The Plight of Imposter Syndrome in the FLI (First-Generation and Low-Income) Community

Imposter syndrome has become a sort of buzzword in the mainstream and it is often joked about or taken lightly. In academia, Imposter Syndrome can often be referred to as Imposter Phenomenon (IP). Mental health has become more commonly spoken about in recent years, and as such IP has also experienced more coverage. IP has been suggested/recommended for inclusion in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), but has not yet been added. If it is added this will be a huge step towards formalizing and streamlining diagnoses and treatments. It is great that there is more discussion and emphasis on mental health and IP, but it is important to recognize there is a lot to learn and we don’t have all the answers at this time. For example, are their correlations with age, gender, socioeconomic status or ethnicity? Can we take the correlations one step further and determine causation? Are certain individuals more pre-disposed to imposter syndrome? For now, the research is inconclusive.

However, regardless of the concreteness of its definition, it is clearly a prevalent issue and often also a silent issue especially for the first-generation and low-income (FLI) community. This can be for countless reasons. Students may feel reluctant to address their own feelings of Imposter-ism. On a cultural level, many cultural backgrounds disregard mental health or think that mental illness is feigned. Students may not know a qualified adult they can speak to for their own mental health or to be able to afford a professional consultation. Furthermore, many FLI students feel a huge amount of pressure to be successful and a “role-model.”

There is an immense pressure to succeed placed on students, in general, and this is magnitudes higher for FLI students and students from marginalized or minority communities. According to Dr. Suzanne Imes, in our society today our, “self-worth [has] become contingent on achieving.” In such a society, are we really surprised that achievement has become more than mere aspiration, but rather a necessity?

What is Imposter Syndrome/ Imposter Phenomenon Really?

IP was initially described by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in the 1970s. It is said that impostor phenomenon most commonly occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. Over the years, it has become discussed more closely with several studies addressing IP.

Despite not yet getting added to the DSM, psychologists, by and large, agree that IP is a very real affliction and one that should be addressed and further studied. Of course, the best studies will be longitudinal and thus it may be many years before we see more conclusive studies. In many cases, it can come about for different reasons and in different forms which makes it hard to suggest a sort of “one-size” fits all solution. Therefore, a more holistic and personalized approach has largely been the modus operandi to-date.

IP relates to feeling like a “fraud.” For example, imagine you earn a high GPA. Undoubtedly, earning a high GPA requires a good work ethic, natural talents and, of course, determination (among other favorable attributes). Yet, you may begin to have a lingering feeling: “i didn’t try THAT hard or do as well as Person A who is most certainly a natural genius.” You may also think, “all my peers on this stage with me are so much more accomplished, naturally gifted and skilled. It must be some sort of fluke or my lucky day to be here as well.” These sorts of intrusive thoughts are very common, and especially common in individuals with amazing achievements and fulfilling professional careers.

We are not medical professionals and thus do not encourage a self-diagnosis or anything of that nature, but if you are achingly curious on the metrics used to define IP then you may want to take a few moments to familiarize yourself at the following test developed by Dr. Clance.

PLEASE NOTE: Test results do not constitute an official diagnosis. However, if you have any concerns about your test results, you should browse current IP studies and consult a local mental health provider for counseling.

What is the prevalence of Imposter Syndrome/ IP ?

There are many ballpark estimates out there, but non-response bias, limited studies and availability bias makes it very difficult to get an accurate estimate. How representative could a random sample of students, with diverse backgrounds and experiences, be? In essence, it is really difficult to say if someone has imposter syndrome if they don’t come to that realization and take steps to determine it themselves. Mental health services in the US, for example, can be very expensive, so it’s highly unlikely that a majority of students would be able to afford access to these services where a professional can address their feelings and thoughts. This lack of accessibility can also relate to all sorts of under-diagnoses. There is not a universally agreed upon screening tool that has been approved for diagnostic use yet either. These are steps that will need to be taken to get a better idea of severity, metrics and treatments.

