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Understanding imposter syndrome in college students

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This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
Read more about our editorial process.

This article was reviewed by Christina Neider, EdD, Dean, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences

At a glance

  • Impostor syndrome is the feeling that one is not qualified for a role or responsibility or does not belong in a group or place, even if the evidence suggests otherwise. It often manifests in education, careers or personal circumstances.
  • Anxiety often correlates with impostor syndrome, but it’s not the same. Impostor syndrome concerns perception while anxiety is a symptom of many things, including impostor syndrome.
  • To overcome impostor syndrome, you might focus on the facts, set realistic expectations and talk to a counselor or someone you trust.
  • Learn more about  behavioral science with an online degree at University of Phoenix!

If you’ve ever felt like you don’t deserve success, you may have experienced impostor syndrome. These feelings of inadequacy often manifest during significant life changes, such as pursuing a bachelor’s degree, getting promoted or starting a new career path.

Impostor syndrome is often distinguished by feelings of self-doubt and low self-worth. People may feel they’re fraudulent and don’t deserve their accomplishments. This has been studied at length by behavioral and social psychologists who now use various types of psychological techniques to help individuals make sense of this phenomenon.

While not a diagnosable condition, impostor syndrome can have a negative impact on an individual’s life and career. To overcome it, one must understand and address the underlying causes.

Interested in helping others? Explore University of Phoenix's psychology degrees. Learn more.

 

What is impostor syndrome?

Impostor syndrome is the psychological phenomenon in which people cannot internalize and accept their successes, falsely attributing them to luck or chance rather than their own abilities. It’s often characterized by feelings of self-doubt, anxiety and depression.

Most people tend to experience self-doubt from time to time, which is normal. However, when this becomes a chronic feeling and leads to behavior that impairs one’s ability to work and enjoy life, it may be time to seek professional help.

Is impostor syndrome a form of anxiety?

While impostor syndrome is commonly associated with anxiety, it isn’t the same thing. Instead, it has more to do with how individuals perceive their successes and accomplishments. Therefore, individuals with impostor syndrome may be anxious about their abilities but not necessarily experience an anxiety disorder.

Generalized anxiety disorder presents various symptoms, including persistent worry and fear that can interfere with daily life. While impostor syndrome and generalized anxiety disorder both involve worry, the former is more focused on the individual’s perception of self. In contrast, generalized anxiety disorder involves excessive worrying about many aspects of life.

What causes impostor syndrome?

Impostor syndrome can stem from various sources and for unique reasons. While it largely reflects a negative and critical internal self-concept, research also indicates that societal pressure and stereotyped or perceived lower position within the social hierarchy can contribute to impostor syndrome. Individuals may face additional challenges if they have less access to resources, education or financial security.

Personality

Impostor syndrome can be rooted in such personality traits as:

  • Perfectionism: In which individuals are often motivated by an unrealistically high standard and worry excessively about failure.
  • Low self-esteem: This can lead to feelings of inadequacy and a sense that one will never be good enough or successful.
  • Impulsive behavior: Including actions taken without thought or consideration, leading to a self-perception of incompetence.

These roots can exist individually or in combination.

Pressure to achieve

The pressure to achieve in society can also contribute to the feeling of needing to constantly prove one’s self and attain success to be accepted. Additionally, the high standards for achievement and success in competitive industries can make impostor syndrome even more prevalent.

Social background

Those from marginalized backgrounds may be especially prone to impostor syndrome, as they may worry about facing additional obstacles. This can lead to feelings of unworthiness and self-doubt, which further feed impostor syndrome.

Social anxiety

Finally, impostor syndrome may also be related to social anxiety. Individuals who experience impostor syndrome may struggle in social situations as they feel unable to measure up or are concerned about being judged for their imperfections. This can further contribute to a lack of confidence in one’s abilities.

Again, one might experience one, several or none of these root causes since impostor syndrome is a highly individualized experience. But understanding its sources can help those who contend with impostor syndrome identify which underlying causes apply to them and begin to work on coping.

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Do women feel impostor syndrome more than men?

In studies such as “The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention,” it was found that women experience impostor syndrome more often than men. Women may face additional pressure or unequal treatment in the workplace. Additionally, social expectations and stereotypes concerning gender roles and performance can make impostor syndrome even more common among women.

