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BYU study finds the best (and worst) ways to overcome impostor syndrome

BYU study finds the best (and worst) ways to overcome impostor syndrome

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PROVO — You just started a new job. Congratulations!

Your employers believe you’re the best fit for the company, thanks to your stellar resume and glowing references. But you’re nervous. Any day now, you’re sure they’re going to figure out you’re an incompetent fraud.

But unless you’ve lied on your resume, you’re probably experiencing a common phenomenon called impostor syndrome. As the name implies, impostor syndrome manifests itself when capable and well-qualified people feel like they’re simply posing as someone who is equipped to do the job.

A new study co-authored by three professors at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Business found that 20% of students surveyed were currently experiencing “strong” or “very strong” feelings of impostor syndrome — though Jeff Bednar, an assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources and one of the authors of the study, said the findings do not mean only one-fifth of people suffer from the syndrome.

In fact, when BYU released the study on social media, the school put out a non-scientific Twitter poll where 88% of the respondents said they had experienced the feeling, Bednar added.

“Our goal was never to try and establish a baseline level of experiencing impostorism,” Bednar said. “The number of people that have experienced that at some point in their life would be much, much higher than 20%.”

What the study did set out to find, however, were ways to combat feelings of impostor syndrome. The researchers surveyed students in their first semester of the undergraduate accounting program at BYU — one of the most elite in the nation — then interviewed masters students of accounting to learn more about coping mechanisms.

The findings suggested that if students “reached in” for support to other students in their major, they felt worse more often than they felt better. But if students “reached out” to family and friends outside their major, or even professors, the grip of impostor syndrome was weakened.

“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,” Bednar said in BYU’s news release.

Some students dealt with feelings of impostorism in less positive ways, however, numbing the negative feelings through escapes like video games. But they often ended up spending more time playing than studying, and the feelings would be back soon after.

Other students pretended to be confident and excited, though secretly questioning whether they belonged.

If the poll doesn't work, vote here.“For me, as a professor, that was kind of a wake-up call to think, when I looked out on the students in my class, about 20% of them are currently struggling with very strong, or strong feelings of impostorism,” Bednar said.

But it was an interview with a student that Bednar claims became the “most powerful moment” for him during the research. The student was struggling with strong feelings of impostorism, and the professor asked him what it meant to him to be average in a group of all-stars.

“And without hesitation, he said, ‘It means I’m average,’” Bednar said. “I recognized how skewed our reference groups become when we’re struggling with impostor syndrome. … If I can help them really choose the right reference groups and how they evaluate themselves, then maybe I can help students that are struggling with this.”

When BYU released the study, it was covered by Men’s Health, Daily Mail and CNBC. It also quickly garnered thousands of comments on Reddit.

One of the most upvoted questions on Reddit asked how to distinguish whether those feelings of inadequacy are a result of impostor syndrome or, well, being inadequate.

“That is a question we get all the time,” Bednar said. “What we found in our study was that there was not a significant correlation between the performance in the program and these feelings of impostorism. So in other words, this isn’t just the bottom performers in the program who are feeling this way.”

In fact, those with impostor syndrome are often highly successful people, but their feedback loop between high performance and self-confidence or self-efficacy is broken, Bednar explained.

“Your accomplishments and the things that you do well don’t provide the fuel to your sense of self-confidence and, in fact, make you feel worse because they exacerbate this sense that you’re a fraud or that you’re not who people think you are,” he added.

Bednar said he interviewed a woman who had a very prestigious job and was incredibly well-liked by those she managed. The people to which she reported were also exceptionally happy with her performance, but because of her deep-seated feelings of being an impostor, she eventually left the organization.

To avoid that sort of outcome, Bednar suggests looking objectively at performance, fixing that “feedback loop,” and reaching out to family and friends.

“For me, this research is very autobiographical,” he added. “I just feel like the empathy I’ve developed from experience, either myself or along with the insight that we’ve gained from this study, can hopefully help me to be a better mentor and helper for my students.”

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