Examining impostor syndrome

What is impostor syndrome, and can actuaries fall victim to it? In this episode, we dig a little deeper into this psychological pattern and discuss ways to overcome this syndrome. We are joined by organizational psychologist Justin Deonarine and Lisa Bolduc, FCIA, specializing in human resources, to learn what this is all about.


Fievoli: Welcome to Seeing Beyond Risk, a podcast series from the Canadian Institute of Actuaries. I’m Chris Fievoli, staff actuary, Communications and Public Affairs at the CIA.

With an increased focus on mental health in the workplace, there is greater recognition of how psychological research can help identify barriers to productivity. Today, we’d like to spend a few minutes discussing the concept of the imposter syndrome and how it could affect those of us in the actuarial profession. We are joined by organizational psychologist Justin Deonarine and CIA member Lisa Bolduc, who specializes in human resource management.

Thank you both for joining us today.

Deonarine: It’s a pleasure.

Bolduc: Pleasure to be here.

Fievoli: So Justin, we’ll start with you. Just to kick things off, can you define what do we mean by imposter syndrome?

Deonarine: Yeah, for sure. Imposter syndrome is a very specific feeling; a very specific thought pattern. So it’s essentially the fear of being exposed as a fraud, and it’s an internal feeling. So even though you may not actually be a fraud, for example, you may actually be competent. All the external evidence shows that you are a success, that you are deserving of success. Internally, you feel like you’re a fraud and there’s a fear of being exposed accordingly.

People with imposter syndrome typically don’t feel like they’ve deserved their success; they attribute it to luck. There’s also the feeling that they’re actually living someone else’s life, and that’s where the term imposter comes from. That this isn’t actually me. This is all pure luck or someone else’s success, and it’s all being attributed to me. And now I need to cover up the fact that I’m afraid that I’ll be exposed for being an impostor.

Fievoli: So to me that sounds like it might just be a lack of confidence. So, are we just talking about that or is this something more complex?

Deonarine: It’s actually a little bit more complex. So when we dig into the psychological research, imposter syndrome doesn’t quite link with low self-esteem or low self-confidence as many would think. It’s actually really interesting, what research suggests is that imposter syndrome is more closely related to perfectionism than it is to lack of confidence.

What’s really interesting is it is more complex. It’s associated with feelings such as not wanting to fail, which is where you start getting perfectionism, feeling like a fake, luck as an explanation, and people with imposter syndrome tend to downplay their success. That it isn’t a big deal.

When you look at the thought patterns that someone with imposter syndrome has, it’s actually more like an anxiety or depression than lack of confidence, and it’s more closely associated with perfectionism or perfectionistic tendencies.

Fievoli: Turning to Lisa now, what are some of the potential barriers you see for actuaries that may find themselves in this situation, especially those that are just newly qualified? What suggestions do you have for them to address this problem?

Bolduc: Well, as we can imagine anyone getting qualified or reaching a new step in their field can face a certain level of doubt, but as Justin mentioned, imposter syndrome is really at a different level. So it’s not just an isolated personal struggle, it really can create significant barriers that hold us back from reaching our full potential, especially as it tends to work in a vicious circle.

Examples of barriers I would see is that first you doubt your abilities to a point where you constantly fear failure, it prevents you from taking on new challenges, even sharing your ideas, seeking leadership roles, and you come to procrastination, we talked about perfectionism already.

So it definitely can hinder productivity and performance, which in turn can also limit your career growth opportunities and make you feel even more like an impostor. It can also have an impact on your relationships with others. You may struggle building healthy relationships or feel isolated, which in turn can also lead to self doubt and perpetuate the cycle of feeling like an imposter.

I’d like to say that that feedback is your friend, but it’s a barrier having imposter syndrome when you already feel like you’re not competent enough or you’re an impostor, it can become very challenging to accept feedback. Even constructive criticism, because you may see it as a confirmation of your perceived incompetence. As we know, being open to feedback is essential for whatever stage of your career, but especially for newly qualified actuaries. It can definitely impact how you can grow and improve your skills. And we’ve talked already about the barriers and impact on mental health causing stress, anxiety, et cetera.

Now on the other hand, what can we do to address this? Of course it’s complex, there’s no single quick fix. I do hope, Justin, that you have some tricks for us or recommendations, but there’s definitely a combination of several elements that I think can help overcome it.

The first one being actually recognizing that it’s a common experience, especially when transitioning from a stage of learning to a stage where you have increased responsibilities. You know, we work alongside peers that are more knowledgeable, have a much longer and successful track record than you do, it’s OK, it’s normal.

Understanding your thought patterns like Justin described a bit earlier, it allows us to really challenge our negative thoughts and replace them with positive affirmations. But I would really put the emphasis on seeking support from others, it’s really crucial in overcoming impostor syndrome, whether it’s speaking with a trusted mentor, a coach, or even therapist, who can provide guidance and help us navigate the challenge we’re facing.

Mentors can really help new actuaries build confidence, providing opportunities also for them to take on new challenges or responsibilities; helping them set achievable goals and really providing feedback and support. Help them see their own potential and actually build a sense of accomplishment.

