Health and Wellness

This is the best way to combat impostor syndrome, says science

Lesia Valentain | Twenty20

Although impostor syndrome isn't an actual medical condition, it's a form of "intellectual self-doubt" that can have negative effects on your mental health and impact your career development, according to the American Psychological Association. Studies suggest that 70% of the population has experienced impostor syndrome before.

Now, a new study on college students has found that the most effective way to overcome impostor syndrome is to reach out to someone outside of your field, such as a friend or family member, for support, researchers at Brigham Young University found.

The reason? Talking to someone outside of your immediate bubble helps you see the big picture about your abilities.

"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," Jeff Bednar, study author and assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources at Brigham Young University, said in a press release.

Although this study was conducted on students, researchers said that the findings can be applied to the workplace too.

For the study, researchers first interviewed 20 undergraduate college students in a competitive accounting program to get a sense of what impostor syndrome feels like, then surveyed 213 other students who were about to enter their first year in the accounting program to see if they felt similarly.

Students were asked basic questions about why they wanted to pursue accounting. They next had to measure how closely they related to the definition of impostor syndrome and describe specific examples of instances when they felt it. Finally, they had to explain how they coped, and whether those strategies helped.

Of this sample, 20% of the college students had experienced very strong feelings of impostor syndrome.

Simply put, people with impostor syndrome struggle to "internalize their accomplishments," and are convinced that they don't belong in a position that they've earned, or don't deserve their success, researchers wrote. They often feel like they mistakenly were chosen for a role, or "slipped through the cracks."

Interestingly, researchers found that turning to someone in the same program intensified students' feelings of impostor syndrome. The study participants who were surveyed said that they were embarrassed to reach out to classmates within their program.

But that doesn't mean that you should keep your impostor syndrome thoughts to yourself. When people tried to hide their insecurities, they tended to feel worse in the long run.

"It's important to create cultures where people talk about failure and mistakes," Bednar said in a press release. "When we create those cultures, someone who is feeling strong feelings of impostor-ism will be more likely to get the help they need within the organization."

Researchers wrote that there are tangible things people can do in the workplace to prevent impostor syndrome.

For example, managers should encourage employees to develop broader reference groups, rather than tell them to simply ask their peers for help. Those could include counseling services or outside professional groups, they wrote.

Another strategy that can help is "providing opportunities for cognitive escape" in the workplace, they wrote. Distracting activities, such as playing sports, allowed participants to feel grounded and more confident in their skills.

And finally, creating an environment where people feel like they can share their failures can help reduce some of the fear that makes impostor syndrome so rampant in the first place, the study authors added.

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