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CPA mental health: Recognize and reduce impostor syndrome

Written on May 6, 2024
Recognize and reduce impostor syndrome

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Impostor syndrome. It feels like you're thrashing in the water at the swimming pool's deep end without knowing how to swim.

Those with impostor syndrome feel they aren't good enough, often in relation to their career. They feel unqualified and unworthy compared to others around them. They fear their incompetencies will be discovered and exposed by others. It's only a matter of time before they are shamed and degraded for pretending to be something they’re not.

We all feel a bit in over our heads at times, but those with impostor syndrome feel it longer and more deeply. As a result, their mental health may take a hit along with future accomplishments and personal relationships.

The data on impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome goes by many names: impostor phenomenon, impostor experience or fraud syndrome. High-achieving individuals typically experience it, doubting themselves and dismissing their achievements. Studies reveal that anywhere from 9% to 82% of working professionals have felt the effects of impostor syndrome in their lifetimes.

Those with impostor syndrome don't accurately connect their performance with their competence. Instead, they attribute external factors, like help from others and luck, to their successes. Any setbacks become evidence of their professional incompetence.

Impostor syndrome isn't a mental health disorder or diagnosis. Psychologists Clance and Imes first described and coined the term for these feelings in 1978.

Initially, Clance identified the syndrome occurring in high-achieving professional females. However, recent research shows these feelings of inadequacy occur just as frequently in males and across many ethnic and racial groups in numerous professional settings.

What does this have to do with accounting and financing?

People in our profession are just as prone to impostor syndrome as others—and sometimes more. Our profession is rife with high-achievers in dynamic, well-paid roles. The more lucrative the job position, the more likely a person will suffer imposter syndrome.

Don't let these negative emotions impact your headspace, career or accomplishments. We'll empower you with the knowledge and practices you can use to free yourself from feeling like a fraud. Let's look at how you can overcome feelings of inadequacy in your career.

Recognize to reduce

Recognizing the negative thoughts that lead to pessimistic feelings and poor actions (or inaction) is vital.

It's easier to squash impostor syndrome once you can recognize it brewing. Just like you approach your accounting and finance duties by compiling data and analyzing your findings, you can do that with your feelings, too. Let's take a look at what impostor syndrome looks like.

Some common signs and symptoms of the impostor experience include:

  • Feeling afraid of making mistakes or failing.
  • Feeling under-qualified despite your qualifications and accomplishments.
  • Constantly seeking validation and reassurance from others.
  • Downplaying your successes as good luck or timing.
  • Having difficulty receiving recognition or praise.
  • Overworking to try and prove your worth.

These feelings produce prevalent actions or inactions known as the four "p's" of impostor syndrome:

  • Perfectionism
  • People-pleasing
  • Paralysis
  • Procrastination

Those with impostor syndrome tend to obsess over perfection. They also try hard to please others, often asking for their input.

Alternatively, someone suffering from impostor syndrome may begin to shy away from activities, projects or new responsibilities. Their fear of failure prevents them from making or reaching additional goals.

Reframe to change

We can change our thoughts and feelings after recognizing that a poor thought has popped into our heads.

First, understand that the brain naturally has a negativity bias. That means we innately focus on bad things, like mistakes and fears. Negativity bias has an upside--it's helped us adapt, improve and thrive for eons. However, sometimes, we must understand that our brain is homing in on the worst parts of our experience at the expense of the good.

You can have an internal dialogue with your brain to refocus and reframe the situation. Therapists call this mental conversation "parts work."

In the case of impostor syndrome, the mature, rational part of you would speak to the fearful "impostor" part and tell it that its services aren't needed right now. Everything is fine, and you've got this.

Also, consider keeping a journal of your achievements, a day planner of your schedule, or a memory box containing your accolades. Look these over when you notice any of the above signs and symptoms. These serve as data to support your argument to your “inner impostor” that you are, indeed, accomplished and prepared.

Social support

Many suffer from these feelings in silence because acknowledging them out loud calls attention to their inadequacies, which is the root of their fear. However, the best thing to do is lean on others.

Talk to a therapist or trusted friend about these apprehensions. Find a support group. Admitting the feelings out loud and getting positive feedback can help you overcome this irrational fear more easily and quickly.

Partner with a mentor in your workplace or become an intern to help you boost your knowledge and confidence within your role.

Consider establishing a mentorship and internship program at your workplace. It will help reduce fear-based impostor syndrome in your co-workers and employees.

Mental self-care

Your mental health is as important as your physical health. Make sure you schedule time to relax and unplug from your routine.

Do what you love and what fills you with more love during this time. Get together with family and friends, garden, get a massage, read a self-help book, practice gratitude and acts of service.

Ohio accounting and finance professionals have a mental health ally in their accountancy membership with The Ohio Society of CPAs.

The OSCPA regularly shares content related to mental health. We can connect you with local health practitioners and offer membership group insurance to make taking care of your mental health easier.

Seek knowledge

Approach impostor syndrome like any accounting challenge–with smarts. In accounting, continuing education in soft sciences like mental health is as professionally helpful as technical knowledge.

Help keep yourself and your accounting team in tip-top mental shape by taking steps to recognize and reduce impostor syndrome.

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