Columns

XXV.3 May-June 2018
Page: 22
Digital Citation

Is there a fix for impostor syndrome?


Authors:
Elizabeth Churchill

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“What do you do about stress?” she asked.
“What do you mean by stress?”
“Well… I feel like I will never fit in, like I’ll never be smart enough.
And that makes me stressed all the time.
Does that make sense?”

The young woman with whom I was speaking is the first in her family to enter a Ph.D. program. She excelled in her computer science undergraduate degree. She was admitted to an elite university to study with a key figure in HCI. By all accounts, she is doing extremely well. But she has doubts. Not about the institution, or her supervisor, or her topic, about which she is deeply passionate: She has doubts about herself and her worthiness to be in the program at all.

This is a conversation I have too frequently. It’s a conversation I have with people at all stages of career, sometimes even with my peers. In these conversations, people express fears that they don’t really belong, that they are interlopers who aren’t really “clever enough” or “good enough” or “well-rounded enough” or “deep enough” in their discipline. The fear is that they will be discovered to be in some way wanting, and that they will then be cast out, let go, fired from their positions—the fear of discovery that they are not good enough sometimes overwhelms them.

Over four decades ago, this feeling was found to be very common among high-achieving women; it was given a name, impostor syndrome, by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in the late 1970s [1]. Follow-on research has shown that impostor syndrome is very real and very prevalent, and that its effects are undeniably negative. Impostor syndrome is associated with overwork, with an overly keen focus on pleasing others, and with an almost desperate drive to constantly achieve more. It is therefore also unsurprising that there is a strong correlation between impostor syndrome and anxiety, stress, depression, and burnout, the debilitating condition of exhaustion that can result in talented individuals giving up on promising careers.

While the initial work that led to the coining of this term focused on women’s experiences of non-belonging and of “impostoritis,” and much published work since has also focused on women, men are not immune to impostor syndrome. I asked some of my male colleagues whether they also experience impostor syndrome and got a resounding yes. In researching the topic for this column, I read an article that suggested even Albert Einstein felt this way at times.

In her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Valerie Young breaks down impostor syndrome and adds nuance, describing different kinds of impostor and their behaviors:

  • The Expert. This manifests as a state of cringing denial when called an expert. It is associated with a constant feeling that there is so much more to know, so much more to do. There is a deep fear of being found out as not knowing everything in the area of work. This can lead to feeling like one doesn’t deserve the job one has.
  • The Perfectionist. Perfectionism underlies a feeling that one could have (and should have) done better. No matter how well the task was done, there is no accepting of compliments and no celebration of achievements. Sometimes there isn’t even a noticing of success, so it is no surprise that self-confidence does not develop.
  • The Superwoman/man. Some people can’t stop working, taking on every task they can. Young argues that this kind of workaholism is the expression of a need for external validation and can be countered only by focusing on setting one’s own metrics for personal success.
  • The Natural Genius. This behavior involves judging one’s worth on the basis of raw ability as opposed to effort. Tendencies toward ridiculously high expectations are coupled with and amplified by the expectation that one will be successful on a first try—the perfect setup for feelings of inadequacy and failure, especially in complex domains.
  • The Rugged Individualist. Rugged individualism demands that all tasks be performed alone, and little to no help is sought. Projects are always framed in terms of their requirements, and personal needs are pushed aside in honor of project demands.

I am sure we all recognize some of these tendencies, and clearly they are linked. One may also feel one kind of anxiety one day and another the next.


There is a strong correlation between impostor syndrome and anxiety, stress, depression, and burnout.


My hunch is that people who are creative, who strive to solve hard problems, who think about the bigger picture, and who are engaged with their topics are the most likely to suffer from impostor syndrome. This makes sense—if you’re constantly striving toward creative expression that pushes the preconceptions of a topic area and that is truly reflective and/or innovative work, you’re likely to focus on what you don’t know so you can chart your learning path. For those who are always challenging themselves and who are facing hard problems, some level of uncertainty is inevitable. These are characteristics of the most creative, inventive minds. But constant self-questioning is a hole through which confidence leaks, creating fertile ground for overwork and negative stress. The classic Yerkes-Dodson law comes to mind in the context of this kind of striving:

The Yerkes-Dodson law is an empirical relationship between arousal and performance, originally developed by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson in 1908. The law dictates that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point [2].

So, when the stress is just right, people will grow by leaps and bounds and be motivated to push forward, learn, and engage with challenges. This is positive stress. As stress increases, there is a point of diminishing returns. At high levels of stress, the person will become debilitated. It is likely that impostor syndrome is spun from such heightened stress and anxiety, as self-questioning sets in around the fear of failure, amplifying the worry further and potentially creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Before we place too much emphasis on the individual and their striving, though, it is important to note that the feeling of being in an unsafe or precarious situation professionally is not simply a personal trait or tendency. It can and usually is created and maintained by structural biases and very real inequities in one’s social and work environments. There is much evidence that the environment will trigger, feed, and exacerbate impostor syndrome. Feeling like an impostor in one’s professional identity may be triggered or exacerbated by noticing one does not belong in other ways—being part of a minority group that is culturally not the dominant one means one is already an interloper. If you don’t see yourself and your values reflected around you, you may already feel as if you are hiding your difference. At the same time, you’re spending energy looking for validation and looking to sense, ameliorate, and/or avoid subtle rejections.

