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Although Imposter Syndrome (IS) has traditionally been seen as a female phenomenon, there isn’t an awful lot of hard data to confirm that women actually do experience this more than men. The reason that it is seen as a female condition is simply that the phenomenon was first discovered using research on women and it is a stereotype that seems to have stuck. As such, men who do experience it might have the additional burden of feeling emasculated for suffering from such an apparently female complaint.
And men do indeed suffer from IS. Many studies have found no difference in self-reported impostor feelings among male and female college students, professors, and professionals. Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy gave a TED Talk on power posing in 2012, and was stunned to receive thousands of emails from people who reported feeling like a fraud – about half of which were from were men.
IS expert Valerie Young claims on her website impostersyndome.com that half of the attendees at her Imposter Syndrome workshops are men. Indeed, in 1993, Pauline Clance, the author of the original work defining the condition of IS, conceded that her original theory of impostor syndrome as a uniquely female problem had been incorrect, since ‘males in these populations are just as likely as females to have low expectations of success and to make attributions to non-ability related factors’.
According to IS researchers at US-based psychological profiling company, Arch Profile, of a sample of people experiencing Imposter Syndrome:
- 32% of the women and 33% of the men didn’t feel they deserve any of the success they have attained.
- 36% of the women and 34% of the men took perfectionism to an extreme and set unrealistic expectations for themselves.
- 44% of the women and 38% of the men believed that most of their accomplishments were a fluke.
- 47% of the women and 48% of the men didn’t believe that they have
earned the rewards they have received as a result of their hard work.
Thus the experience of IS does not seem to differ between men and women. Furthermore, one study reported in the Times Higher Education Supplement in 2016 even claims that men are more likely to suffer from the effects of IS than women. Holly Hutchins, Associate Professor of Human Resources Development at the University of Houston looked at the events that triggered Impostor Syndrome in sixteen academics in the US. This research showed that the most common trigger for scholars’ impostor feelings was the questioning of their expertise by colleagues or students. Comparing themselves negatively with colleagues, or even securing successes, also sparked feelings of inadequacies among the academics.
What was really interesting were the differences between men and women in the way they coped with this IS. Women had much better coping strategies, utilizing social support and self-talk whereas the male imposters were more likely to turn to alcohol and other avoidant strategies to cope with feeling phony.
Male Imposter Syndrome and Stereotype Backlash
Although there may not be a marked difference in numbers of men and women experiencing IS, there may be fewer men openly admitting to it. Men may be less likely to talk about feelings of imposterism than women are because of ‘stereotype backlash’, or social punishment, which can take the form of insults or even social ostracism, for failing to conform to male stereotypes, such as the one that says men should be assertive and confident. This may make men reluctant to admit to self-doubt – it is just not a masculine trait and so doing this erodes their sense of masculinity.
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As one author in Business Insider put it, men do suffer from IS but they are just too ‘ashamed’ to admit it. Thus the perception of IS as a female problem is sustained – women seem to have no problem admitting their self-doubt, whereas men do.
Just as society has behavioural expectations on women, so it has expectations on men – but different ones. Men are expected to ‘big up’ their achievements, to be cocky, arrogant even. They are required to be strong and not so emotionally vulnerable as to be plagued by self-doubt. This can leave them much more reticent to talk about how they feel like a fraud.
This ‘bigging up’ might also be termed over-confidence. Men can experience (or are expected to experience) supreme over-confidence; arguably this is one of the characteristics lauded as being masculine. This can actually give men a real advantage as confidence breeds confidence – we are more likely to trust and believe people who are confident and self-assured, which means they are more likely to succeed. Clearly, a salesperson is going to be less successful by appearing to be unsure about their products than someone cocksure. It is easy to see how over-confidence can give men the edge.
And it is equally easy to see how a man who lacks confidence, or is plagued by self-doubt about his abilities, is going to not only lose that natural advantage, but have it turned against them in accordance with the stereotype backlash and societal norms; men are praised and accepted in society for their male qualities, so it follows that they will be the recipients of negative judgements for anything less.
Not only does the self-doubting male face a societal backlash if he admits his feelings, but he can face a self-imposed backlash, too. The female imposter only has to deal with the feelings of being a phony; the male imposter has to cope with the phoniness plus also take a hit on his self-identity as a man as a direct result of feeling fake. Is it any wonder, then, that men are less likely to own up to feeling like frauds, and more likely to go into denial or turn to avoidance strategies?
Imposter Syndrome and Mental Health In Men
One of the biggest – but perhaps most surprising – ways in which I see IS manifest itself in men that is different from women, is in the area of mental health. I see a lot of men in my private practice mental health clinic, but men often present very differently to women who are suffering mental health problems.
In my experience, men are far more likely than women to beat themselves up about having mental health issues. They find the idea much harder to accept than women do.
