Impostor Syndrome: Why does it happen and what can we do about it?


I’ve been thinking about impostor syndrome a lot lately. Impostor syndrome is the inability to internalize accomplishments, or believing you actually deserve the things that you’ve accomplished, and the fear that you’ll be exposed as a fraud. I’ve been thinking about it much more frequently due to the fact that I was on the academic job market from September to February, which is a really long and time-consuming process that has challenged me to make sense of all the work I’ve done the past 7 or so years. It also required me to get up in front of entire departments and tell them about my research, answer their toughest questions, and then have individual meetings where I can be asked anything. As someone who struggles with impostor syndrome, I can tell you that this was an EXTREMELY stressful process. I could be exposed as an impostor at any moment!

I know this happens to many of us on any given day (and I would say pretty much everyone in academia every single day). I can’t help but feel that I’ve tricked everyone. Like, maybe I didn’t deserve to go to Notre Dame for undergrad. Were they just trying to fill their allotment of South Dakotans? And getting into the top-ranked grad program for developmental psych? Now that was DEFINITELY a fluke. Maybe I picked up on my dad’s bullshitting abilities and bullshitted my way to this point. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Every time I go to a meeting with an advisor or with an important person in my field, I spend hourspreparing for it. I constantly think, “Is this the meeting where they’re gonna figure me out? Where they’ll realize I am an idiot and always have been?” It’s a terrible fear…especially when I realize I’ve been in school or training in some capacity since I was 5. I feel like the more I learn, the less I feel like I know. I know my loving and well-meaning friends and family will reassure me that I earned my spot, but the thing about impostor syndrome is that it doesn’t matter how much reassurance I get. I just think…yep, I must have fooled them, too.

Impostor syndrome isn’t specific to academia. This can happen to anyone no matter their profession. Even people who feel like their lives are just going well in general can have the feeling that they do not deserve their life and things might fall apart (which can border on having moderate or severe problems with anxiety or depression).

Credit: Kristin Chirico/BuzzFeed

Credit: Kristin Chirico/BuzzFeed

[Side note: when you try to look up scientific articles on “impostor syndrome,” it returns a lot of articles on Capgras syndrome, which is sometimes called impostor syndrome because people with Capgras believe that someone they are close to (a partner, child, or event a pet) has been replaced by an identical impostor. No matter what you tell them, they still believe that it is not their loved one. It’s usually a symptom of paranoid schizophrenia or a brain injury or dementia. How crazy is that?!]

So, what is the deal with impostor syndrome? How can otherwise rational people be made to feel that they’re inadequate and that they’re frauds waiting to be exposed?

1. Social fear, comparison, and shame

Part of being human is having social relationships and being a part of a society. We rely on our caregivers when we’re young and not able to care for ourselves, and then we begin to rely more on friends and romantic partners as well as other family in less dependent, but still important, ways as we get older. We need to navigate social interactions to be able to get and keep a job, get along with our family and friends, and to get things that we need like food, shelter, and medical care. As a result, social relationships are really central to our safety, security, and our identity, which means that we put a very high value on our social standing and what others think of us. An interesting example that has been studied is in monkeys, who have a clear hierarchy of who are the dominant and subordinate monkeys and where each of them fall within the hierarchy. Similarly, humans have similar hierarchies, especially when you think of who has money or power in a society. Fear of losing power, money, or social status can be a really powerful driver of fear and action. Feeling like in impostor could be a way to protect ourselves from shame and disappointment in our eyes and in others' eyes following a failure by claiming that we had low expectations for our performance or we weren't qualified to do the task in the first place. These kinds of feelings and low expectations might make us feel more protected from changes in our social status following a failure.

Social media definitely doesn’t help our impostor feelings! I am as guilty as anyone of putting rosy pictures on social media showing only the best, most exciting parts of my life. I rarely post pictures of sitting on the couch writing a blog post and eating ice cream in my pajamas on a Friday night with my two overweight cats perched on top of me. [Unless you’re one of my sisters, who frequently get these Snapchats and screenshot them. RUDE.] Because we’re seeing the glamorous or successful sides of everyone else’s lives, we can think that we are undeserving by comparison, which can lead us to discount our successes. More frequent Facebook use is associated with lower self-esteem, partly due to more social comparisons. I'll often assume that people I see through social media have earned their amazing lives and that when something good happens to me, it's a fluke. I find it's important to catch myself when I'm making these kinds of assumptions about others or my own life so that I can think through whether they are actually true! Usually, they aren't. 