Moreover, KPMG studies have found that 85% of women in corporate America know that impostor syndrome is all too common, and 74% feel their male colleagues don’t suffer from self-doubt to the same degree.

This could be due to societal messages that women receive that tell them they aren’t as capable as their male counterparts, or that they’re responsible for more altogether (counting responsibilities at home and at work).

On the flip side, men have traditionally not been encouraged to admit when they’re feeling self-doubt. So, even if they experience impostor syndrome, they may be less likely to acknowledge it to themselves or others.

Types of impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome can manifest differently based on context. Whether at work, school or in relationships, the syndrome can take many forms.

At school

Impostor syndrome can be particularly challenging in an academic context. It may manifest as excessive worrying about grades and tests or a fear of being “found out” for not knowing enough information.

Research has found that impostor syndrome is especially prevalent among students in graduate degree programs, but it should be noted that these feelings can occur at any stage — from high school to bachelor’s and master’s degree programs.

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Feeling like a fraud can also manifest in other ways, such as difficulty speaking up, participating in class or feeling like one’s accomplishments pale compared to those of their peers. It’s important to note that these feelings can be experienced by anyone regardless of age, gender or background.

At work

Impostor syndrome could be holding you back at work, and you might be surprised by how subtle its effects can be. It can present as:

  • Feelings of inadequacy related to one’s job title or position
  • An inability to take credit for accomplishments
  • Fear of failure and a deep-seated worry that colleagues are more knowledgeable or capable

These feelings frequently crop up when transitioning to a new job or taking on more responsibilities, such as leading projects or teams, since these changes may bring a sense of uncertainty and unfamiliarity.

However, with the right strategies and mindset, it’s possible to move beyond these feelings and succeed. There are plenty of easily integrated tips for successfully returning to work or navigating new roles.

In relationships

Impostor syndrome can also cause difficulties in personal relationships, such as between partners or even among friends.

In romantic relationships, it may take the form of questioning your partner’s feelings and worrying they will discover you aren’t as “perfect” as they think you are. This can make it difficult to truly open up and be vulnerable, leading to isolation and loneliness.

In friendships, you may feel like an outsider or that you can’t meet the same standards as your friends. These feelings can lead to sabotaging relationships by not pursuing them or avoiding social situations altogether.

While parenting

Parenthood is no easy feat, and feelings of inadequacy can be especially intense. People may experience self-doubt about their parenting skills or worry that their child is not performing adequately in school or other areas.

Motherhood, in particular, can be a time when impostor syndrome intensifies due to the multitude of new responsibilities and tasks. In addition to juggling the roles and responsibilities they previously held, new mothers must take on an infant’s physical care as well as the baby’s social, emotional and mental development. In this process, mothers often reassess, sometimes subconsciously, their own identities and relationships with their partners, friends and larger family. And they do it on little sleep!

In short, it can be hard to feel like you are “measuring up” when juggling all these demands.

How to overcome impostor syndrome

The good news is that it’s possible to overcome the impostor phenomenon. This could mean challenging negative thoughts and reframing them into more positive or constructive ones.

Other tips to help cope include:

  • Focusing on the facts: Use data and evidence to support what you know instead of focusing on how unsure or unprepared you feel.
  • Setting realistic standards: If you regularly set unrealistic goals, the disappointment from not achieving them may contribute to feelings of impostor syndrome.
  • Practicing speaking with confidence: Practice public speaking by talking through ideas with trusted friends or colleagues and giving presentations in front of a mirror or in small groups.
  • Talking to someone: Seek professional help or counseling if needed, as an outside perspective can help provide valuable insight on how best to manage these feelings.

Impostor syndrome is a common and relatable experience, but it doesn’t have to be an insurmountable hurdle. With the right strategies and mindset, anyone can learn to recognize and address these feelings to move beyond them and find success.

Learn new skills at University of Phoenix

One way many people attempt to beat the feeling of inadequacy is through education. Learning new skills through courses, certificates or degrees is just one way to gain new knowledge and confidence. University of Phoenix offers 45 certificates in nine different fields; bachelor’s and master’s degrees; and single courses to choose from. If behavioral science interests you, look into these programs offered too! 

Photo of blog author Michael Feder smiling.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Feder is a content marketing specialist at University of Phoenix, where he researches and writes on a variety of topics, ranging from healthcare to IT. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars program and a New Jersey native!

 

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