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Feeling Like Impostors

New study from the University of Texas at Austin suggests that the impostor phenomenon can affect various groups of minority students in different ways.

April 6, 2017
 
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Minority college students often face discrimination and report higher rates of depression and anxiety than their white peers -- and there’s another factor that could exacerbate those feelings.

A new study out of the University of Texas at Austin and published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology suggests that the impostor phenomenon in some cases can degrade the mental health of minority students who already perceive prejudices against them.

Those who suffer from impostor feelings cannot grasp or believe in their successes, even if they’re high achieving -- leading them to feel like frauds. In the 1970s, impostor syndrome was first considered a trend among women who were advancing professionally, according to the American Psychological Association. Many experts have discussed the influence of impostor syndrome on minority and female academics, though the University of Texas study focused on undergraduate students.

The authors surveyed 332 minority undergraduate students from a Southwestern university. The institution’s identity was shielded in the study to ensure student anonymity. Black, Asian and Latino students were included in the study. All the racial groups were represented relatively equally.

In three separate tests, the students were asked to evaluate their own competency -- related to impostor feelings -- how often they experience discrimination, and their mental health.

As the study authors predicted, black students who dealt with significant "impostorism" also reported higher levels of anxiety, as well as depression related to discrimination they perceived. Among Asian students, more impostor-related feelings were associated with increased depression and anxiety, but not related to any racism they perceived.

The authors could not explain why with Latino students, the trends essentially reversed -- those Latino students with more impostor-related feelings didn’t suffer from much anxiety or depression. Those who did indicate they were anxious or depressed did not have many impostor-related thoughts.

The authors guessed that Latino students, hyperaware of certain stereotypes, did not internalize impostor-related feelings in the same way as other minority students. They also cited fatalism, a popular concept in some Latino cultures in which people believe they cannot control their destinies.

“It is possible that among this sample of Latino/a American students, having low impostor feelings was associated in some way to fatalism (e.g., ‘People are going to think whatever they want to about me and there is nothing I can do about it’),” the authors wrote.

The study’s findings led its authors to recommend that in counseling, clinicians should explore specifically if students of color are grappling with these feelings.

Kevin Cokley is one of the authors of the study, a professor of counseling psychology and African and African diaspora studies, and director of the university’s Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis.

In an interview Wednesday, Cokley said counselors could pose specific questions to students of color to unearth whether they are dealing with impostor-related fears -- such as if they felt their admission to a university was by luck or achievement. Cokley has sent a copy of the study and a recent press release to the counseling office at the University of Texas, and he believes the suggestions included in there will be incorporated into future trainings.

The results of the study are particularly relevant considering the climates on campuses nationwide, where protests related to race issues are prevalent, Cokley said.

Cokley said he wanted to investigate possible racial components of the impostor syndrome. While the phenomenon has been well researched and considered to be something that occurs on an individual basis, Cokley said he believes different minority groups could all suffer from some of the same effects and feelings.

In his interview, Cokley cautioned against treating the study's theories around Latino students too seriously, because that kind of cultural aspect wasn’t formally measured.

Further studies are required on this issue to more deeply plumb the differences in impostor syndrome that various minority groups experience, Cokley said.

“We sometimes have a tendency to homogenize the experiences of students of color,” he said. “They all experience discrimination to some extent, but it’s very different experiences. It’s important to be nuanced and to appreciate and to understand the experiences.”

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