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Know Yourself, Know Your Enemy: Combatting Imposter Syndrome

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Columbia Barnard chapter.

The silent killer of your confidence. The intrusive thought at your highest moments. Your worst fear – that you’ll be exposed as a fake, a phony, a knockoff amongst legitimate peers. This is imposter syndrome at its core: pervading doubt about your worthiness, deeply embedded even in the reality of capability and success. 

People experiencing imposter syndrome are prone to consistent negative self-talk, heightened sensitivity to constructive criticism, achievement downplaying, and positive outcome attribution to external factors such as luck. Especially prevalent in ambitious settings, those with imposter syndrome often believe that they are really not as competent as others perceive them to be. Rigorous academic or professional environments may induce particularly heightened ability-based anxiety because of nearly unavoidable social comparison; in a place where everyone is accomplishing noteworthy things, your own talents and accolades may dim in comparison to those around you. 

As for the causes of imposter syndrome, social psychology researchers speculate that imposter syndrome could be a product of an individualistic self-construal theory. Self-construal theories cover the extent to which someone considers themselves to be an autonomous entity, or alternatively to be a component of a larger social unit; if you see yourself as solely responsible for most outcomes in your life, you likely have a more individualistic self-construal theory. This perspective is common in what social psychology calls W.E.I.R.D. cultures (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic). Though individualistic self-construal theory may motivate people to pursue personal goals, one of the major risks is that this perspective is too “me-focused”, and puts too much pressure on each person to distinguish themselves as unique. In a setting where everyone is smart, driven, and talented, people may begin to think that they aren’t special enough or that they are undeserving of past successes. Bear with me – this is where more psychology comes into play. 

In addition to self-construal theories, there are theories of self. These include entity theory and incremental theory (incremental theory is popularly known as a “growth mindset” – Angela Duckworth has a fabulous TED Talk on the power of grit and a growth mindset). Incremental theory maintains that abilities develop and change over time, while entity theory maintains that abilities are fixed. When faced with upward social comparison concerning achievement, incremental theorists tend to increase their effort and attempt new paths to success – but entity theorists may begin to despair. As a result, people with an entity mindset are more likely to experience imposter syndrome at some point in their academic or professional careers. 

If this is you, there are actionable steps you can take to combat imposter syndrome. First and foremost, you can learn about what imposter syndrome is and seek professional counseling to ensure personalized care (if you’ve read this far, you’re already making progress to overcome imposter syndrome). Next, you can begin actively thinking through a growth mindset – believing that your abilities are malleable over time and with effort. As you try this, keep in mind the old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Another tried-and-true strategy includes self-enhancement; strive to see yourself in a more positive light. You can seek encouragement from people in your life who know you well and will provide a fair assessment of your attributes and accomplishments. Or, you could also try “BIRGing,” which is basking in reflected glory. This involves enhancing your self esteem through the successes of associated others – instead of feeling insecure about your peers’ amazing achievements and talents, try to be their biggest fan. You’ll feel honored to know people who are successful, and it will elicit pride in the groups you are a part of. As an added benefit, this will contribute to a more collectivistic self-construal theory – you’ll see yourself as a part of a larger picture, as opposed to the center of the entire universe. Finally, remember the spotlight effect: we all tend to assume that people are noticing what we do more than they really are. No one is evaluating you as closely as you evaluate yourself; so, give yourself some grace, and believe that you are capable of whatever you set your mind to do. Checkmate, imposter syndrome!

Mary Prestegaard

Columbia Barnard '25

Coming to New York from Nashville, Mary is a psychology enthusiast especially fascinated by the concept of positive psychology. She loves exploring the city and swears by the motto "try anything once", especially when it comes to restaurants. She also enjoys playing basketball, watching football, playing piano, or petting any dog she sees.