Impostor syndrome, a condition in which people feel like frauds even when they are capable and well-qualified, may be quite common among college students, according to a new study from Brigham Young University (BYU).
The findings, published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, also reveal specific coping mechanisms that students can use to overcome these feelings.
For the study, the researchers conducted interviews with students in an elite academic program and found that 20% of the participants in their sample suffered from very strong feelings of impostorism.
Based on the interviews, students who sought social support from those outside their academic program seemed to fare much better. For example, when students “reached in” to other students within their major, they felt worse more often than they felt better. However, if the student “reached out” to family, friends outside of their major, or even professors, perceptions of impostorism were reduced.
“Those outside the social group seem to be able to help students see the big picture and recalibrate their reference groups,” said Jeff Bednar, a BYU management professor and co-author on the study. “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.”
The study also uncovered negative ways students coped with impostorism. For example, some tried to get their mind off of school work through escapes such as video games but ended up spending more time gaming than studying.
Other participants tried to hide how they really felt around their classmates, pretending they were confident and excited about their performance when deep down they questioned if they actually belonged.
In a second study, the researchers surveyed 213 students and uncovered an additional finding that perceptions of impostorism are not necessarily related to performance. This means that individuals who suffer with impostor syndrome are still capable of doing their jobs well — they just don’t believe in themselves.
Researchers also explain that social-related factors impact impostorism more than an individual’s actual ability or competence.
“The root of impostorism is thinking that people don’t see you as you really are,” said Bryan Stewart, an accounting professor at BYU and co-author on the study. “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.”
Outside the classroom, researchers believe that implications from this study can and should be applied in the workplace as well.
“It’s important to create cultures where people talk about failure and mistakes,” Bednar said. “When we create those cultures, someone who is feeling strong feelings of impostorism will be more likely to get the help they need within the organization.”
Source: Brigham Young University