She is sus

When I first played Among Us with my friends, I genuinely struggled. I have a hard time playing these types of deception games because I am a terrible liar. Lying makes me sweat.

I recently attended a talk by Dr Sue Morris, an experienced psychology lecturer specialising in learning and wellbeing, about handling imposter syndrome aimed at postgraduate research students which has inspired this post.

What is the imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome (originally called “imposter phenomenon” by Clance and Imes, 1978) is the tendency to feel like you’re inadequate, a fraud, and you doubt your own abilities1. It might show up as:

  • Being unable to accurately judge your performance, leading you to doubt your ability
  • Being unable to accept your achievements and success as your own. Instead of acknowledging your abilities, you say it’s due to external factors (e.g., luck, timing, mistakes, a misunderstanding – that you’ve “fooled” others into thinking you’re an expert)
  • Worrying about being caught out as a “fake” or “fraud”

Sidenote: there’s a test if you want to find whether you have any imposter characteristics and their extent. Dr Clance (one of the people who defined the imposter phenomenon) recommends doing the test first and then look at the scoring at the bottom.

Imposter syndrome is prevalent especially among high achievers, minority groups, and women, although it affects people of all genders, ethnicities, and age groups. A recent systematic review found that prevalance rates range between 9-82% depending on the participant population and criteria used2. Imposter syndrome doesn’t like to be alone. It often shows up with some of its unpleasant friends: low self esteem, depression and anxiety to name a few2.

Dunning Kreuger vs the Imposter

The Dunning-Kreuger effect (Figure 1) is when people misjudge their competence as higher than their actual abilities because they’re not even aware of how little they know3. Meanwhile, experts tend to undervalue their abilities because they’re aware of all the things they don’t know and assume that that everyone else can do what they do. This second part ties in really nicely to the imposter syndrome. If you want to know more, this TED talk offers a good explanation on why we think we know more than we really do.

What’s interesting is that Dr Morris said that we could use the imposter syndrome to our advantage.

If we manage it well, imposter syndrome can drives us to improve and learn. Without it, we’d feel an unfounded sense of overconfidence which would lead us to make poor choices. We would think that we know it all and don’t need to continue to learn.

Figure 1. Example of Dunning-Kreuger effect – people in the lower quartles believe that they’re much more competent than suggested by their actual performance whilst high achievers underestimate their skills. (Taken from Kreuger & Dunning, 1999)

Who’s feeding the imposter?

Imposter syndrome seems to be fueled by our thoughts and behaviours. The Imposter Cycle4 (see Figure 2) starts off with a task where you’re judged (e.g., an assignment) and this causes anxiety and self-doubt. This leads people to either over-prepare or procrastinate until there’s a final rush to complete the task. Once they’ve finished, they feel relieved and get positive feedback BUT they think the feedback is actually due to their hard work (in over-preparers) or luck (in procrastinators) instead of their abilities. This then leads them to feel they’re underqualified or undeserving of praise.

Figure 2. The Imposter Cycle (Taken from Sakulku & Alexander, 2011)

How can we handle feeling like an imposter?

Unfortunately, this feeling of being inadequte doesn’t just magically disappear after we’ve achieved some elusive target or award we’ve set. But there are some techniques to help rein in those feelings.

Firstly, it’s important to realise that it isn’t the situation itself, but our thoughts about the situation that affect our behaviours and feelings. For example, people can be together in the same situation but have completely different responses. Going back to the assignment, some might think “it’s enough to just give it a try” and start working. Others might think “it must be perfect”, procrastinate and then end up submitting it late or not submit anything at all (confession: I’ve been guilty of this).

Sounds like we just need to be aware of the way that we think, right? Well, some of the things we might want to look out for are:

  • Subconscious beliefs and “must-erbation” (holding yourself against unrealistic standards. E.g., “I must do this…”, “People should think I am…”)
  • Negativity bias (noticing the bad over the good things)
  • Catastrophising (seeing something as much worse than it really is)
  • Overgeneralising (e.g., “I can’t do this one thing so I’m terrible at everything”)

Once you’ve identified it, how can you challenge these thoughts? One cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) technique is to try mini-experiments: pick a thought or belief and actually testing it out (e.g., if you think you can’t do something, check this thought by actually trying learn or do it).

Dr Morris also suggests putting it into context – think of the worst case scenario, the best case scenario, and the most likely scenario. This can help with catastrophising. Practicing mindfulness might also make you more aware of and reflect on any unhelpful thoughts. But most importantly, be kind to yourself and find ways to remember and reaffirm your achievements.

A burden shared is a burden halved

– T. A. Webb (From Let’s hear it for the boy)

In the Q & A section, someone said that they were worried about mentioning feeling like an imposter to others because it would make them seem weak. But she said that we need to think about what we’re trying to achieve in telling someone – are you looking for support? Solutions?

Connecting with others can help protect against stress. Others can help you cope by either providing emotional support or be a good sounding board for when you want to think of some solutions. As T. A. Webb famously said, “a burden shared is a burden halved”.

Wisdom from Uncle Iroh (Avatar the Last Air Bender)

You can find out more in Dr Morris’ book, The Rubber Brain Book that she wrote with 4 other psychological educators (Professor Jacquelyn Cranney, Dr Peter Baldwin, Associate Professor Leigh Mellish, and Dr Annette Krochalik). I actually have a copy of the book. I bought it during honours at a student wellbeing conference, hoping it would help me get through the rest of the year.

I’d taken a skim through some chapters but I’ve been meaning to sit down and give it a proper read, now that I’m a PhD student and it sometimes feels like the Wild West out here. Who knows, maybe I’ll even write a review or summary.

What I really appreciate about the book is that it’s backed by science. In fact, I recognise 4 of the 5 authors – they’ve all taught me at some point during my undergraduate studies. (I promise I’m not getting anything by promoting this book! I just appreciate that it’s supported by research and written by people who have taught me)

So, who will “win”?

I think we need to somehow be able to juggle both. If done well, these two will hopefully be able to counterbalance the other. Imposter syndrome to keep you curious and learning, and the Dunning Kreuger effect (and hopefully your friends, peers, and mentors) to give yourself some encouragement and your self-esteem a small boost.

Either way, I recommend checking out the Fridge website for free evidence-based resources to help students and others manage their time, stress and wellbeing. Also, I’ll definitely be giving The Rubber Brain Book a read.

I haven’t played Among Us since then so I’m probably still terrible but hey, feeling like an imposter is not going to stop me from taking any chances.

  1. Clance, P. and Imes, S., 1978. The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), pp.241-247. [Full article here]
  2. Bravata, D., Watts, S., Keefer, A., Madhusudhan, D., Taylor, K., Clark, D., Nelson, R., Cokley, K. and Hagg, H., 2019. Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 35(4), pp.1252-1275. [Full article here]
  3. Kruger, J. and Dunning, D., 1999. Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), pp.1121-1134. [Full article here]
  4. Sakulku, J. and Alexander, J. 2011. The Imposter Phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioral Science, 6(1), pp. 75-97.

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