Imagine this: You’re sitting in a room filled with other professionals who are around the same age and work or study within your same discipline. They all appear to be qualified and successful. Everyone seems like they know exactly what’s going on. Suddenly you panic, asking yourself: What am I doing here?
If you can relate to this feeling, then you may have experienced a phenomenon known as imposter syndrome, a feeling that you are a phony even if your qualifications and capabilities make you the real deal. And according to a study published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, the feeling is not that uncommon; one-in-five students report having experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their academic career.
But how do we deal with it?
To answer this, researchers at Brigham Young University interviewed 20 accounting students (admittedly a small sample size) about their program and academic experience, asking questions like “tell us how you decided to major in accounting.” Students were then read the definition of imposter syndrome and were asked to self-report how accurately this described them on a 10-point scale. They were also asked to explain any triggering events and how they had coped with feelings of insecurity.
The team found that 20 percent of college students in the survey reported having feelings of imposterism.
“I have to hide myself from everyone because I can’t let them know that I suck,” said one respondent.
Though there were multiple coping methods that students reported, the most common was seeking social support from people outside of their academic program. Students who sought help from within their major felt worse more often than they felt better, but those who reached out to family and friends outside of their major, even professors, saw their perceptions of being an imposter decline.
“Those outside the social group seem to be able to help students see the big picture and recalibrate their reference groups,” said study co-author Jeff Bednar in a statement. “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 second phase of the study, interviews with more than 200 students confirmed that reaching out to individuals outside one's major was more effective than speaking to those within it.
Students reported a variety of negative coping strategies as well, including finding escapes to take their mind off of the feelings, like video games, which were more detrimental in the long wrong. Others said they used “masking” strategies to hide their emotions around their classmates, pretending to be confident and excited when they were feeling insecure about belonging.
Longer periods of feeling like an imposter have been linked to anxiety and depression, yet one’s perceptions of being an imposter does not translate to actually being one. Most people who suffer from imposter syndrome are still capable of doing their job.
“The root of impostorism is thinking that people don’t see you as you really are,” said co-author Bryan Stewart. “We think people like us for something that isn’t real and that they won’t like us if they find out who we really are.”
The researchers say that their findings can be applied to the workplace as well, highlighting the importance of creating cultures where people can talk about failures and mistakes so that employees may seek help from within the organization.