Unleashing your Potential | Tackling Imposter Syndrome by Understanding Neuropsychology

Girls in STEM Mentor jan Choudhury

by | 19 Jun, 2023 | STEM Untapped

Introduction

Have you ever felt a nagging feeling that you’re not good enough… that you don’t have the skills or the ability to do something, even though you actually do? Have you felt like others might sniff you out as a fraud? If so, you’re not the only one. It’s something that affects so many of us at different points in our lives: a phenomenon known as Imposter Syndrome.

A recent systematic review found that up to 82% of people may experience symptoms of “Imposter Syndrome”, or Imposter Phenomenon as it is sometimes known (Bravata et al, 2020). First described by psychologists Clance and Imes in the 1970s, left unchecked, it can impact negatively upon mood, anxiety levels, self-esteem, and job satisfaction and performance.

So where does it come from and what can we do about it? In this blog post, we’ll explore how neuroscience and evolutionary psychology can help us understand Imposter Syndrome, and in particular for women in their teenage years. We’ll then explore what you can do to make sure it doesn’t hold you back in your quest to take the world of STEM by storm.

Where does Imposter Syndrome come from?

Imposter syndrome can feel like an unwelcome guest in our brains. It whispers self-doubt, making us question our abilities, achievements, and self-worth, even when the logical part of us knows better.

Obviously, when we are in our teenage years, we naturally still have a lot of learning to do. When we genuinely need to gather more skills or knowledge in order to do something competently, that’s not Imposter Syndrome. It’s healthy to reflect objectively on our strengths and weaknesses, and the areas in which we need to grow and develop. 

The trouble is that Imposter Syndrome doesn’t really care how many qualifications you have, because it’s not about facts, it’s about emotions. This is why it affects people of all ages.  In fact, the more we learn and know, the more we learn what we don’t know! This is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, and can fuel our feelings of Imposter Syndrome..

Imposter syndrome stems from a combination of factors, including social comparison, the way our brains are wired to process threats, and social inequalities, so let’s have a look.

Why brain evolution matters

To understand the roots of Imposter Syndrome, let’s travel back in time to our ancestors. Our brains evolved to keep us safe and secure in the tribe. In ancient times, fitting in and gaining approval were crucial for our survival. Fast forward to today, and our brains still have that ancient wiring. That’s why we often find ourselves seeking validation and belonging, and fearing rejection. Imposter syndrome is like an alarm, warning us of potential social risks and urging us to act in ways that our brain thinks will keep us safe. 

When our brain perceives a social threat, it reacts in the same, automatic way that it does in a real emergency, because our amygdala (the fear centre of the brain) operates on a “better safe than sorry” approach. It triggers our “threat mode” – also known as the fight/flight/freeze response that you might remember from science lessons – you’ll know that when we’re afraid or ashamed, our brain and body usually makes us run away, hide, and avoid the threat.  

The problem is that if we avoid situations in which we feel Imposter Syndrome, the less chance we have to see if it was really as scary as we expected. We have less chance to build up evidence for our brain has that we CAN do it, or that people won’t reject us. We lose opportunities to build social connections that can help us feel that we DO belong. This can feed a vicious cycle of avoidance. And the worst outcome is that the world may never benefit from our unique insights, strengths and abilities. 

Why is Imposter Syndrome so prominent for teenagers?

Some studies have found that adolescents are particularly susceptible to Imposter Syndrome. When we enter our teenage years, our capacity for comparing ourselves to others becomes super-charged. Firstly, our brains undergo significant development, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making, impulse control, and self-reflection. This intense rewiring process can magnify feelings of self-consciousness.  

This is exacerbated by the fact that being popular becomes extremely important to us at this age. In earlier childhood, our parents were everything to us, but now, it’s our friends and peers who seem to matter most. This is normal human development. However, it means our brains can become hypersensitive to information about what others think of us, fuelling Imposter Syndrome. 

To make matters worse, as we progress through adolescence we gradually have more and more contact with the wider world, both in “real life” and via social media. We can become surrounded by many more messages about other people’s achievements and abilities. Unfortunately, the information we receive about other people’s lives tends to be unrealistic snippets – usually only the most positive ones. Our brains are wired to fill in the gaps – so we conjure up imaginary yet inaccurate scenarios of how much better everybody else is doing than us, and how much more confident they are. At this age, we haven’t yet had chance to develop a balanced view of others, which can allow Imposter Syndrome to take hold.

What else impacts on Imposter Syndrome?