Credit: Kristin Chirico/BuzzFeed

Credit: Kristin Chirico/BuzzFeed

2. Biases in how we attribute our successes and failures

There are big differences in what we credit our successes and failures to. If you have a big success, you might think it's because you're awesome, or you might think it's because you got lucky. If you have a big failure, you might think it's due to bad luck, or it's because you are a bad or unworthy person. 

There is some evidence that females are more likely to attribute failures to their own personal failings, while males are more likely to think it was just bad luck. For class performance, males are more likely to attribute good performance to their ability while females are more likely to say they owed their success to studying hard and paying attention. In addition, males who did poorly were more likely to say that they had failed to study or just weren't interested in the topic, while females were more likely to say they lacked the ability to do well in the course. These attributions could definitely make someone feel inferior even if they were doing really well!

3. Personality

Some people are more likely to have feelings of impostor syndrome than others, and there are some personality factors that can make some people more likely to have these thoughts.

Research shows that people who have higher neuroticism (those who are prone to more negative emotions) as a personality trait are more likely to have impostor syndrome. Depression and anxiety are also related to impostor syndrome, as well as feeling that we are incompetent.

So now that we know about impostor syndrome, what can we do about it?

First and foremost, if your feelings of being an impostor are accompanied by feelings of depression and anxiety, it might be good to consider seeing a therapist who specializes in evidence-based therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, to relieve some of those symptoms. As we discussed above, depression and anxiety symptoms make you more likely to have these feelings of being a fraud, so relieving those symptoms could also help you deal with impostor syndrome as well.

If you're not experiencing significant depression or anxiety symptoms but still want to get past these feelings of feeling like an impostor, there are a few things that could help.

  1. One way we can reduce these feelings is by talking to others! I had no idea how many people had similar feelings of being an impostor (and we can't ALL be impostors, right?), and hearing that I wasn't alone in feeling this way has been really helpful. No, you're not getting by in life by fooling everyone you meet, and getting that social support from your friends, family, and colleagues can help you realize that! As a woman, it's been helpful to me to talk to other women about impostor syndrome to know I'm not alone. Start a conversation -- I think you'll get more reassurance that you're not alone than you could ever imagine!

  2. Talking to others also helps us realize that we can't know what's going on in others' minds and in their lives. Someone may project to the world that their life is perfect, but they may have major struggles that they are dealing with. Once we start realizing that others' lives are more complex and messy than we see them, we can stop comparing ourselves so much to others.

  3. Another more personal way to deal with feelings of impostor syndrome is to accept failure for what it is: something that we ALL deal with. And when we experience failure, we might feel that we deserve it since we were an impostor all along. Some people are more likely than others to believe that setbacks are all our fault and that it means we are worthless, which is totally untrue! Everyone has failures, and it doesn't mean we are incompetent, lazy, or undeserving when we are dealt a setback. While we can't totally free ourselves of responsibility for our choices, we can realize that things we can't control have effects on our lives. Don't let failures silence you in the future. Your unique voice and ideas matter. Changing your frame of mind is so important for reducing these feelings of being a fraud!

  4. Make sure you're getting joy in other areas of your life! If you feel that you're an impostor at work, imagine how much more intense those feelings will be if your life revolves around work and all your joy comes from how you do at work. That can be really destructive! By carving out time in our lives for things that help us create joy in other areas of our lives, we can be more multifaceted and able to see that our worth does not revolve around one aspect of our lives. I know that spending time with my family and friends is really fulfilling to me, so I spend most of my free time hanging out with them, which brings me joy. It also helps me to weather the tough periods in my career when I'm struggling or experiencing self-doubt. Find what fulfills you -- family, friends, hobbies, spirituality -- and devote some of your time and energy to that aspect of your life!

  5. You are able to change your environment for the better, and you should take advantage of that! If certain people or activities amp up your feelings of being a fraud, you can devote our time and energy to other people who support you and help you realize your talents. In addition, once you start to figure out if there are things that help you, you can create reminders in your environment. If you have a mantra that helps you remember all the challenges that you have overcome, you can write it on a sticky note on your desk or on your mirror. You can set a reminder on your phone to take a few minutes to feel grateful and remind yourself that you are uniquely talented and have purpose. You can set aside time in your schedule to do the things that bring you joy.

Credit: Explain XKCD Comic

Credit: Explain XKCD Comic

To wrap up the intro about me being on the job market, I thought I’d share that I was successful in getting a job as an assistant professor at the University of Denver! I’m so excited to be able to continue my research, teaching, and mentoring in the Department of Psychology there. And I’m also pretty excited about living in Denver. I’ll have a blog post soon on interview tips for anyone who wants to get an assistant professor job. There are a lot of things that I picked up from reading other people’s blogs, but also many things I learned along the way that helped me land my dream job!