Bias #176: Impostor Syndrome; 4-minute read
Defined:Impostor Syndrome: The feeling of intellectual phoniness; the sensation that you’ve only succeeded due to luck, and not because of your talent or qualifications; a cognitive distortion that prevents people from feeling a sense of accomplishment.
Described:It’s Halloween! As trick-or-treaters scurry about this evening, remember that October 31 is not the only day many people wear masks. Most of us—about 70%, it turns out1—feel like we’re pretending to be someone we’re not from time to time throughout the year. If you ever feel like a fraud in your own life, blame impostor syndrome.
Impostor syndrome—also known as the impostor phenomenon and impostorism—is a distorted and unsustainable sense of competence. It affects men and women, students and professionals (across various occupations and experience levels), and it can be crippling.
People who suffer from impostor syndrome (“impostors”) experience it as a vicious cycle that begins when they’re assigned a task that triggers their anxiety. They react by either over-preparing or procrastinating and then rushing to complete the assignment. They may feel a brief sense of accomplishment and relief immediately after, but it doesn’t last.
If people praise them for a good job, impostors won’t attribute their success to their own ability. Instead, if they over-prepared, they’ll credit hard work. If they procrastinated, they’ll chalk it up to luck. Consequently, the more success an impostor experiences, the more they feel like a fraud.
Here’s how Valerie Young, an expert on the condition, describes the experience:
“Self-doubt and negative feedback weigh heavily on the mind, but praise barely registers. You attribute your failures to a stable, inner core of ineptness. Meanwhile, you discount your success as accidental … Every positive is a false positive.”2
How to combat impostor syndrome:
There is a strong argument for leveraging social proof to minimize impostor syndrome and help your audience achieve better outcomes. According to Young, “A sense of belonging fosters confidence … The more (successful) people who look or sound like you, the more confident you feel.”3
You can also help prevent impostor syndrome from dictating a person’s actions by giving them the tools (e.g. relevant information, support, confidence, etc.) to talk themselves through it. “They can still have an impostor moment, but not an impostor life,” says Young.
Anyone with impostor syndrome should try one of these remedies from neuroscientist, leadership coach, and medical doctor Tara Swart:4
Practice positive affirmation. Have a positive, self-affirming phrase and repeat it when you feel self-doubt.
Focus on successes. Pause to consider the things you’ve already accomplished. They’re proof of your competence.
Retrain your brain with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT can overwrite negative habits with new positive ones.
Impostor syndrome has a lot to do with self-confidence (or lack thereof). So, boosting your audience’s confidence in their own ability to follow a suggested behavior is a great way to mitigate impostor syndrome and motivate positive behavior.
If you suffer from impostor syndrome—and happen to be looking for a Halloween costume—consider dressing up as Stuart Smalley from Saturday Night Live’s Daily Affirmations.5 Better yet, try living by his credo for the rest of the year:
“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”
About the author:
This Bias Brief was written by Greg Stielstra, the Senior Director of Behavioral Science at Lirio. Greg is a behavior change expert and published author with over 25 years of experience in marketing and engagement.
- Sakulku, Jaruwan and James Alexander. “The Impostor Phenomenon.” International Journal of Behavioral Science.
- Gravois, John. “You’re Not Fooling Anyone.” The Chronicle of Higher Education
- Abrams, Abigail. “Yes, Impostor Syndrome Is Real. Here’s How to Deal With It.” Time.
- About Dr. Tara Swart, TaraSwart.com
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