By Aaron Herreras Szot, an associate with Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch P.C., on behalf of the WBA’s Diversity Committee

Impostor syndrome, also known as impostor phenomenon,

describes high-achieving individuals who, despite their objective successes, fail to internalize their accomplishments and have persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud or impostor. People with impostor syndrome struggle with accurately attributing their performance to their actual competence (i.e., they attribute successes to external factors such as luck or receiving help from others and attribute setbacks as evidence of their professional inadequacy).
Although originally identified in high-achieving professional women, research has documented these feelings of inadequacy among men and women, and across multiple ethnic and racial groups.

Differing in any way from the majority—whether by race, gender, sexual orientation, or some other characteristic—can fuel an individual’s sense that they have fooled their peers and coworkers into thinking that they have higher skills, abilities, and professional competence than they do. A new study from the University of Texas at Austin suggests that the impostor phenomenon in some cases can degrade the mental health of minority students who already perceive prejudices against them. In this study, undergraduate students were asked to evaluate their own competency and mental health:

As the study authors predicted, black students who dealt with significant “impostorism” also reported higher levels of anxiety, as well as depression related to discrimination they perceived. Among Asian students, more impostor-related feelings were associated with increased depression and anxiety, but not related to any racism they perceived.

The authors could not explain why with Latino students, the trends essentially reversed — those Latino students with more impostor-related feelings didn’t suffer from much anxiety or depression. Those who did indicate they were anxious or depressed did not have many impostor-related thoughts.

The authors guessed that Latino students, hyperaware of certain stereotypes, did not internalize impostor-related feelings in the same way as other minority students. They also cited fatalism [(e.g., “People are going to think whatever they want to about me and there is nothing I can do about it”)], a popular concept in some Latino cultures in which people believe they cannot control their destinies.

It is estimated, however, that 70% of people will experience at least one episode of this Imposter Phenomenon in their lives. Even Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has confessed to experiencing this pattern of thinking. In an interview, the Justice said she has some variant of Impostor Syndrome: “I’m not a classic impostor-syndrome person because I have that initial insecurity but I’m capable of stepping outside of it and proving to myself it’s wrong.”

Although the published literature on imposter syndrome includes no studies of treatment interventions, lay literature provides ample advice on how to manage impostor symptoms. Such coping strategies include:

Acknowledge that you are in control of your thoughts – “imposter syndrome is a fantasy based on subjective opinions and assumptions that are not rooted in facts, and you have the power to change them.”

Reframe your thoughts – “the only difference between people with imposter syndrome and those without it is how they respond to challenges (not their intelligence nor competence, as you may think).” One of the first steps to overcoming impostor feelings is to acknowledge the thoughts and put them in perspective.

Share your feelings with friends or mentors – “imposter syndrome is more common than you may think, and it is likely that many of your colleagues have experienced similar feelings of self-doubt. Sharing these feelings with trusted friends or mentors is an excellent way of reassuring yourself that what you’re feeling is normal and can make these feelings seem less intimidating.”

Overcoming imposter syndrome involves changing your mindset about your own abilities. Acknowledging your expertise and accomplishments is key, as is reminding yourself that you have earned your place in your academic or professional environment.