Imposter Syndrome and Diverse Groups: Impact and Implications in Career Development
By Shun-Heng (Henry) Tsai
Understanding Imposter Syndrome
Have you ever thought that you passed a test because of luck? Or you will not get a job because you are not smart like the other applicants? If the answer is yes, you might have experienced Imposter Syndrome (IS). IS is the persistent fear and false belief of being incapable or unworthy of success or potential despite noticeable accomplishments suggesting the contrary. An estimated 70% of people experience IS at some point of their lives (Sakulku & Alexander, 2011; Solomon, 2016). IS can result in low self-efficacy and self-denial that prevent individuals from maximizing strengths and pursuing goals (Leonard, 2018). According to several researchers (Clance, 1985; Henderson, 2016; Leonard, 2018) the following are common beliefs and behaviors of people with IS:
Worries constantly about not meeting others’ expectations despite significant achievements at school or work.
Rationalizes that luck and outside factors contribute to accomplishments at work
Feels overestimated by others.
Feels undeserving of praise; Received compliments seem disingenuous.
Disregards personal strengths, limit potential, and deny success.
Holds the unproven belief of not being as smart as others discourages both professional and personal movement forward.
Works really hard, yet reject the idea of celebrating achievements.
Diverse Groups are more Vulnerable to Imposter Syndrome
Researchers have studied the impact of IS on individuals in various arenas such as academic performance, career development, and mental health. Among studied populations, individuals of diverse groups are observed to be more susceptible to IS. For example, a recent study conducted by the University of Texas at Austin (Cokley et al., 2017) proposes that IS is more pervasive in racial minority groups and contributes to higher levels of mental distress. Likewise, individuals with diverse backgrounds and life experiences such as low income, sexual orientation, and non-native English speakers are proposed to be prominently affected by IS (Cox, 2018; Sewer, 2015).
Researchers suggest that diverse groups are more vulnerable to IS due to being perpetually stereotyped and unfairly judged (Cokley et al., 2017; Sewer, 2015; Simmons, 2017). They are frequently challenged by discriminatory situations occurring at schools, workplaces, and communities. Additionally, under-represented groups in society can feel like an outsider of mainstream culture. Since these individuals are more subject to IS, it is plausible that they may manifest the impact of this phenomenon in the process of their career development (Kramer, 2017; Page, 2017).
Diverse Groups with Imposter Syndrome: Implications and Coping Strategies
It is important that career service providers understand the impact of IS on diverse groups’ personal beliefs and behaviors. These beliefs and behaviors can transfer to and contingently affect their job search skills, employment competency, and career development. It is essential for career practitioners to be observant and appropriately address such issues when IS is exhibited. The implications career practitioners may notice are listed below, along with strategies career practitioners may implement for overcoming IS.
Implication of IS: Clients self-limit their career options due to wrongfully perceived stereotypes or messages imposed by mainstream groups. Clients passively accept what is available and refuse opportunities to seek better employment or change job roles.
Strategy: Suggest clients openly talk to others with similar experiences so clients can normalize their experience and create a network of support. Prompt clients to find a mentor for consultation and get impartial feedback. Help clients identify or assess their strengths while encouraging them to step out of their comfort zone. Clients can utilize their strengths to explore more employment opportunities or career options.
Implication: Clients develop a false sense of inferiority and feel unworthy of their own identity. This can come as the result of experiencing discrimination based on disability, socioeconomic status, language barrier, etc. Clients lower the bar when applying to jobs and feel less confident in the process of interviewing or branding themselves.
Strategy: Encourage clients to talk about their fears and doubts while reassuring them that thoughts of being inferior or incapable are inaccurate. Empower clients by identifying role models with diverse backgrounds and significant career achievements. Motivate clients to set higher, yet attainable, career goals. Career practitioners can also provide feedback and readdress the issue if IS occurs along the process of clients’ career development.
Implication: Clients refuse to acknowledge their achievements and successes. Compliments from others are seen as a display of courtesy and clients feel they do not deserve the credit or praise. Clients discredit their work performance and often worry about not being as capable as their colleagues. This prevents clients from seeking challenges or career advancement and consequently, clients are unhappy with their jobs.
