Living the Golden Rule: How Growth Mindset and Self-Compassion Can Protect Against the Imposter Phenomenon
By: Autumn Gallegos, Ph.D.
"I don’t belong here" is a mantra of the imposter phenomenon. The imposter phenomenon refers to a set of beliefs and feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt - despite verifiable achievements - and is often reported by high achieving individuals. Those with high expressions of the imposter phenomenon may believe their professional position is out of luck or error, and fear exposure of being a fraud. As a result, individuals who experience the imposter phenomenon have low self-esteem and low self-efficacy beliefs. Further, individuals may see mistakes as a personal reflection of the global, unchanging self.
Why does this happen? Mindset theory is a helpful framework for understanding the imposter phenomenon. The theory suggests that some people believe that human characteristics are either unchanging (fixed mindset) or malleable (growth mindset). For example, attributing error to something global and stable about oneself is associated with a fixed mindset and leads to feelings of shame. Conversely, a growth mindset attributes error to a specific instance that is not a reflection of the global self, and may evoke feelings of guilt, but also curiosity. Here are some examples of thoughts, feelings and behaviors seen in both fixed and growth mindsets:
Examples of a Fixed Mindset
- I can either do it or I can’t
- Feedback and criticism are personal
- Avoidance, procrastination, indecision
- Overconfidence, defensiveness
Examples of a Growth Mindset
- It’s new and hard and I can learn and grow
- Challenges help me grow
- Guilt, fear, anxiety, courage, curiosity, security
- Approach, openness, flexibility, skill acquisition
The imposter phenomenon is significantly linked to burnout components of emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and depersonalization. Other drivers of burnout, especially among physicians and advanced practice providers, include perfectionism and low self-compassion, which are also linked to the imposter phenomenon and fixed mindset. Cultivating self-compassion is one way to shift fixed mindset and the imposter phenomenon toward a growth mindset. Compassion, meaning to suffer with, is a prosocial emotion that creates a desire to alleviate the suffering of another, and can be directed towards the self. Self-compassion in times of your own suffering is the act of treating yourself with the same warmth and caring you would treat a friend. Remember the "you" in the the Golden Rule – treat others as you want to be treated. For some, “treat yourself as you treat others” may be a pertinent rule.
Self-compassion exercise. Consider a difficult experience at work. Notice thoughts and feelings associated with this event. If possible, pause for a moment to offer yourself kindness. Imagine saying to yourself what you would to someone else. Why not treat yourself like a friend?
For more self-compassion exercises, see work by Dr. Kristin Neff.
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Zanchetta, M., Junker, S., Wolf, A. M., & Traut-Mattausch, E. (2020). “Overcoming the Fear That Haunts Your Success”–The Effectiveness of Interventions for Reducing the Impostor Phenomenon. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 405.
Vas, S., Souza Araujo, F., & Mauro, C. F. (2021). From Surviving to Thriving: Using a Growth Mindset to Foster Resilience and Wellness on Internship. [PowerPoint slides]. https://appic.org/News-Articles/ArtMID/1931/ArticleID/40/From-Surviving-to-Thriving-Using-a-Growth-Mindset-to-Foster-Resilience-and-Wellness-on-Internship
Villwock, J. A., Sobin, L. B., Koester, L. A., & Harris, T. M. (2016). Impostor syndrome and burnout among American medical students: a pilot study. International journal of medical education, 7, 364.
Keith Stein |