Mind & Body

The Best Way to Deal With Impostor Syndrome, According to a New Study

For many people — maybe even you — performing at a high level can come with the nagging feeling like they don't belong. Maybe they feel like there was a mistake in the hiring process or a misjudgment of their skills, and they're just one mistake away from being uncovered as a fraud. Hello, impostor syndrome! If that's you, you can take solace in the fact that it's a common experience for high achievers. But how exactly are you supposed to deal with impostor syndrome when it pops up? And what's the worst way to combat the feeling?

A new Bringham Young study tested different coping strategies for impostor syndrome. The key, the study showed, is to get good social support — but you have to get it from people outside of your field.

(Almost) Everyone Feels Fake Sometimes

So says the new study, published by Richard Gardner, Jeffrey Bednar, Bryan Stewart, James Oldroyd, and Joseph Moore in the Journal of Vocational Behavior. The researchers were interested in the way impostor syndrome affects a critical group: college students training for future careers. They found 20 high-achieving accounting students and interviewed them about their feelings of impostorism. They asked them to think about how often they "look at those around them and feel like they do not belong, and [how] often [they] feel a need to keep others from finding out that they are frauds." #Relatable!

If that feeling of fraud sounds familiar, you're not alone. On a 1 to 10 scale (from "I never feel like that" to "That's me 100 percent of the time") more than half of the accounting students were above a 5. So the interviewers asked them what strategies they used to combat feelings of impostorism and how well those strategies worked. The only reason the researchers stopped at 20 interviews: The responses were all so similar that no new themes emerged.

The researchers immediately recognized commonalities among the students. Most were overachievers in high school and started to feel less exceptional when accepted to a highly ranked program with other smart kids. Even though not all students were succeeding in the program, many of the students interviewed thought that everyone else was doing better than they were. One student wondered, "How did I get in here? How did they accept me? I must have slipped through the cracks somehow."

The students who felt like they were admitted by mistake experienced more challenges in the accounting program. Their feelings of impostorism weighed on them and sometimes made it hard to perform.

You're Doing Great, Sweetie

Impostor syndrome is especially scary if it actually hurts your performance. What if feeling like a fraud actually makes you bad at your job? But never fear, researchers in this recent study were able to uncover some tips and tricks to help you feel less like an impostor and do your work better.

After their first study, they surveyed more than 200 other accounting students to determine how effective the strategies that came up during those first 20 interviews proved to be for others. That helped them determine some tried-and-true impostor syndrome coping strategies.

Do: Adjust your standards

Researchers found that accounting students who changed how they measured their own success felt less like impostors. Some reassessed their strengths and reminded themselves that it was okay to have some weaknesses. Others imagined an alternative, yet successful future self that wasn't dependent on their being the very best. One student explained how this strategy helped him: "I think it was just reminding myself that I would be fine. That I would get a good job. That I could always do a master's somewhere else. That kind of lessened the pain."

Do: Reach out, but not in

Researchers found that when students reached "in" to other students in their accounting program for support, they often felt worse. Instead, family and friends outside of their field could help them feel better.

"Those outside the social group seem to be able to help students see the big picture and recalibrate their reference groups," said Jeffrey Bednar in a press release. "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."

Don't: Fake not feeling fake

Here's what doesn't work: escapism and faking your feelings. When students tried to escape through video games or other distractions, their schoolwork took a hit. And when some interviewees tried to hide their feelings and fake excitement about their performance with friends, they continued to question how they were feeling.

Maybe that old "Mister Rogers" song could come in handy for most of us. Remember? "You're not a fake, you're not a mistake, you're my friend!" Just like that puppet in the land of make-believe reached out to a human — who is certainly outside of its working field — you can get support from your family and loved ones who aren't invested in the thing that makes you feel like a fraud. The more they say, "You're not a fake," the more likely you are to believe it.

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Need a little more help? Check out "Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior" by Mark Goulston and Philip Goldberg. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Kelsey Donk October 18, 2019

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