Also I would add, mentors really help when they share their own experience of how and when they overcame their doubts, and failure. We talked about fear of failure a bit earlier. It’s important that we have that authenticity, that humble leadership of sharing our own experience to help others learn and overcome their imposter syndrome.

Fievoli: OK, and Justin, I believe there’s some recently released research that deals with the topic of overcoming imposter syndrome. Can you tell us about that?

Deonarine: Yeah, and thank you, Lisa, there’s some great advice in there and actually quite a bit of overlap. What I noticed is, I read through Psychology Today a lot and a new article just came out, March 10, 2023. It was a speaking about imposter syndrome and had some advice on how to overcome imposter syndrome. To Lisa’s point around getting that feedback, listening to that feedback, especially the positive feedback.

One of the challenges with imposter syndrome is that you can tend to, as Lisa alluded to, focus on the negatives, tend to focus on the critical feedback as confirmation. What is harder to accept is the positive feedback. One thing to keep in mind is that the positive feedback that you get, the praise, is typically genuine. They’re not being nice for the sake of being nice. They’re giving you that positive feedback because you’ve actually, legitimately done a good job or a great job, or you were legitimately successful.

Lisa also mentioned around gathering some evidence towards your own success. So if success is accomplishments, one thing that’s recommended is to actually look back and reflect on your previous successes, and do this almost as a preventative measure by doing this on a regular basis.

Imposter syndrome is often associated with a fear of the future, so considering your past successes and reflecting on them, celebrating them, even in a small way, helps you build that evidence that you are deserving, that you are not a fraud. And even if you’re not quite there in terms of imposter syndrome, this can help build up against those self doubts.

The third one which was actually really powerful, and this is some of the newer information, is the recommendation to reframe your doubts as a strength. One of the things that happens to somebody who has imposter syndrome is they are more likely to say “I don’t know” when they don’t know. And this is an advantage.

Being authentic, being honest, showing humility. Humility is seen very positively. It helps you build relationships, authentic relationships. So being open to saying “I don’t know” when you don’t know, is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of humility, it’s a sign of honesty. That uncertainty and self doubt is actually a part of the learning process. Believing in your ability to learn, being open to saying, “I don’t know”, and being open to learning and believing in your ability to pick up new things, this all reframes imposter syndrome as a strength rather than a challenge.

Fievoli: OK, well, thinking about this, I’m wondering if we sometimes have the opposite problem, where somebody goes to take on an assignment that they know they’re not qualified to do, but they do it anyway. Is it just some sort of syndrome, or is this just a different behavior?

Deonarine: Yeah, it’s really interesting because different people define it in different ways, perhaps overconfidence or lack of self-awareness. When I think about the opposite of imposter syndrome, when you start digging into what has been theorized, the closest thing is not actually a syndrome but an effect called the Dunning–Kruger effect.

We may be a little bit more familiar with Dunning–Kruger because it’s come up a little bit more often throughout the pandemic, but it’s essentially when one overestimates their ability or their knowledge because they don’t know what they don’t know. So they’re unable to distinguish between perhaps a good performance and a bad performance because they don’t know what they don’t know walking into that situation, so they don’t know what success would actually be.

So when you take that Dunning–Kruger effect and apply it a little bit more broadly, when someone overestimates their own skills, knowledge, and achievements, that would be the opposite of imposter syndrome.

Fievoli: OK, interesting. Lisa, turning back to you, do you have any thoughts on how actuaries can find the right balance between knowing what they’re qualified to do and what they aren’t qualified to do? And what are some of the ways that they can effectively move into new responsibilities and practices where they don’t have that experience behind them necessarily?

Bolduc: I guess the balance we’re looking for is what I call being a confidently humble, where you have that confidence but you’re also conscious that you don’t know everything, like Justin just described, and that it’s OK to say that that you don’t know. So it’s really important to be proactive in identifying the areas where you might need additional support or training.

We talked already about asking and getting feedback from colleagues, taking time to attend training sessions, even conducting research on your own. But I really emphasize the roles of managers and mentors on making sure that there are clear expectations from a young actuary’s perspective on what is their sandbox and what support is available to them. And it’s required in both ways, that the employee be authentic about it, as Justin described, but also a few words to the managers out there to be proactive.

Your role is crucial for creating that positive and productive work environment that supports employees who might be facing imposter syndrome. So whether that’s true, encourage your employees, be an advocate for them, speak up on their behalf, make sure that they have the resources and support they need to succeed, opportunities, etc. Also leading by example and having clear communications on feedback, expectations.

I would end on a high note to remind managers to celebrate the achievements of your employees. No matter how small they may seem, it can go a long way to build that confidence and help your employees grow and get away from that imposter syndrome.

Fievoli: That sounds like good advice. Well, thanks to both of you for coming on the podcast today.

Deonarine: Thanks for having me.

Bolduc: It was a pleasure. Thank you. Thank you, Chris. Thank you, Justin.

Fievoli: If you enjoyed today’s conversation, we invite you to subscribe to our podcast series and catch up on prior episodes. As well, if you have ideas for a future episode or would like to contribute to our Seeing Beyond Risk blog, we would love to hear from you. Contact information can be found in the show description.

Until next time, I’m Chris Fievoli and thank you for tuning in to Seeing Beyond Risk.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

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