical levels of depression or anxiety.
“Impostor syndrome can occur in both genders without distinction; however, it is common to see many women suffer from it. This syndrome occurs with greater notoriety in those women (people) who have not developed a healthy level of self-esteem,” said Nadereeh Abud, Psychologist with a master in management and team development in Organizations, and Motivational Speaker to BELatina. “Therefore, the lower the self-esteem they have of themselves, the lower the recognition of their abilities and achievements.”
Besides hypothesizing that the phenomenon only affected females, the 1978 study also fails to account for people of color’s experience. Results that, according to Lincoln Hill, mental health counselor, researcher, wellness consultant, and counseling psychology, only reveal the experience of “White, educated, middle to upper-class women.”
The University of Texas at Austin revealed that the impostor phenomenon is negatively impacting the self-esteem, well-being, and mental health of ethnic minority students. According to their study, from 322 ethnic minority students, 106 African Americans, 102 Asian Americans, and 108 Latinx Americans perceived “discrimination and impostor feelings,” leading to having an impact on their mental health.
“Unlike white students who may experience impostorism, I believe that the ethnic minority student experience of impostorism is often racialized because ethnic minority students are aware of the stereotypes about intelligence that exist about their racial/ethnic groups,” said Kevin Cokley, a UT Austin professor of educational psychology and African and African Diaspora Studies and director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis.
“However, our results suggest that ethnic minority students are not a monolithic group and that the impact of impostorism differs for each group.”
The researchers also found that among African American and Asian American students, impostor feelings had a high impact on their anxiety levels after perceiving discrimination, however, for Latinx students, high impostor feelings led to anxiety, “and low impostor feelings exacerbated the impact of perceived discrimination on depression and anxiety.”
“The findings for Latino/a students are counterintuitive,” Cokley said. “A cultural factor may explain the findings. It is possible that Latino/a students who have low impostor feelings may also be more prone to adopt a more bleak view where they give up personal control because they believe they cannot control what people think about them.”
In 2019, NBC News shared the story of Rigo Pérez, a first-generation Mexican-American in San José, California, who graduated from Cornell University and was among one of only 18 students accepted to the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California.
According to Pérez, even though he always excelled at school, he also experienced the Impostor Syndrome after racial comments and scrutiny.
“I faced some people questioning whether I deserved to be at Cornell, and I face that even today with med school, with people trying to interrogate you based on your background,” Pérez said. “The other day, a co-worker asked me about my GPA and asked, ‘Aren’t you one of those ethnic, those first-gen kids?’”
Racial stereotypes and labels can make people believe that their achievements are based on ethnic background and that companies or academic institutions recruit or accept them just to check on the “diversity column” instead of their capability or intelligence.
“I had multiple, very racial moments where people were like, ‘You’re only there to increase their diversity numbers,’ comments like that, and at first you’re like, ‘Oh God, that’s awful,’” said Marial Mendez, a graduate of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and a Harvard Medical School student. “But then, after someone repeats it a couple of times, you start to question, like, ‘OK, but am I?’”
Whether you are a student or have already secured a fantastic job, Nadereeh Abud suggests that when successful people doubt their accomplishments, it is time to do an internal evaluation.
“For these cases, it is recommended that women (people) strive to create a healthy perception of themselves, promoting activities that improve their self-esteem through an in-depth evaluation of the path traveled, accomplishments, and the recognition they constantly obtain from others,” she said to BELatina. “It is also very important to note that in most cases, a psychotherapy specialist is required to guide the person in order to achieve the desired results and thus obtain a change in behavior.”
Internationally recognized expert on impostor syndrome and author of the award-winning book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Valerie Young, Ed.D. founded the Impostor Syndrome website. Here, Young shares her guide to take the important first step of fighting back the impostor syndrome or, as she describes it, “simple but non-negotiable strategies” to overcome this phenomenon.
10 Steps You Can Use to Overcome Impostor Syndrome by Valerie Young, Ed.D.
- Break the silence. Shame keeps a lot of people from “fessing up” about their fraudulent feelings. Knowing there’s a name for these feelings and that you are not alone can be tremendously freeing.
- Separate feelings from fact. There are times you’ll feel stupid. It happens to everyone from time to time. Realize that just because you may feel stupid, doesn’t mean you are.
- Recognize when you should feel fraudulent. If you’re one of the first or the few women or a minority in your field or workplace, it’s only natural you’d sometimes feel like you don’t totally fit in. Instead of taking your self-doubt as a sign of your ineptness, recognize that it might be a normal response to being an outsider.
- Accentuate the positive. Perfectionism can indicate a healthy drive to excel. The trick is not to obsess over everything being just so. Do a great job when it matters most, without persevering over routine tasks. Forgive yourself when the inevitable mistake happens.
- Develop a new response to failure and mistake making. Henry Ford once said, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” Instead of beating yourself up for being human and blowing the big project, do what professional athletes do and glean the learning value from the mistake and move on.
- Right the rules. If you’ve been operating under misguided rules like, “I should always know the answer,” or “Never ask for help,” start asserting your rights. Recognize that you have just as much right as the next person to be wrong, have an off-day, or ask for assistance.
- Develop a new script. Your script is that automatic mental tape that starts playing in situations that trigger your Impostor feelings. When you start a new job or project instead of thinking, for example, “Wait till they find out I have no idea what I’m doing,” try thinking, “Everyone who starts something new feels off-base in the beginning. I may not know all the answers, but I’m smart enough to find them out.”
- Visualize success. Do what professional athletes do. Spend time beforehand, picturing yourself making a successful presentation or calmly posing your question in class. It sure beats imagining impending disaster and will help with performance-related stress.
- Reward yourself. Break the cycle of continually seeking and then dismissing validation outside of yourself by learning to pat yourself on the back.
- Fake it ‘til you make it. Now and then, we all have to fly by the seat of our pants. Instead of considering “winging it” as proof of your ineptness, learn to do what many high achievers do and view it as a skill. The point of the worn-out phrase, fake it til you make it, still stands: Don’t wait until you feel confident to start putting yourself out there. Courage comes from taking risks. Change your behavior first and allow your confidence to build.