Traditionally, this has manifested itself in an unwillingness to seek help, and this is still true to a large extent; research by the Mental Health Foundation in the UK as recently as 2016 showed that men are still less likely to seek help than women are (28 per cent of men said they had not sought help with a mental health problem compared with just 19 per cent of women). As one source put it; So many men avoid talking about what’s going on inside their minds out of fear of being judged or ignored – or being told to ‘man up’.
Not only that, the same research also found that men are more reluctant than women to tell anyone that they are struggling with mental health issues; only a quarter of men tell other people compared with a third of women, and most of those would wait two years before they plucked up the courage to disclose.
A perfect example of this is Dave Chawner, a comedian who lived with anorexia and depression for ten years before seeking help. He told The Guardian newspaper that while men are ‘permitted’ by society to talk about emotions such as stress and anger, ‘anything else is interpreted as vulnerability’, so he felt that men bottle up those feelings far more.
‘Man Up’ – The Most Destructive Phrase In Modern Culture?
An article in The Telegraph in 2015, argued that telling men to ‘man up’ can have very damaging consequences because the phrase can ‘blur our understanding of masculinity and manhood as concepts’. Telling men to ‘act like a man’ buys into the male stereotypes of exactly what it means to be a man and these are typically strong action-hero types.
A culture in which men have to act ‘like men’ is why boys learn very quickly that ‘big boys don’t cry’ and that emotions must therefore be squashed and repressed. Young boys are taught that emotional sensitivity is weak and grow up with this ingrained in their psyches.
Is it any wonder that telling a man to ‘man up’ is likely to lead to them questioning their own sense of maleness – and leave them feeling like an imposter for their gender?
Men struggle with the dissonance between the two beliefs they generally hold with respect to mental health. On the one hand, men are meant to be strong. They are told repeatedly to ‘man up!’, which means to be tough, in control of themselves and their emotions and, above all, to be strong. Males are discouraged from pursuing many positive or healthy traits that are perceived as unmanly. These include the ability to feel a range of emotions, including fear, hurt, confusion or despair.
A "Real Man" vs. An Imposter?
What happens, then, when they realise that they are none of those things – that they need help, that they are ‘weak’ and their emotions are threatening to overwhelm them, that they can’t cope? Some men are able to change the first assertion to a new one – that men can still be men even if they feel emotions. But many men have the stereotype so ingrained that they can’t shift it – instead they have to conclude that they are not a ‘real man’. And, if they are not a real man, they must be an imposter.
In addition, trying to avoid Imposter Syndrome may well be contributing to men choosing not to get the mental health help that they need. If they don’t acknowledge their difficulties, and don’t seek help, they don’t have to feel like they are an imposter of a man.
Unfortunately, this leads to avoidance strategies instead of facing up to the problems, and this is borne out by the research; men are three times more likely to take their own lives compared to women and have much higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse. This suggests that maladaptive coping strategies, such as escape via alcohol, drugs and even suicide, are being substituted for the more healthy strategy of seeking professional help. Fear of being an imposter is potentially lethal for men.
In 2015, The Priory mental health hospital commissioned a survey of 1,000 men to uncover men’s attitudes toward their own mental health. They found that 77 per cent of men polled had suffered with anxiety/stress/ depression. Moreover, 40 per cent of the men said they wouldn’t seek help until they felt so bad that they were thinking of self-harm or suicide. A fifth of the men said that they wouldn’t seek help because of the stigma attached, while 16 per cent said that they didn’t want to appear ‘weak’.
The Best Advice for Men
The best advice is to actively look after your mental health and don’t be afraid to seek help. Also, encourage men in your workplace and social setting to talk about their emotions. Tackle the stigma and inspire people to rethink what it means to be a modern man.
©2019 by Dr. Sandi Mann. Excerpted with permission
from the book: Why Do I Feel Like an Imposter?.
Published by Watkins Publishing, London, UK.
Why Do I Feel Like an Imposter?: How to Understand and Cope with Imposter Syndrome
by Dr. Sandi Mann
Many of us share a shameful little secret: deep down we feel like complete frauds and are convinced that our accomplishments are the result of luck rather than skill. This is a psychological phenomenon known as 'Imposter Syndrome'. This book examines the reasons why up to 70% of us are developing this syndrome-and what we can do about it. (Also available as a Kindle edition.)
About the Author
Dr Sandi Mann is a psychologist, University Lecturer and Director of The MindTraining Clinic in Manchester where much of her material for this book is derived. She is author of over 20 psychology books, her most recent being The Science of Boredom. She has also written and researched extensively about emotional faking, culminating in her book Hiding What We Feel, Faking What We Do. Visit her website at https://www.mindtrainingclinic.com