Feeling insecure about work performance is something that most people can relate to. It's a feeling that attaches itself to high-pressure, stressful environments. It's no surprise that it's often found in the business school classroom.
When these feelings get out of hand, though, you may find yourself suffering from a phenomenon known as ‘impostor syndrome’.
The phenomenon was first described by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in a 1978 paper, ‘The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention’.
Published in the journal, Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, the work explores why a group of high-achieving women were struggling with confidence, despite their outstanding academic and professional success.
Each woman in the study described a belief that they didn’t deserve the accolades they had achieved, and could be exposed as a ‘fraud’ at any moment.
Pauline and Suzanne dubbed this experience the ‘impostor phenomenon’.
Today, psychologists estimate that 70% of people will experience these feelings at some point in their career, regardless of how successful they are. And taking time out of work to study an MBA doesn't offer any respite. With heavy workloads, constant deadlines, and a competitive environment made up of professionals at the top of their game, it's a shadow that irks many a student.
When experienced for an extended period of time, the effects of impostor syndrome can have a profound effect on your academic and professional life.
Impostor syndrome at business school
In the traditionally competitive business school environment, it’s not uncommon for impostor syndrome to strike.
Being surrounded by motivated and successful peers can, for many students, trigger a fear that they don’t belong.
When Amna Alyamani, a graduate from IESE Business School, first set out on her MBA journey, the transition was far more challenging than she expected.
Surrounded by successful peers, and saddled with a heavy workload, Amna’s confidence in her own abilities plummeted.
Before the MBA, Amna says she had struggled to speak up within her company. Fearing that her suggestions would be misinterpreted by colleagues, she became accustomed to not sharing her thoughts.
“Being quiet meant I didn’t have a voice, and not having a voice made me feel that my opinion didn’t matter,” she says.
With these factors playing on her mind, Amna compensated for her lack of confidence by regularly overworking.
This behavior, along with anxiety, depression, and increased risk or burnout, have been frequently linked to impostor syndrome.
The experience can also trigger excessive self-monitoring practices, as the sufferer desperately attempts to maintain what they perceive to be a facade of competency.
Someone struggling with impostor syndrome is much less likely to apply for a promotion, accept responsibilities, or try new things, for fear of being ‘found out’.
The implications can be profound, holding people back from fulfilling their potential.
“I realized the lifestyle I had was not sustainable,” Amna admits.
Her experience is not uncommon. According to Julie Kaplan (pictured below), embedded counselor and social worker at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, many MBA students feel the same way.
“MBAs in particular are so good at having a self-front—showing they have it all together and are doing fine,” she says.
At times, though, this appearance conceals an internal struggle. Many of the students Julie works with experience impostor syndrome, and the anxiety that comes along with it.
Despite the shrinking stigma around frank mental health conversations, sharing these issues can still be a challenge for MBAs, she says.
“Although there’s a wonderful supportive community at Michigan Ross, friends can still be seen as competition,” Julie explains.
Fortunately, change is well underway. At Michigan Ross, for instance, one group of students have created their own peer support network, while others have founded an annual ‘Wellness Week’.
Other schools are taking similar measures, from London Business School’s Mental Health Awareness Week, to the student counselling services offered on most campuses.
“I think the stigma is lessening in the comfort of talking about struggles and mental health,” Julie says.
Overcoming impostor syndrome
For students and professionals struggling with impostor syndrome, anxiety, and other mental health concerns, Julie recommends making time for self-care.
“Take care of the basics,” she advises, “hydrate, sleep, and eat well. Think about what you know helps you manage your stress, and make time for it.”
Amna agrees that finding a work-life balance has improved her mental health. “I made drastic changes,” she says, “closing WhatsApp and my social media accounts so I could focus.”
Amna also surrounded herself with supportive peers, who could be open with one another about mental health difficulties.
Maintaining this type of mutually supportive network is vital. Since the vast majority of people will experience impostor syndrome at one time or another, sharing these struggles can help you feel less alone.
Someone in your support network may be able to share coping strategies that they found helpful while going through the experience.
One strategy recommended by mindfulness experts is to keep a list of positive feedback you have received.
This can be used as concrete proof of your own abilities whenever self-doubt creeps into your mind.
Overcoming impostor syndrome is a lifelong challenge for many professionals, but with the right support and coping mechanisms, it doesn’t have to hold you back from pursuing the career you want.
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