Although some studies find that Imposter Syndrome affects men too, many suggest it is more prominent in women and girls. But why? Some authors have suggested it may be partly because females tend to be more sensitive to others’ emotions and social signals than males, although this is of course a generalisation. Another possible factor is that in our culture, girls are socialised to be perfectionists more so than boys; we’re encouraged less often to be “brave” and more to be “good” and “correct”. We’re praised for achievements rather than effort, especially if we do something without help. This sets us up to feel we can’t make mistakes. Finally, many aspects of our upbringing (exam systems, class behaviour charts, sibling rivalry) teach us to compare ourselves to others in an unhelpful way. 

Evidence also suggests that being part of an ethnic minority makes us more likely to experience Imposter Syndrome. Why? Reshma Saujani of Girls Who Code recently gave a talk about Imposter Syndrome where she highlighted that it is a concept created by societal inequalities. Imposter syndrome from this perspective is not something that is “in your head” – it’s not an individual failing. Structural inequalities can lead women, particularly women from racial minorities, to feel they are less capable or worthy than others (even those less well qualified), and to feel that they don’t belong. This is especially the case in spaces where women are under-represented, such as STEM careers. And the fact that society creates this unequal context then blames women for feeling like outsiders could be considered a form of gaslighting.

From this point of view, “Imposter Syndrome” is a cultural issue that needs to be tackled on a grand scale. And so, it’s important that while the tips below may help you overcome any dips in your confidence, don’t forget that the responsibility for crushing Imposter Syndrome lies far beyond our own psyche.

Breaking Free from the Imposter Trap:

Take a look at these 10 suggestions for stepping away from the toxicity of Imposter Syndrome. Which resonate most with you?

  1. Recognize the “Imposter” voice. Take a moment to acknowledge that self-doubting part of you when it arises. Maybe even label it – “hello Imposter voice!”. Remind yourself of all the science we’ve covered above that explains why it’s there and even the fact it thinks it’s actually helping keep you safe. Labeling, understanding and reframing Imposter thoughts can help reduce their power. Take a pause. Notice the exact words you’re telling yourself when the Imposter Voice shows up. Tune into how your body is feeling at that moment. Breathe into the area that you feel it to make space for it. Don’t push it away., even though it feels hard. Try to observe your experience with curiousity, almost as if you are watching yourself. When you feel a bit calmer, you will be able to make a clearer decision about what to do next.
  2. Record facts. Write down your achievements, both big and small. Keep a journal or a gratitude list to remind yourself of your talents, skills, and the effort you put in. Highlight the areas in which you do plan to gain more knowledge or experience. Whenever doubt creeps in, revisit this journal to remind yourself that you might feel like an imposter for lots of reasons, but it’s not because you’re incapable.  
  3. Avoid avoiding things: Feeling anxious is normal, almost everyone feels it when doing things that make them vulnerable to the opinions of others. Allow it and embrace it: “feel the fear and do it anyway”. The more you do things, the less scary they become.
  4. Tune into what matters to you and what drives you to be in situations where Imposter Syndrome pops up. Use these values to guide you and motivate you to do things that seem hard, even if you feel nervous doing them.
  5. Notice how others affect you. Remind yourself that snippets of other people’s lives are not a realistic whole picture, and that your brain is pretty tricky when it comes to comparison. Unfollow or mute people on social media who make you feel insecure, and follow people who do the opposite.
  6. Set realistic standards. Remind yourself that “Practice makes Progress”, and don’t aim for perfection or unrealistic expectations. Understand that making mistakes is part of your journey of learning and development. This is known as a growth mindset and is associated with better mental health as well as greater courage and success.
  7. Embrace your vulnerability. Remember that vulnerability is not weakness; it’s an essential part of growth and authenticity. Share your thoughts and experiences with trusted friends, mentors, or family members. Chances are, they’ll relate, and you’ll discover you’re not alone.
  8. Surround yourself with a supportive network of friends, mentors, and positive influences who uplift and inspire you. They can offer encouragement and remind you of your inherent worth when Imposter Syndrome tries to sneak back in.
  9. Create a mantra that helps you be kind to yourself if you notice Imposter Syndrome popping up. It could be anything… “It’s normal to feel this way… you’re not alone… you’re enough… you’ve got this…” Whatever feels genuine to you. Practice saying it to yourself every day.
  10. Find ways to tackle the inequalities that can make experiencing “Imposter Syndrome” so much more likely for women. Channel that fight/flight threat response into taking action against barriers, social expectations, and injustices where you can. Joining other women in STEM is certainly a step in the right direction!

drjothepsychologist.com

@drjothepsychologist

Related Articles

An Insight into PhD’s

What are you doing your PhD in and what did you study at school / uni that led you onto this? My PhD is looking at the link between repeatedly heading a ball in football and injury to the brain!  I’m looking at data from current football players while they head a...

Fast-track access to expert innovation insight and thinking – OnTap When You Need It

Written by Dr Jo Mueller

Jo Mueller is a Clinical Psychologist who guides parents in reducing feelings of parent guilt