Strategy: Ask clients to track and write down their achievements and proud moments in life. It is a reality check so clients can recognize that success and accomplishments are the result of their own effort and hard work. Suggest clients focus on expanding their expertise, developing transferable skills, and capitalizing on strengths to increase their employability and opportunity of pursuing the ideal jobs and career that they truly deserve.
Benefits of Exploring Imposter Syndrome
Learning the impact of IS on diverse groups offers career practitioners an additional perspective of understanding in the process of job search and career development. It also offers career service providers the opportunity of further educating and training themselves on appropriate intervention strategies, resources, and assistance that can be beneficial to the client.
Clance, P. R. (1985). The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the fear that haunts your success. Georgia: Peachtree Publishers.
Cokley, K., Smith, L., Bernard, D., Hurst, A., Jackson, S., Stone, S., ... Roberts, D. (2017, March). Imposter feeling as a moderator and mediator of the relationship between perceived discrimination and mental health among racial/ethnic minority college student. Journal of Counseling Psychology 64(2): 141-154.
Cox, E. (2018, August 15). What is imposter syndrome and how can you combat it? TED-ED. Retrieved from https://ed.ted.com/lessons/what-is-imposter-syndrome-and-how-can-you-combat-it-elizabeth-cox
Henderson, E. (2016, May 17). The imposter syndrome, women and diversity. Linkedin. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/impostor-syndrome-women-diversity-effenus-henderson
Kramer, J. (2017, March 3). 6 ways to get over imposter syndrome and get the job you want. Glassdoor. Retrieved from https://www.glassdoor.com/blog/impostor-syndrome/
Leonard, J. (2018, May 4). How to handle imposter syndrome. MedicalNewsToday. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321730.php
Page, D. (2017, October 25). How imposter syndrome is holding you back at work. NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/how-impostor-syndrome-holding-you-back-work-ncna814231
Sakulku, J., & Alexander, J. (2011, September). The impostor phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioral Science, 6(1): 73-92.
Sewer, M. (2015, December). Overcoming imposter syndrome. ASBMB. Retrieved from http://www.asbmb.org/asbmbtoday/201512/MinorityAffairs
Simmons, D. (2017, January 17). How students of color confront imposter syndrome- Dena Simmons. TED. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8sQ2p89P0Us
Solomon, L. (2016, November 30). The surprising solution to the imposter syndrome. TEDx Talks. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whyUPLJZljE
Shun-Heng (Henry) Tsai, MEd., LPC is a Career Counselor at Austin Community College, Texas. He provides career advising and counseling services to college students who need support and assistance in their career exploration, development, and decision making. He is also an adjunct faculty in Student Development who teaches freshman developmental and orientation courses that focus on building effective learning skills and readiness for college success. Advocacy of multiculturalism and interaction with individuals from diverse backgrounds are the great interests that he has always emphasized on his professional work and personal learning. Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.linkedin.com/in/henry-tsai-atx
Mary Ann Ann Looby on Thursday 08/01/2019 at 09:18 PM
Interesting article, Henry. I like your explanations as well as the implications and strategies.
Linda Sollars on Thursday 08/01/2019 at 11:52 PM
Such an interesting article taking Imposter Syndrome into diverse communities where interpretation of language as well as self-worth are often overlooked but are critical factors in career success. Thank you so much!
Dina Janicki on Friday 08/02/2019 at 02:54 PM
This offers some great insight into IS, thank you. I particularly took note of the mention of having to readdress the issue as it is something that takes time to work through. I appreciate the strategies you have outlined here.
Karol Taylor on Monday 08/12/2019 at 12:55 PM
Thanks for addressing this interesting concept. I work in a federal agency that brings honors interns in two-three times per year. I was dumbfounded when I learned that many of them feel like impostors, and that they might not deserve to be here. This is especially true re my minority clients. Now that I know about it, I do my best to address it in a careful manner. I find it fulfilling when the student takes a deep breath and lets go of some of that fear.