Imposter syndrome: self-doubt, social media, and success

In conversation with Dr Anna Parkman

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Dr Anna Parkman is an Associate Professor of Professional Practice in Agribusiness and Applied Economics at Ohio State University, specialising in the research of Imposter Syndrome. Her research looks at the way that Imposter Syndrome is manifested in a variety of demographics, primarily in higher education and in the workplace. Interview Editor, Claudia Jacob, speaks to Dr Parkman about the triggers of Imposter Syndrome, the implications of social media and trends of toxic productivity during the pandemic.

First and foremost, Dr Parkman defines someone suffering from Imposter Syndrome as “somebody who isn’t able to internalise their successes”, meaning that “they believe that accolades and achievements that others recognise are being bestowed upon them falsely”. The individual “feels like they’re a fake and they think other people are misjudging them” and so “they think they are successful purely because of luck”. Imposter Syndrome, then, is not a reflection of one’s academic capacity, but the way in which we distort this ability to succeed.

But each and every one of us will most likely experience mild elements of Imposter Syndrome at some point in our lives. As Dr Parkman puts it, “we all know feelings of self-doubt where we know the stakes are a little bit higher and that’s completely normal”. The crucial difference with Imposter Syndrome is that this feeling is not fleeting. It’s a “nagging, long term, chronic self-doubt that other people don’t see” but that a sufferer has internalised to the extent that they perform “inaccurate evaluations” of their abilities. But Dr Parkman stresses that “you can’t have Imposter Syndrome unless you’re successful”. Hence, it’s the misjudgment of these successes that characterises the phenomenon. Ultimately, Dr Parkman clarifies that “just because we feel something, it doesn’t mean it’s true”.

Imposter Syndrome can affect any demographic, but Dr Parkman believes it to be accentuated in higher education “because of the arbitrary measurements” used to rank students. That is to say that the subjective nature of feedback at university means that negative comments can quickly overshadow positive ones, in the same way that measuring intellectual capacity in itself is “very subjective”. For those in minority groups, Imposter Syndrome tends to manifest itself more acutely because of the sense that the individual “doesn’t belong”.

Dr Parkman explains that there is research to suggest that symptoms of Imposter Syndrome can be alleviated over time. She says that “one of the best things we can learn is how to self-assess, but that’s not easy”, adding that “awareness and recognition can normalise the fact that Imposter Syndrome is very common”. Recognising the triggers of Imposter Syndrome can also be an effective way to understand the patterns of self-doubt. Dr Parkman explains that “triggers are dependent on the root cause of having these feelings in the first place” and that a common trigger is when an individual “outperforms their family roots”, leading to the sense that their achievements are earned more through luck than through genuine intellectual capacity.

Dr Parkman broaches the subject of social media in the context of Imposter Syndrome. She explains that the image of the “perfect self” looks at success in a very “cleansed and whitewashed” way, and “rarely gives us an idea of what it took to achieve this success because it doesn’t show our humanity or our imperfections”. Dr Parkman adds that the way that we only show a highlights reel of our successes on social media has created a very “narrow picture” of what success can be, and this trend has only been amplified during the pandemic. She emphasises that the trend of toxic productivity during the pandemic has meant that now, more than ever, “we define ourselves relative to productivity and that’s not healthy”.

Considering how reliant we have all become on the internet during the pandemic, Dr Parkman explains that we must not see success as one-dimensional. Ultimately, social media often omits the trajectory undertaken in order to be successful and this is likely to accentuate symptoms of Imposter Syndrome, creating an artificial environment in which failure is rarely discussed. Hence why awareness is so crucial: after all, everyone experiences failure at some point in their lives – we just tend not to talk about it.

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