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Overcoming Imposter Syndrome in Accounting

Most who suffer from imposter syndrome believe that their achievements are the result of “luck,” living in fear that they will be discovered a “phony” by others. CPAs tend to possess certain personality traits that make them prone to imposter syndrome: they are detail-oriented, possess a strong work ethic, and are focused on integrity and accountability. Luckily, there is a way to keep imposter syndrome at bay.

Feb 20, 2023, 05:07 AM

Amanda Sue Marcy, CPABy Amanda Sue Marcy, CPA, DBA

“I do not deserve to work here.” “I am not qualified for this job.” “My co-workers and clients are going to find out that I am inadequate.” Have you ever had thoughts like these? If so, you are not alone.

Imposter syndrome (or imposter phenomenon) is an internal psychological experience where one persistently doubts their abilities or accomplishments despite evidence proving the contrary.1 Most who suffer from imposter syndrome believe that their achievements are the result of “luck” and live in fear that they will be discovered a “phony” by others. It has been estimated that at least 70% of individuals have had an imposter syndrome experience at some point in their lives.2  

Common characteristics of imposter syndrome3 can include the following:

  • Inability to realistically assess your competence and skills
  • Attributing your success to external factors
  • Berating your performance
  • Fear that you will not live up to expectations
  • Overachieving
  • Sabotaging your own success
  • Self-doubt
  • Setting unrealistic goals and being disappointed when you do not achieve them

Woman seemingly anxious while reading work papers.High-performers, and more commonly women, are more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome. Approximately 25% to 30% of high-achievers report experiencing imposter syndrome.4 While this feeling may lead some to work harder, overprepare, or spend more time on a task than necessary, it often also correlates to increased anxiety and depression, low self-esteem and self-efficacy, high neuroticism, low conscientiousness, and proneness to shame.5 Prolonged exposure to impostorism in the workplace can lead to increased levels of stress and burnout, and decreased job performance and satisfaction.  

Valerie Young, EdD, an imposter syndrome expert, classifies imposter syndrome into five core types:6  

  • Perfectionist – Demands perfection from self, often based on unrealistic self-imposed standards. In “failing” to meet these standards, the perfectionist resorts to self-criticism rather than acknowledge of accomplishments. They oftentimes avoid trying new things out of fear of the inability to accomplish it perfectly the first time.
  • Soloist – Feels that he or she must work alone. Self-worth is built on self-sufficiency; therefore, they feel that an inability to accomplish success independently is failure. They often reject the help of others, viewing it as a sign of weakness or inadequacy.
  • Natural genius – Typically learns new skills or information quickly, without much effort. As such, he or she thinks everything should be “easy” for competent people. Therefore, when something does not come easy, they quickly feel ashamed or embarrassed.
  • Expert – Expects that he or she must know everything about a specific topic to be a success. The expert is never satisfied with their level of understanding and tends to focus on continually pursuing more knowledge. They often regard themselves as frauds if they uncover information they may have missed or encounter a question for which they do not know the answer.
  • Superhuman – Equates competence to being successful in every position they hold. An inability to meet and/or exceed the demands of all these roles constitutes failure to them. The superhuman tends to take on more tasks than they can realistically complete.

Given its culture, the public accounting profession could be considered a breeding ground for imposter syndrome. By that I mean CPAs tend to possess certain personality traits prone to imposter syndrome: they tend to be more detail-oriented, highly organized, and meticulous; they possess an efficient work ethic and strive to stay abreast of changes in standards, laws, and regulations; and they are focused on honesty, integrity, and accountability. Additionally, the CPA licensure requirement to maintain an adequate level of competence based on continued education, training, and experience could feed feelings of inadequacy. Furthermore, high levels of employee turnover experienced by public accounting firms recently due to retirements may be moving younger professionals into additional roles and responsibilities before they truly feel competent to do so. Altogether, this could put public accounting professionals at an increased risk of experiencing the effects of imposter syndrome.  

By determining which of the five classifications I outlined above that you may fall into, you can focus on a few simple coping mechanisms. Start with the mantra “I do deserve to work here; I am qualified for my job; and I am more than adequate,” then try these tips to help you stop thinking like an imposter.7

Tips for the Perfectionist

  • Learn to accept your mistakes.
  • Celebrate and own your achievements.
  • Remind yourself that you are good at what you do.
  • Get an unbiased, outside perspective on the quality of your work to provide you with a “reality check.”
  • Stop unfairly comparing yourself to others.
Tips for the Soloist

  • Learn that it is OK to ask for help.
  • Remember that you are part of a team, which means working and cooperating with other people.
  • Learn to let go of control, and to delegate to others.
Tips for the Natural Genius

  • Identify and focus on changeable habits or behaviors that you can improve over time. Remember, practice makes perfect.
  • Get comfortable with being a student – do not expect yourself to be an expert at something that you just learned.
  • Set a realistic, concrete timeline to learn a new skill. This will help you fight the need to instantly master a skill.
Tips for the Expert

  • Practice “just-in-time” learning – acquiring skills when needed, not just hoarding knowledge for comfort.
  • Recognize when you do not have the ability to accomplish a task and become more comfortable asking for help.
  • Be realistic – it is impossible to know everything.
  • Communicate work issues or task confusion with your co-workers. Others on your team may have the same feelings or may be able to help.
Tips for the Superhuman
  • Do not take on more that you can realistically handle. Learn to say “no.”
  • Learn to focus on internal, rather than external, validation.
  • Plan out your schedule to avoid taking on tasks or projects for which you do not have time.
  • Make sure to give yourself breaks to decrease the risk of burnout.

1 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/impostor%20syndrome. Introduced in the late 1970s by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes: “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, & Practice, 15, No. 3 (1978): 241–47.
2 https://www.chronicle.com/article/youre-not-fooling-anyone 
3 Jaruwan Sakulku, “The Impostor Phenomenon,” The Journal of Behavioral Science, 6, No. 1 (2011): 75-97.
4 https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/imposter-syndrome
5 Joel A. Lane, “The Imposter Phenomenon among Emerging Adults Transitioning into Professional Life: Developing a Grounded Theory,” Adultspan Journal, 14, No. 2 (2015): 114–28.
6 https://www.themuse.com/advice/5-different-types-of-imposter-syndrome-and-5-ways-to-battle-each-one  
7 Ibid.

Amanda Sue Marcy, CPA, DBA, is an assistant professor of accounting at the Kania School of Management at the University of Scranton in Scranton, Pa. She can be reached at amanda.marcy@scranton.edu.   

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Statements of fact and opinion are the authors’ responsibility alone and do not imply an opinion on the part of PICPA officers or members. The information contained in herein does not constitute accounting, legal, or professional advice. For professional advice, please engage or consult a qualified professional.

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