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Why You Feel Like a Fraud, Even When You Totally Belong

Imposter syndrome is very real and it might hit men the hardest.

Men who feel like frauds, despite success in their personal and professional lives, are not alone. They’re experiencing what psychologists call imposter syndrome, a condition thought to mainly impact women. Now, a new study finds that these feelings may be far more debilitating for men, possibly due to the societal pressures that men face to achieve great things. 

“We always think of the imposter phenomenon as something experienced in the female population to a higher degree,” study coauthor Rebecca Badawy, of Youngstown State University, told Fatherly. “What we saw was that, under certain conditions, males tended to react more negatively.”

Individuals with imposter syndrome often attribute their successes to luck instead of ability, and suffer from intense anxiety about being “found out” and proven incapable. Although imposter syndrome is not an official diagnosis recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychologists have acknowledged it as a very real source of stress since the 1970s. The imposter phenomenon is closely linked to perfectionism, and people affected by it tend to be overachievers who struggle to recognize and internalize their own accomplishments. Imposter feelings can lead to depression as well, according to the American Psychological Association. There’s evidence that the imposter phenomenon is particularly prevalent among powerful women, but very little research has looked into how it may impact men.

To get a sense of this, Badawy and her colleagues first surveyed about 500 students to determine whether they displayed the signs of imposter syndrome. They then administered the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) to these students, and told half of them that they got the first five questions wrong regardless of how well they performed. Some of these students were further told that their results would be shown to one of their professors. Men with the highest levels of imposter feelings performed worse after receiving negative feedback, whereas women’s performances improved. Among those told that professors would see their scores, men with imposter syndrome performed worse and experienced increased anxiety.  

Badawy suspects these differences in imposter experiences come down to differences in gender norms. “Because there’s such a norm for men to be competent, high performers, if you have imposter feelings as a male you’re fearing backlash,” Badawy explains. “In the face of feared backlash, they may self-sabotage and self-handicap.” Women are less constrained by these societal norms because, even now, most women do not experience the same societal pressure to succeed. 

Of course this is just one possible explanation that requires further research to confirm this. While this is the first study to look how imposter syndrome affects men and women differently, it disproportionately looked at undergraduate students and the data may not accurately capture the experiences of more mature men. Still, the findings suggest that men who feel like frauds should pay close attention to that feeling. Ignoring it could hinder their performance and mental health. 

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“The first thing we have to do is make them aware that this is a thing that a lot of people experience, but it does not say anything about your actual deservingness,” Badawy says. “Just because you feel that way doesn’t make it real.”