Social media enable everyone to build, create, and curate their own brand. Others interact with this personal brand, refining and changing it. This dynamic process can create a social media image that feels divorced from the person behind the profile.
Most social media profiles present a person’s life through rose-colored glasses, depicting only the best and most likable aspects of a person. A single “candid” image might have required hours of preparation and hundreds of photographic outtakes. The unfavorable or imperfect images all go unseen.
For some individuals, social media use can contribute to impostor syndrome. These individuals may have trouble acknowledging their accomplishments. They may feel as if their true selves don’t live up to their reputations and feel severe self-doubt as a result. An estimated 70% of people will feel impostor syndrome during their lifetime.
Recognizing Impostor Syndrome
In the 1970s, researchers first identified the phenomenon among high-achieving women who felt like frauds. Since then, researchers have identified impostor phenomenon among many groups, including white men. Yet marginalized groups—women, genderqueer individuals, racial/ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, etc.—may be more vulnerable to impostor syndrome.
Historically marginalized communities see fewer examples of successful people who look like them. Oppression, discrimination, and microaggressions may help activate feelings of self-doubt. A 2017 study linked impostor syndrome among racial and ethnic minority students to increased depression and anxiety.
People with impostor syndrome may worry that they have fooled everyone into overestimating their talent, intelligence, popularity, etc. They often believe their success is merely illusory, a product of luck instead of merit. Other common characteristics of impostor syndrome include:
- Being unable to claim credit for one’s own achievements. For example, a woman receiving an award at work might downplay her contributions and highlight the accomplishments of her team.
- Fearing judgment for perceived failures or shortcomings. They may fear being “found out.”
- Not feeling a sense of belonging. This is especially prevalent among minorities in competitive workplaces, political organizations, and other groups whose membership provides social status.
Impostor syndrome can sometimes be a self-fulfilling prophecy. When people are unable to claim credit for their achievements, others may be less likely to notice those achievements. This can slow career progress, reducing rewards and encouragement which could convince a person that they deserve their success.
How Social Media Can Amplify Impostor Syndrome
Social media platforms allow a person to display the things they most want others to see. Some social media users are better at this than others, creating a compelling personal brand that creates the illusion of a perfect and highly successful life. The ready availability of social media profiles makes it easy to compare oneself to dozens of other people in just a few minutes. A person can even search for people with similar backgrounds, in similar jobs, or of the same age.
The viewer can’t compare to this flawless image. This can lead to insecurity and impostor syndrome, especially when a person compares themselves to people at work, school, or those in the same profession.
Social media users may be able to push back against impostor syndrome by viewing social media as a curated, deliberate branding effort—not an honest and complete presentation of a person’s life.It’s easy for even mundane aspects of daily life to become a source of comparison online. Self-care, for example, is vital for well-being. It can also be a way to signal how much leisure time, support, and money a person has. A struggling college student who sees photos of their peer at an expensive spa may feel hopeless about their own prospects for self-care.
Parenting, pet ownership, gift-giving, time management, and even cleaning can likewise trigger social media comparisons. So while a person who felt like an impostor at work might previously have comforted themselves with reassurances about their other skills, social media make it possible to feel inadequate across numerous domains.
Over time, this constant comparison can lead to impostor syndrome and other mental health issues. A person viewing an apparently flawless life may wonder, “Why can’t I do that?” The reality is that the person who appears to be living a flawless life probably doesn’t lead the life they present on social media.
A 2017 study found people who spent 121 minutes or more per day on social media were more likely to report feelings of isolation and identify with statements such as “I feel like people barely know me.” Other studies also support a link between heavy social media use and worsening mental health. For instance, a 2015 study of adolescents found that those who used social media for more than two hours per day were more likely to report poor mental health.
Social Media Literacy
Social media can undermine our sense of what is normal. For example, after days of scrolling through perfectly organized homes, people with flawless skin and hair, or employees who never make mistakes at work, a social media consumer may begin to view these experiences as the norm. This can be deeply unsettling, especially for those who are already vulnerable to impostor syndrome. A person may also view their own social media image as fraudulent while taking another person’s image at face value.
Social media users may be able to push back against impostor syndrome by viewing social media as a curated, deliberate branding effort—not an honest and complete presentation of a person’s life. Social media accounts act like personal advertisements, highlighting the good and framing a person’s life in only the most positive terms.
How to Deal with Impostor Syndrome
A handful of strategies may help counteract impostor syndrome. These include:
- Consuming representative and diverse media. When minorities see people who look like them in successful roles, they may be less likely to feel like frauds.
- Employ cognitive strategies. Remind yourself that many successful people feel like impostors. People often present a much more confident, “together” image than they internally feel.
- Limit social media usage if it consistently hurts your self-esteem.
- Find a mentor who has similar experiences to your own.
- Build a diverse support system.
- Remind yourself of recent accomplishments. Keeping a file of compliments or awards may help. Remember that achievements may also be more subtle, such as training a subordinate to succeed in their role or improving morale at the office.
Therapy can help with impostor syndrome and the painful emotions it triggers. A therapist can also help an individual prevent impostor syndrome from hindering their success. In therapy, a person may learn cognitive-behavioral strategies for correcting self-defeating thoughts. They might explore how their history—familial, cultural, and social—influences their self-concept. Or they might practice strategies for becoming more assertive and taking credit for their achievements.
A licensed counselor can help you manage impostor syndrome and prevent social media from destroying self-esteem. You can find a counselor here.
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- Brooks, R. (2017, April 24). Study: Impostor syndrome causes mental distress in minority students. USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/college/2017/04/24/study-impostor-syndrome-causes-mental-distress-in-minority-students/37430839
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