All this aside, a recent study cited that the prevalence of imposter syndrome varied between 9-82% depending on the “screening tool, cutoff, and [overall were] particularly high among minority ethnic groups.” A 2013 study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin surveyed ethnic-minority college students and found that Asian-Americans were more likely than African-Americans or Latino-Americans to experience impostor feelings. Imposter syndrome does not exist in isolation. IP is also often believed to be accompanied with other comorbidities such as anxiety, depression and more. Thus, it is incredibly important to note that IP may be more common than we anticipate in many cases.

It will undoubtedly be a challenge to streamline screening and obtain representative samples for study. Individuals from certain ethnic or religious minorities may decline to participate and fellow clinicians and professionals could be reluctant to have be “labeled” or stigmatized via a IP test. Previous studies have heavily relied on convenience sampling, which alienates or excludes a large chunk of the population.

Feeling Like an Imposter: The Effect of Perceive Classroom Competition on the Daily Psychological Experiences of First Generation College Students

This study was recently published (2019) and explores possible links between first-generation students and IP. If you want to read the full article please find it at the following site. This study specifically focuses on STEM majors. STEM majors are notoriously known as some of the most cut-throat and competitive environments at many post-secondary institutions. This is especially true in classes where only a set percentage of the class can earn top marks (an A). This intense pressure in the classroom coupled with pressure to succeed intrinsic to the FLI student experience can result in imposter feelings. The study took place longitudinally with more than 800 students and over 2,600 data point observations.

The findings of this study found that, “perceived classroom competition was associated with greater daily in-class imposter feelings among all students—but especially among first-generation students. Imposter feelings in turn predicted students’ end-of-term course engagement, attendance, dropout intentions, and course grades. Classroom competition and the imposter feelings it engenders may be an overlooked barrier for promoting the engagement, performance, and retention of first-generation students in STEM.”

As we know, a very small percentage of FLI students go on to earn their bachelors (or higher degree). This may be an important step in determining one of the many causes that could lead to such high dropout rates and low retention. Of course, more follow-up studies will be needed to determine the best course of action and solutions. Overall, a knowledge of these factors can help colleges and universities better understand how to retain their FLI students and provide them with ample support.

Unpacking the Imposter Syndrome and Mental Health as a Person of Color (POC) First-Generation College Student within Institutions of Higher Education

The entirety of the research discussed can be found at the following link. This study was also published in 2019. This study addresses the FLI community, but adds another component to the mix: race & ethnicity.

According to this article, “POC are impacted more by IP than non-POC. The intersectionalities of Mental Health and POC are salient when researching and understanding this phenomenon.” Therefore, further studies should absolutely be looking at IP from a lens that accurately encapsulates the diversity of experiences and backgrounds individuals have.

This article also makes note that, for students, their institutions should, “assess the
needs of their students and provide accessible equitable resources to help
them overcome their own challenges.” This is in agreement with the goals of the aforementioned study as well. It is clear that the consensus is that this is a prevalent issue that must be acknowledged and appropriately funded and recognized in post-secondary institutions.

Overall

Overall, it is clear that there are many recent advances to our understanding of IP and its impacts on the mental health of high achieving individuals from a variety of backgrounds. It is excellent that we are able to learn more about IP and hopefully gain a greater understanding of how to help individuals overcome it.

We must emphasize a holistic and also inclusive approach. It is not sufficient that we allow for IP to continue to be left largely under-recognized and unaided. For many students, it is not just a matter of self-esteem or self-worth, but will have massive repercussions on their productivity, happiness and more.

Published by Magda Wojtara

Magda Wojtara is Junior at the LSA Honors College at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor on a pre-med track with a major in Neuroscience. In her free time, she write articles, volunteers at a chronic pain outpatient facility with UM Medicine, does research, competes in HOSA, and, of course, enjoys photography and singing. In her spare time she manages her own travel and lifestyle blog: @journeythedestiantion on instagram and journeythedestination.weebly.com

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