Imposter syndrome is a growing problem for young people

By Dipankar Trehan

Wednesday May 13, 2020


Impostor syndrome — the overwhelming feeling that one doesn’t deserve one’s success — is both widespread and deeply impactful. A study published in the International Journal of Behavioural Sciences suggests that more than 70% of people are likely to encounter impostorism at some point in their life. As it convinces a person that they are not as intelligent, creative or talented as they are in reality, imposter syndrome — or impostorism — can also lead to anxiety and depression.

What is impostor syndrome?

Impostorism is a psychological pattern in which a person feels they have only succeeded due to luck and good-timing, and not because of their talent and efforts. It can involve a constant fear of exposure, as well as feelings of isolation and rejection, and it can be linked to multiple other feelings such as self-doubt, fear of success, fear of failure and self-sabotage.

Long-thought to affect only women, especially in male-dominated societies, impostor syndrome today affects people of all ages, genders, orientations and socio-economic background. In fact, recent evidence suggest that men may have more severe reactions — such as increased anxiety or stress — and this can cause them to underperform.

Of late, impostorism has been reported in high-school and university students as well as in young professionals, who — less appreciative of their own achievements — become anxious about the next steps they need to take. This lack of confidence and self-doubt is evident in decisions they take about issues such as selecting a subject to study, a career or a college, and while engaging in activities such as entrepreneurship or starting a new job.

Impostor syndrome in students and young professionals

In her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, Dr Valerie Young sets out five categories of impostor syndrome — and as someone working with students day in and day out, I have observed the following trends. It is also important to note that impostorism manifests itself differently in different people, and that people may exhibit varied trends, contingent on their personality and individuality. Broadly, however, young people suffering from impostorism believe:

1. They are an utter failure: Consistently increasing expectations both from themselves and from those around them — teachers and parents, for example — is pushing students to compete. The ‘perfectionist’ in them makes them question their competence and abilities, and — in a few severe cases — their existence, all on the slightest of mistakes. The aspiration to manifest the best — to have the best job, pay, college and marks — and to be the best that they can be, is driving young people to subject their trivial mistakes and gaps to comprehensive analysis rather than to acknowledge their accomplishments.

2. They need to know absolutely everything and are highly selective: The drive to be right all the time and the need to know absolutely everything prompts those suffering from impostorism to be highly selective about the opportunities in front of them. They tend to refrain from applying for a job or college place, for example, unless they meet each and every requirement laid down in the description. This can lead to self-centredness and a lower propensity to listen to other people’s point of view. They’re also more likely to lose out on potential growth opportunities, owing to their their preference for staying in their comfort zone.

3. They are all alone in this: The intensity of our world is at an all-time high, and as such, young people find it difficult to communicate their deepest feelings. They can struggle to form friendships and relationships — and their ‘soloism’ can manifest itself in professional settings as well, where they struggle to collaborate and work in teams. Students and young professionals fear replication of their ideas, approach and work — and often think that if they ask for help, they could be perceived as incompetent or non-credible. Such impostorism, more often than not, leads to loneliness, and this can drastically affect their mental health.

4. They can move mountains: Young people are often more ambitious than their predecessors, but they often try to manifest endeavours far beyond their reach. Such ‘super-students’ hold their individual opinions in very high esteem and are much less tolerant of other people’s points of view. They tend to work harder than most other people and possess an innate desire to succeed in every walk of life. This can mean that stress is natural to them — and stress is a core driver of poor mental health. For professionals, this may lead to extremely poor work-life balance, as well.

5. They’re too hard on themselves: Impostorism leads young people to feel stressed and doubt themselves when they encounter an adverse situation. Given their high level of problem solving skills, ‘geniuses’ who struggle with impostorism tend to doubt themselves if they don’t get the solution at the first attempt. They thus find it difficult to navigate life’s challenges. Complex problems are rarely solved at the first try, and young people experiencing impostorism sometimes lack the enthusiasm and the motivation to take a second shot at accomplishment.

The growing rise of impostorism among young people is a serious cause of concern and needs to be addressed. To a significant degree, our responses to external stimuli are shaped by our education. Education systems across the world, therefore, need to be assessed on whether or not they integrate mental health programmes — and can thus provide sound foundations for their students to build on.

Dipankar Trehan, Global Shaper, New Delhi Hub, Mindler Education Pvt Ltd

This article is curated from the World Economic Forum.

About the author
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The essential resource for effective
public sector professionals