It’s the first day of your new job and you’re expected to bring your expertise to the table, but all you can think is when will they see through me? You think this feeling will go away after you get more comfortable with the job, but six months later, you still feel that insecurity, that nagging doubt, even if you know what you are doing, maybe you don’t? There’s a name for this. It’s called impostor syndrome.
The good news: it doesn’t mean you’re an impostor or that you are alone in feeling this way. The important thing to remember, says Mika Handelman, Ph.D., a post-doc fellow at the University Psychological Clinic, is that impostor syndrome can happen to anyone, at any stage of their professional career.
“Sometimes, the more you succeed, the more you are waiting to be found out,” she said.
Dr. Handelman, who works primarily with students and faculty members, has noticed an increase in the number of clients she sees struggling with impostor syndrome, formerly called impostor phenomenon. Impostor syndrome, in a nutshell, is the incorrect belief that your accomplishments are because of luck or deceit — not your own hard work. Awareness about impostor syndrome is growing as more people feel comfortable sharing their experience, but many still struggle in silence.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
Anyone can struggle with impostor syndrome, even those who are academically, professionally, and socially successful. Achievement does not affect the type of self doubt that manifests as impostor syndrome. Suzanne Imes, Ph.D. and Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., the first to define impostor syndrome, initially thought it only affected women. Further study has revealed that anyone can have impostor syndrome, but being in the minority at school or work, whether that is because of your race, gender, age or sexual orientation, can increase the impostor-type feelings.
The insecurity is difficult on its own, but can also be accompanied by depression or anxiety, which can grow to be debilitating. For those struggling with impostor syndrome, the nagging self doubt is not soothed by objective achievements — which can feed the cycle, manifesting a self-fulfilling prophecy. Often, those with impostor syndrome are not able to take ownership of their hard work or intelligence. They externalize their successes, meaning they make it about the environment, luck, being in the right place at the right time, etc. rather than recognizing the role their talents, hard work and strategies play in moving them forward. Additionally, people with impostor syndrome may set impossibly high standards or become overly self-critical.
Let’s break that down further:
The cycle of impostor syndrome, described by Dr. Clance, is typically initiated by a specific assignment. For example, Susan’s manager assigns her a large, important project that she will then present to her company. Susan feels anxious and worried that this project will be the one that breaks open her insecurities, finally exposing her as the fraud she feels she is. She will likely react one of two ways: procrastinate or over-prepare.
After Susan gives the presentation she feels relieved for a short time—and maybe even an initial sense of accomplishment. Soon, however, these positive feelings wear off and Susan begins to attribute her success to either luck if she procrastinated, or simply hard work that anyone could have done if she over-prepared. She does not see this as proof of her ability, and the cycle repeats itself when she is given or seeks out another responsibility. For those with impostor syndrome, achievement does not indicate ability.
Who Experiences Impostor Syndrome?
Impostor syndrome can affect anybody—no matter what their life looks like on the outside. Many young adults find that the environment of graduate school or the transition into the job market contribute to struggles with impostor syndrome. In addition, being in a minority group at work or school may intensify the pressure to be more successful than others. They may attribute their job offer or school acceptance to sympathy, in addition to luck, because of their minority status. It is also important to understand that impostor syndrome can be triggered by anything — success or failure, positive or negative feedback.
Researchers in social psychology are trying to understand what causes impostor syndrome. While the research is still in its early stages, some evidence links impostor syndrome to childhood experiences. The American Psychological Association, quoting Dr. Imes, states that parental emphasis on achievement, combined with societal pressure to succeed can increase impostor syndrome effects. Many who struggle with impostor syndrome report growing up in households where they were praised for innate intellectual ability or natural talent, not hard work that led to success. This focus on natural ability as the cause of achievement can foster a warped view of success that continues to grow as a person enters adulthood, where they face societal pressure to achieve. While the origins of impostor syndrome are starting to become more clear, additional research is needed to explore why it happens and how we can address it.
Breaking the Cycle: How You Can Manage Impostor Syndrome
Techniques for managing impostor syndrome, according to Dr. Handelman, are based on reframing accomplishments and setting healthy expectations. Find a way to internalize accomplishments as objective proof. For example, use good grades, meaningful letters of recommendation, or awards as reminders of success. When feeling anxious or fearful about being “found out,” tangible elements will help you own your accomplishments.
Speaking honestly to peers or mentors can help you embrace a healthier perspective on achievement. Impostor syndrome can be isolating, but remember these key things:
- Everyone has to ask for help sometimes.
- Perfection is not a realistic expectation — for anyone.
- Failure does not define you.
When facing failure, Dr. Handelman advocates for approaching challenges with a growth mindset because, “struggling, and failing, and learning are all part of the process.” Cultivating a growth mindset means understanding that improvement often means stretching outside the comfort zone and failure is a natural part of that. She notes that taking risks can pay off in a big way: recognizing the importance of failure to help us grow can be effective in battling the symptoms of impostor syndrome. But fully internalizing that message can be difficult.
Dr. Handelman advocates for building self-compassion to help work through these feelings. Self-compassion—a skill that combines accountability when mistakes do happen and kindness when the outcome is less than desirable—means taking ownership for the things you can control and letting go of the things you cannot.
What Does it Look Like? Characteristics of Impostor Syndrome
Feeling like an impostor is a lonely experience. The constant fear of being “found out” often makes it a silent burden. According to Dr. Handelman, those with impostor syndrome will often:
- Work too hard to make up for perceived inadequacy.
- Avoid opportunities because of the possibility of failure.
- Procrastinate because they fear the product won’t be good enough.
- Spend hours over-preparing, at the expense of self-care or work-life balance.
- Avoid asking for help because they fear others would know that they “aren’t perfect”.
- Equate their self-worth with their failures.
When to Ask for More Help
If your feelings of inadequacy are not improving, or the accompanying anxiety or depression are affecting your day-to-day living, the next step is seeking professional help. Dr. Handelman recommends looking for a therapist or clinician who is familiar with impostor syndrome or managing stress. Often professionals who work in or around universities have experience with clients with these types of feelings, so consider beginning your search there. A professional will be able to help you work through these feelings and build a healthy view of success. Think of it as hiring a guide to help you navigate through the woods—you might be able to do it yourself, but having someone familiar with the terrain can be more efficient in getting you to the top of the hill.
The University Psychological Clinic at U-M offers both individual therapy as well as group therapies that can help you address the challenges within impostor syndrome, as well as other mental health symptoms. Dr. Handelman has also presented on impostor syndrome on-campus. Call (734) 764-3471 or visit psychclinic.org for more information on how to pursue care or to invite Dr. Handelman to speak.