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Research indicates that the culture of an organization or institution is a big factor in whether people feel like they belong and can take risks. One’s sense of belonging and social standing in a work or social context makes all the difference in how one perceives and judges success and failure, and whether one feels the need to hide and guard against taking a “wrong step” or failing at a task. A lack of social belonging can reduce the kind of emotional buoyancy that allows one to realistically evaluate and bounce back from failure, actual or perceived. Cultural programming is also very real. Bragging about your achievements is not considered polite in many cultures; as a U.K. to U.S. transplant, I can attest to the shift I had to go through when I moved to the U.S.

This is perhaps why women may be more likely to feel like impostors, because they typically do not see themselves reflected and reinforced—in some sense, validated—in the same way that men do.

I think impostor syndrome and the concomitant compensatory behaviors are likely to become even more prevalent. Attrition rates in computer science education are high, especially among women and the most creative students, who seek to be interdisciplinary [3]. The current career milieu is also sending a message to creative people that they need to be actively in control of their careers, and that stable work with the commitment of an organization for long-term career development is increasingly tenuous. More and more, careers require self-direction and reflection; there are fewer straight paths to lasting, fulfilling work. That means a great deal of emotional strength is needed to carve out one’s career while avoiding imposteritis and burn out: Forging your own career path takes courage and belief in self, while success is ever more dependent on external validation and social networking.

As an HCI and user experience manager with many creative and bright individuals on my team, I look for people who are willing to challenge the status quo, who bring creative and critical reflection to the table, who are not paralyzed by perfectionism or fear of countering my opinion, and who are oriented to taking risks and learning. Feelings of inadequacy and low self-confidence will drive out argument and creativity and lead to unproductive people-pleasing. We must look at ourselves and others, and recognize if we are starting to experience impostor syndrome or act in such a way as to induce it in others. If you feel this is happening, there are various things you can do to address it (see sidebar).

Cycling back to the young woman whose question sparked my reflections on this all too important topic, I think you might guess what I said to her:

“Oh yes, I am very familiar with that feeling. I actively work on diverting it into a positive challenge rather than a self-abnegation.”

back to top  References

1. More on Impostor Syndrome can be found in the Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome

2. For more on this see the original article or the Wikipedia entry: Yerkes, R.M. and Dodson, J.D. The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology 18 (1908), 459–482; DOI: 10.1002/cne.920180503 and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yerkes%E2%80%93Dodson_law

3. Many panels have been convened on impostor syndrome, e.g., Feldman, A.L. and McCullough, M. Fighting impostor syndrome (abstract only). Proc. of the 45th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education. ACM, New York, USA, 2014, 728–728. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2538862.2544236. Also see this Grace Hopper panel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAw6xWd_Hec

back to top  Author

Originally from the U.K., Elizabeth Churchill has been leading corporate research at top U.S. companies for the past 18 years. Her research interests include social media, distributed collaboration, mediated communication, and ubiquitous and embedded computing applications. churchill@acm.org

back to top  Sidebar: Dealing with Impostor Syndrome

Treat yourself well.

  • Prioritize your whole self and your overall well-being; you are more than what you do in your course, in your team, or in your organization.
  • Recognize and quell internal monologues of failure or less than optimal performance.
  • Don’t get into unhealthy competition with yourself.
  • Laugh at yourself with compassion.
  • Allow yourself to brag about your successes, and don’t take anyone who teases you about it seriously.

Create your support group; seek positive teachers and mentors.

  • Talk about concerns you have and take feedback, especially positive feedback, seriously.

Manage your relationship with/to work.

  • Remember the reasons why you got into your line of work. And if you find it was because someone else told you to do it and you really don’t care, change your line of work. Allow yourself to consider that perhaps you just aren’t that interested in the topic you used to love. Some of the most successful people have thrived in multiple areas.
  • Establish realistic yardsticks and take input from others on whether goals are achievable.

Understand the natural cycles of knowledge and expertise.

  • Know that knowledge shifts and morphs. You’ll know more about some topics tomorrow, and you’ll forget some things you knew before. Forgive yourself for changing. You may not be as good at something if you haven’t practiced for a while.
  • Let yourself be a novice when you approach a new topic. Force yourself to ask for help, and if you don’t get positive encouragement from the first person you ask, move on and ask someone else until you find someone who loves the topic and loves to learn and loves to encourage others to learn. The keenest minds and deepest domain experts are the ones who truly enjoy sharing their knowledge and inviting others to the party. The dismissive people may themselves be suffering from impostor syndrome.

Understand the importance of culture.

  • Note your cultural programming—are you really feeling like an impostor, or are you afraid to admit you’re good at what you do for fear of being called arrogant? Look for personal cultural differences around bragging, self-promotion, competition, and contribution, including taking responsibility for an honest audit of your own cultural or personal biases.
  • Don’t introduce unhealthy competition into your teams, whether you are a manager or a peer.
  • Introduce play and playfulness into the work world.
  • Know that in 95 percent of situations, you’re part of a bigger social system and you don’t have to do it all. Nor are you responsible for it all. Learn to recognize the traits of toxic settings, situations, and organizations, and if you can’t institute or effect change, leave.

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2018 ACM, Inc.

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