Column: Imposter Syndrome doesn’t have to take over your life

by Dr. Katherine Helm
Published: Last Updated on
Column: Imposter Syndrome doesn't have to take over your life
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Most people have struggled with feelings of insecurity and self-doubt in environments that we feel expose us.  This article will explore the Imposter Syndrome (IS) and how it disproportionately impacts African Americans in educational, professional, and romantic settings.

Whether in college, law school, medical school or a new romantic relationship, IS can erode one’s self- confidence.  Individuals who struggle with IS typically feel like they do not have the intelligence, skills, and talent to make it in certain environments.

In romantic relationships, individuals feel like they might be “found out” and that they are not as wonderful as their new partner thinks they are.

Those who struggle with IS describe feeling like a fraud and fear being exposed by others.  This “exposure” means that everyone knows that the IS sufferer does not belong in their professional setting.  Typical IS-producing environments include work, educational, and/or professional settings.  IS often affects high-achieving people who describe suffering bouts of insecurity and questioning their abilities to attain and maintain a high level of success.  I remember struggling with IS myself in college and graduate school.  IS can bring on feelings of anxiety and depression.

Column: Imposter Syndrome doesn't have to take over your life

IS Research

The 1970s brought the first wave of Imposter Syndrome research, when many women were working in professional settings in larger numbers than in previous decades.

Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes were the first researchers to coin the term “imposter phenomenon.” Today, research demonstrates that people of color are disproportionately impacted by the imposter syndrome (IS) and although initial research found that women more often suffered from IS than men, subsequent research demonstrates that women and men struggle with IS equally, though the way IS is experienced by males and females may be different

Essentially, Imposter Syndrome is emotionally painful for those who struggle with it because it produces a negative frame of mind and has individuals doubting themselves.  It erodes confidence, produces significant stress, and takes away one’s satisfaction in completing work-related tasks.

How IS impacts Black students

Taylor Coleman, writer for the George-Anne Media Group, writes that as many as 70% of Americans experience IS.  

Coleman quotes research that African Americans in higher education settings often feel socially isolated from their White peers and that  “some African American students experience Impostor Syndrome due to lack of funding and support for school (scholarships, grants, etc), racial discrimination, lack of diversity on campus, prejudice attitudes, microaggressions, and being a first-generation college student. “

Black students in predominantly White institutions (PWIs) frequently feel the weight of negative stereotypes about their academic performance (e.g. Black people are not smart).   For some, IS fades over time but for many, IS feelings persist for their entire careers.

Clance’s descriptors of IS sufferers include: needing to be the best, fear of failure, feeling fear and guilt about successes, characteristics of superman/superwomen, perfectionism, and a high motivation to succeed.  Individuals with IS cannot fully accept their successes and do not attribute their success to their own skills and hard work.

Dr. Kevin Cokley, a Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Myth of Black Anti-Intellectualism, has extensively explored IS with his colleagues and its impact on academic self-concept and academic performance in African American students and other students of color.  Academic self-concept is one’s capacity to be confident in one’s ability to do well in school.

What Causes IS?

IS can be caused by having perfectionistic standards, being in an environment in which there are few people who “look” like you (e.g. being the only person of color in a predominantly White environment), not internalizing previous accomplishments, underestimating your own abilities and talents, and overestimating others, as well as not trusting in your skills and intelligence.

IS can also show up in our relationships, especially when we are in a new romantic relationship or have a new friend group.  Sometimes being in a new setting causes individuals to socially compare themselves to others and draw unfounded negative conclusions about how they “measure up” to others.

Emotional, Cognitive, and Psychological Impact of Imposter Syndrome

If left unchallenged, IS can impact it’s suffers emotionally, cognitively, and psychologically.  People with IS can struggle with feelings of low self-worth, depression, and anxiety.  Dr. Cokley’s research demonstrates that IS sufferers are indeed distressed.

My counseling clients who suffer from IS always feel a need to prove themselves despite their high accomplishments and clear record of professional success.  In my practice with counseling clients I have found that IS struggles occur over our lifespans and can be triggered by getting a new job, a promotion, or being in a new romantic relationship. In other words, IS is not just an issue impacting college students or young people.  It has a much broader impact.

IS sufferers describe themselves as “always running a marathon” that they cannot stop.   IS can cause increased cortisol (stress) levels in the body, rob one of enjoyment of accomplishing tasks, and take away the ability to be proud of one’s self and one’s accomplishments.

How to Cope with Imposter Syndrome?

People can successfully cope with IS by internalizing their successes.

Those who struggle with IS typically have a demonstrated record of success and research shows that past successes often predict future successes.  Developing a strong support system of individuals who also have struggled with IS can go a long way in decreasing the IS’s impact. 

For example, some studies have found that when African American freshmen college students at PWIs are paired with African American peer mentors (e.g. juniors or seniors in college) their levels of IS go down presumably because they can talk about their struggles with those they feel can normalize IS and debunk its impact.

Additionally, having faculty and staff of color show additional support to Black students struggling with IS has also been shown to decrease its impact

Similarly, in other environments (e.g. business) the same concept of receiving support from trusted others who have worked in the same setting is critical to decreasing IS.

Ultimately, Imposter Syndrome is mitigated when its sufferers are able to contribute their success to factors such as their own intelligence, skills, and hard work.

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