Minutes after Katarina Johnson-Thompson won gold in the heptathlon at the World Athletics Championships on Friday, Twitter descended into a frenzy. Not only had the Liverpool-born star just secured her place among the likes of Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill and Denise Lewis, but she had done so after a long battle with imposter syndrome. “It seems even world champions can get, and overcome, imposter syndrome,” one user tweeted. “Dunno what’s more impressive, the fact Katarina Johnson-Thompson just won gold or that she did it while overcoming imposter syndrome!” another wrote. Johnson-Thompson spoke about her self-diagnosed struggle with feelings of insufficiency back in May: “I was reading up on imposter syndrome the other day,” she said. “I don’t know what it’ll take not to feel like that – maybe I’ll just know when it happens.”
Imposter syndrome, also known as imposter phenomenon, imposterism, fraud syndrome or the imposter experience, is the “persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills”. These feelings of inadequacy are more common in women, but happen to men too, in any and every walk of life, and can drive people to feel insecure and make ill-informed decisions – and yet the “experience” tends to stay under the radar, away from prying eyes. It’s no wonder, then, that the NHS refers to imposterism as the voice within.
Days before Johnson-Thompson’s victory, a new study from Brigham Young University (BYU) was published which explores imposter syndrome in students: specifically the best, and worst, ways it can be dealt with. The study, carried out by Jeff Bednar, Bryan Stewart and James Oldroyd, reveals that a fifth of university students suffer from the “psychological pattern”, and that the most effective way of dealing with it is to seek help from a network of people removed from your academic course or immediate social group.
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