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You’re not a fraud: Exposing impostor “syndrome”

TL;DR: Impostor syndrome, typically defined as feelings of inadequacy despite overwhelming success, is not a syndrome, it is an emotional experience that affects both men and women, largely driven by a perfectionistic context.

Why I chose this topic: Impostor syndrome can erode the confidence of current (and future) science communicators and prevent them from creating high quality content. As a high-achieving minority in the STEM field, I have struggled with impostor syndrome the majority of my career, and hope that by better understanding this phenomenon we can overcome it.

Impostor syndrome is not a syndrome

Produced award-winning documentaries. Founded several nonprofits aimed at championing adolescent girls’ education. New York Times bestselling author. Former first lady. And yet, at times, Michelle Obama still does not think she deserves the accolades, admitting, “I still have impostor syndrome, it doesn’t go away, that feeling you shouldn’t take me seriously.” Where does this pernicious and overwhelming feeling of being a fraud, a phony, of not being good enough, come from?

Clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes first identified the 'impostor phenomenon' more than 30 years ago and described women who, despite reaching significant intellectual milestones ranging from advanced degrees to professional awards, could not internalize their success or convinced themselves they did not deserve it.

In other words, they believed they were frauds.

The field of science communication is no different. Science communicators are often routinely harassed and threatened, often due to their reporting of the science. Effective science communication relies on confidently and accurately translating hard-to-digest topics, yet feeling like not having the necessary expertise about a topic chokes communication efforts instantly.

Clance and Imes were careful not to use the word syndrome, “I didn't want this to be one more way of pathologizing women,” Clance states. A syndrome is a collection of symptoms signifying a disease or the propensity to develop one. Although the impostor phenomenon is not a syndrome but an emotional experience, renewed interest in recent years (by famous figures such as Michelle Obama) has popularized the term for commercial outlets like books, talk shows and magazine articles.

Impostor syndrome affects both men and women

In the first review on impostor syndrome synthesizing peer-reviewed data from 62 studies on the prevalence, comorbidities, or treatment of impostor syndrome (with the search term “impostor syndrome”, not phenomenon) included 14,161 participants (60% women). Brevata and colleagues found this phenomenon was common among both men and women and across a range of age groups (adolescents to late-stage professionals), although the majority were women in their 20s. Thirty-three of these studies compared the rates of impostor syndrome by gender, and 16 found that women reported statistically significant higher rates of impostor feelings than men, while 17 studies found no difference in rates of impostor syndrome between men and women.

Therefore, the body of evidence suggests that while impostor syndrome is common in women, it also affects men.

Impostor syndrome is context dependent

What causes this self-sabotaging mode of thinking? Clance and Imes suggested that high-achieving children who were solely valued for their intelligence but not given much validation for their feelings grew up thinking their value is tied only to achievement. Indeed, it is no surprise impostor syndrome is often comorbid with depression and anxiety, which further leads to impaired job performance and burnout among various employee populations including clinicians.

It is important to note that imposter syndrome puts the blame on individuals, without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that are foundational to how it manifests. For example, because of the stereotype of the “good” leader possessing predominantly masculine traits, women are often depicted as lacking leadership. In response to this stereotype, a woman may feel insecure and out of place if she were to achieve such a leadership position since these pervasive stereotypes have been signaled both directly and indirectly. The onus should therefore be to fix the places where women work, not the women at work.

In a perspective article, Feenstra and colleagues suggest combating impostor feelings by addressing the contextual roots of this phenomenon, by tackling persistent stereotypes, increasing diversity across occupations and hierarchical levels and ensuring equal treatment for all group members. An organization’s culture should reinforce feelings of inclusiveness and fit within the workplace, where members of minority groups will be less likely to feel like impostors.

The Final Word

Science communicators, and especially those entering the world of freelancing, may be prone to the impostor phenomenon. They may think, “Maybe I don’t have the scientific chops to weave a story out of this,” or “Maybe someone else with more expertise on this topic should do this.” And yet, these are the exact voices we need to report on science today since they offer a diverse (and oftentimes creative!) perspective on the thorny topic. By facing the feelings of inadequacy squarely and trusting the work they have already completed, future science communicators can keep the impostor phenomenon at bay and instead create phenomenal content.

Journals cited: Journal of Internal Medicine (open access); Frontiers in Psychology (open access), Nature (open access)

Edited by Tony Van Witsen, Niveen Abi Ghannam

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