• Imposter syndrome is also felt amongst minority groups or those who are seen by others as differing in some way. (Getty Images)
Despite evidence to the contrary, millions of perfectly bright and capable people have a difficult time internalising and owning their accomplishments. These people are victims of imposter syndrome.
By
Jo Hartley

9 May 2016 - 1:07 PM  UPDATED 30 May 2016 - 1:48 PM

"There are an awful lot of people out there who think I'm an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I'm so much aware of all the things I don't know.”

These are the words of Dr Margaret Chan, CEO of the World Health Organisation.

Despite her obvious success, Chan attributes her achievements to luck rather than talent, hard work or sheer determination. The reason?  She's a victim of impostor syndrome - and she’s far from alone.

Emma Watson, Kate Winslet and Oprah all confess to being afflicted by this condition. 

And the late American poet and author, Dr Maya Angelou, has been recorded as saying, 'I have written eleven books, but each time I think, "Uh oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody, and they're going to find me out.”

So what exactly is impostor syndrome?

“The term “impostor phenomenon” (IP) was first used to describe the experience of high-achieving women feeling unintelligent and fraudulent over 30 years ago,” says Sydney-based psychologist, Dr Yuliya Richard.

“Their anxiety over fears of fraudulence and an inability to internalise their success and achievements was in contrast to their actual positions of leadership and records of high achievement.”

According to leading expert and author, Dr Valerie Young, impostor syndrome is more prevalent amongst women because we’re more likely to see our failings and mistakes than men. 

Women will even point to the negative aspects of themselves or their achievements instead of simply saying “thank you” or otherwise owning potential praise.

Similarly, we’re less likely to own our achievements - a fact reflected in 2009 book, Womenomics.

Authors Claire Shipman and Katty Kat reported that, when compared with men, women don’t consider themselves ready for promotions, predict they’ll do worse on tests, and generally underestimate their abilities.    

Furthermore, a 2013 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that women in mixed-gender work teams tend to give more credit than is necessary—or even true—to their male colleagues.

In some instances, women will even point to the negative aspects of themselves or their achievements instead of simply saying “thank you” or otherwise owning potential praise.

“Both sexes are aware of the stereotypes and stigmas currently present in our society,” says Dr Richard. “It’s been suggested that people who are highly aware of their ‘gender stigmatised’ status will expect to be judged on their gender rather than on their performance.”

But impostor syndrome isn’t wholly exclusive to women (and men) in the workforce.  It’s also felt amongst minority groups or those who are seen by others as differing in some way, whether it’s by race, gender or sexual orientation.

For example, a 2013 study conducted at the University of Texas and published in the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development revealed that some minority groups are especially susceptible.

The findings showed that Asian-Americans were more likely than African-Americans or Latino-Americans to experience impostor feelings.  

Findings showed that Asian-Americans were more likely than African-Americans or Latino-Americans to experience impostor feelings.

Researchers believe this links back to the nature and type of race-related or minority status stress that Asian-Americans feel. 

They also consider that cultural pressures of high parental expectations and being viewed as the ‘model’ minority contributes to higher impostor feelings amongst this group.

“There are a number of stereotypes associated with different ethnic and cultural groups, and several research studies demonstrate that accents tend to be associated with competence, intelligence and likeability,” says Dr Richard.

“No wonder people from different backgrounds might feel they have to work harder in order to fit in or prove that they’re intelligent and hardworking.”

So how can we avoid feeling like this?  And what are the strategies to help us cope when we do?

Dr Valerie Young tells SBS that learning to normalise impostor feelings is the first step in helping yourself.

 “The next time you have an impostor feeling, remind yourself that 70 per cent of people have experienced feelings of fraudulence – many of them award-winning actors and authors, CEOs, and PhDs,” she says.

Following this, Young recommends that people reframe their thoughts by responding to their impostor voice differently.

“Rather than thinking, ‘oh my God I have no idea what I’m doing’, reframe your thinking to, ‘Wow, I’m really going to learn a lot,’ she suggests.

Finally, Young tells SBS that you need to keep going regardless of how insecure you feel.

“You have to change your behaviours by asking for that promotion, hanging out your shingle or auditioning for the part and, when you do, your feelings will slowly catch up to this new non-impostor way of being,” she concludes.

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