If you struggle with imposter syndrome, scientists might have an odd solution

You don’t belong here. They’re onto you. Everybody is going to find out the truth. It’s only a matter of time.

Dark thoughts like these are symptoms of something called impostor syndrome: a strange psychological phenomenon that makes ordinary people – even brilliant ones – feel like they’re frauds, fakes, inadequate, and undeserving.

It doesn’t have to be that way, new research shows.

In a study examining the coping strategies of college students who perceived themselves as impostors, researchers found that one strategy in particular helped people see through their illusions of inadequacy.

The technique that helped alleviate feelings of impostorism was seeking out social support – but there’s a considerable caveat about this strategy to be aware of.

According to the research, which interviewed students enrolled in an intensive, high-achieving accounting program, you need to be very careful about who you choose to seek social support from – as turning to the wrong audience can actually amplify negative feelings of impostorism, not reduce them.

So who should you turn to? The findings suggest it’s helpful to ‘reach out’ to people who aren’t part of the peer group in which you feel like an impostor – such as seeking the counsel and companionship of family, friends, and significant others.

People who don’t trigger your sense of not belonging, in other words.

“Those outside the social group seem to be able to help students see the big picture and recalibrate their reference groups,” says organisational leadership researcher Jeff Bednar from Brigham Young University.

“After reaching outside their social group for support, students are able to understand themselves more holistically rather than being so focused on what they felt they lacked in just one area.”

In the first of two experiments, the researchers interviewed 20 of the accounting students, who had just completed their first year of the intensive course.

“Most of the students we interviewed were extremely successful in high school and their first few years of college, which had helped create a self-concept founded on being a high achieving student,” the authors explain in their paper.

“However, after these students were admitted to the undergraduate accounting program they began competing against an increasingly impressive peer group. Many began to feel a sense of impostorism because they encountered a large group of other students who were able to perform at their same level, making it increasingly difficult to view themselves as one of the ‘best’ students in their classes.”

Once amidst this competitive cohort, many of the students freely admitted they began to doubt themselves and their own abilities – a feeling perhaps best exemplified in a comment made by one of the participants, called ‘Sarah’ (real names are not used in the paper).

“You are surrounded by people who are all very intelligent… There are just some people who get it naturally,” Sarah said.

“How did I get in here? How did they accept me? I must have slipped through the cracks somehow.”

In the study, the researchers describe a number of coping strategies the students mentioned they used to deal with these negative feelings, with ‘reaching out’ for emotional support (or help with their course) seeming to be beneficial for a majority of the group – reducing perceptions of impostorism for 10 out of 15 students.

In stark contrast, ‘reaching in’ – seeking social support from inside the competitive student peer group – had a vastly different outcome, with 12 out of 14 participants saying it either maintained or amplified their perceptions of being an impostor.

“Kate said reaching ‘in’ to her peers in the program made her want to ‘kind of seclude into a ball’,” the paper explains.

“Similarly, Chris said seeking support from peers in the program made him want to ‘go throw up in the toilet’.”

The findings, the researchers suggest, contradict some previous research into the impostor syndrome, by suggesting it’s not an individual, dispositional syndrome, but a psychological phenomenon based on a setting an individual may find themselves in.

“Most studies of impostorism have viewed the impostor syndrome as a trait-like characteristic,” the authors write.

“In contrast, our study suggests that these perceptions are somewhat malleable, triggered by certain characteristics of the context and subject to management.”

In a second study with a separate cohort of students from the same program, the researchers wanted to see whether they could replicate what they saw in the first group: that social support from outside a peer group alleviated impostorism, and if support from within would increase the feelings of being a fraud.

Survey responses collected from over 200 students broadly supported the findings in the first experiment, suggesting the source of social support is a “key factor to consider” in mitigating the impostor syndrome, with social support itself not being a “unidimensional construct” that helps regardless of where it comes from.

The findings also suggest – based on class grades obtained in the second experiment – that the impostor syndrome bears little relation to students’ academic performance.

“According to our findings, social related factors influence impostorism more than an individual’s actual ability or demonstration of competence,” the researchers write.

“This supports the notion that impostorism can exist despite a person demonstrating their capabilities and achievement to merit belonging to a group.”

That’s an important observation, and it’s certainly true that many well-known and successful people are subject to impostor syndrome, regardless of their individual accomplishments.

A captivating anecdote by author Neil Gaiman makes the same point about as well as it could ever be made, as others have pointed out.

“Some years ago, I was lucky enough [to be] invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things,” Gaiman says.

“And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.”

At the gathering, Gaiman met a man who told him, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent”.

“Yes,” Gaiman told him. “But you were the first man on the Moon. I think that counts for something”.

“And I felt a bit better,” Gaiman says.

“Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.”

The findings are reported in Journal of Vocational Behavior.

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