Impostor Syndrome Can Be a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

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If you’ve ever spent a workday smiling through your own unshakeable dread, secretly terrified that your bosses will get wise to the fact that you’re way out of your depth — well, at least you’re in good company. By one estimate, up to 70 percent of people will experience impostor syndrome at some point in their lives. And on the upside, that fear of being found out may be helping you, at least in one respect — research has shown that impostor syndrome can be a motivating force, spurring people toward better performance as a way of covering up their own perceived deficiencies.

That’s pretty much where the upsides end, though — impostor syndrome can also do a world of harm, and not just from the stress of constantly feeling inadequate. According to a study recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, it can actually stunt workers’ career prospects, turning the feeling into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The study authors surveyed 238 college graduates on a wide variety of job-related factors, including career satisfaction, job flexibility, how they defined success, how much they knew about their chosen fields, and how much they thought they were valued in the workplace. They also measured impostor syndrome by asking participants to rate their agreement with statements like “I can give the impression that I’m more competent than I really am.” When they crunched the numbers, they found that people with higher levels of impostor syndrome were both less optimistic about their future job prospects and less satisfied with their current situations — and they also tended to have lower salaries and fewer promotions to their name.

One likely reason for the connection, the study authors argued, is that when opportunities for advancement present themselves, someone who feels like a fraud is more likely to adopt a “why bother” kind of attitude: “As impostors feel they have fewer adaptability resources and are less optimistic regarding their career, their perceived internal marketability diminishes,” they wrote, making them less inclined to advocate for themselves at their current companies or jump ship for a better gig elsewhere.

And even if they did, they’d likely have a harder time of it, as people who believed themselves to be impostors also showed a weaker command of the state of the job market, as well as less career flexibility. “It is possible that impostors do not update their job market knowledge and do not display adaptability behavior because they do not plan to leave their current employer or position,” the study notes.

But there’s a nugget of wisdom in an otherwise bleak finding: By separating the feeling of impostor syndrome and its practical consequences, the researchers have identified, if not an antidote, then at least a path forward: Plan as though you’ll be successful — stay up-to-date on your field, keep an open mind, even (sorry) suck it up and network — regardless of how realistic that assumption actually feels. In other words, fake it till you make it, even if you think you never will.