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Young, Asian, full of potential... and feeling like an 'impostor'. Why these adults struggle to celebrate their success

BEIJING — Dr Raj Raghunathan argues in his book If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Happy that being rich, well-educated and accomplished is not a path to happiness. Rather, they are the gateway to a life of dissatisfaction.

Impostor syndrome can see a person always discounting their achievements and focusing more on their mistakes and failures. Under-represented racial, ethnic and religious minorities are one of the groups in which it is prevalent.

Impostor syndrome can see a person always discounting their achievements and focusing more on their mistakes and failures. Under-represented racial, ethnic and religious minorities are one of the groups in which it is prevalent.

BEIJING — Dr Raj Raghunathan argues in his book If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Happy that being rich, well-educated and accomplished is not a path to happiness. Rather, they are the gateway to a life of dissatisfaction.

Promising individuals have a tendency to belittle their own successes by comparing their performance to others who have achieved what they regard as even greater things, believes Dr Raghunathan, a professor in the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin in the US.

Such people may suffer from impostor syndrome, or "impostorism", a psychological pattern of chronic self-doubt, leading a person to continually question their abilities and fear they may be seen as a fraud.

Studies have shown that impostor syndrome is more prevalent among high achievers, women, and under-represented racial, ethnic and religious minorities.

Tiger parenting — a largely Asian tendency for parents to pressure offspring to excel academically — may not help.

Dr Karen Ng, 29, a doctor of pharmacy, has lived in Ontario, Canada, since the age of two. A product of tiger parenting, Dr Ng says she always discounted her academic achievements and focused more on her mistakes and failures.

Even after Dr Ng earned her doctoral degree at the top-tier University of Toronto, her parents were displeased with her decision to choose a programme in pharmacy rather than medicine.

"Basically, I do not know how to celebrate my success," Dr Ng, who was born in Hong Kong, says.

"Also, I tend to be extremely uncomfortable in situations where I am scared of making mistakes.

"Asking for permissions made many of my (teachers and instructors) mistakenly think I didn't know my therapeutic knowledge, when in reality it is that I have always grown up asking for reassurance that I am heading in the right direction."

Ms Victoria Yu, 26, is a Chinese-American born in Los Angeles who is pursuing a master's degree in law and diplomacy at Tufts University near Boston.

She works part-time as an educational consultant for international students, most of whom are from China.

Growing up with high-achieving parents, Ms Yu always felt the need to be on a par with them. Although her parents tried to give her a relatively free rein to follow her own interests, she knew they expected her to excel.

The environment at Ms Yu's high school was extremely competitive, she says, but she did not realise how toxic it was until she found herself struggling too much.

Ms Yu suspects she developed a form of impostor syndrome, which was amplified when she entered college.

"When I was in high school, college-application season meant parents were sharing how so-and-so's child is at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, USC, UCLA, et cetera," she says.

Ms Yu eventually enrolled in a comparative literature degree at Wellesley College, a private women's liberal arts college.

After graduating, her mother — whose friends said Ms Yu seemed "very McKinsey", after the US-based management consulting firm — wanted Ms Yu to follow a traditional high-flying consulting path.

"Being influenced by my… relatives, I internalised that success looked like a fancy office job, a big title and also impact.

"My mum would try to convince me to think of consulting as a way to lay the path for future work in international affairs, citing a famous ex-McKinsey consultant who works for the (Bill & Melinda) Gates Foundation in Beijing."

She knew that her work at a small, China-based educational consulting company had not pleased her mother, so has worked hard to prove that she is capable of greater things.

Ms Jessie Wu, 23, an assistant relationship manager at a Taiwanese bank who was born and raised in Taipei, has also been subject to high parental expectations that have led to self-doubt.

"Most of the time my parents do not think what I am doing will contribute to my success. After work, I may hit the gym, go for choir practice or have dinner plans with my friends. Sometimes my mum is worried that my after-work activities are not beneficial to my career development," she says.

Aside from her parents, Ms Wu believes teaching staff at her university also contributed to her problem with impostor syndrome.

"I had this teacher at university who always talked about her expectations of us. I knew she believed I had the potential to perform well. Eventually, I felt guilty whenever my performance did not reach the level that she expected," she says.

As a model student, Ms Wu often ranked in the top tier academically at school, and all her peers were diligent and intelligent.

Even though her parents did not explicitly indicate what grades they expected her to achieve, Ms Wu's pursuit of perfection propelled her to consistently aim high and live with a "not easily satisfied" mindset.

Competition is also intense in the Malaysian education system, Mr Le Peng Tee, 25, notes.

"Authority figures at school tended to portray success as… becoming a professional, that is to say an engineer, scientist, doctor or accountant. It mirrored the concept upheld by the larger community outside of schools (such as extended family members, neighbours and friends)."

The sociology undergraduate from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Plattsburgh, who is now a Malaysia-based marketing executive, equated success to being admitted into a renowned foreign university, landing a high-paid job and even becoming a permanent resident in a foreign country.

However, his desire to get into a top-ranked university was mainly driven by ego rather than a passion for learning, Mr Tee now realises. He says he has outgrown the impostor syndrome in recent years.

"I initially wanted to enter one of the Ivy League schools. However, I did not make the cut. So I enrolled in SUNY Plattsburgh. I could genuinely say to myself that, 'I'm not here to look smart. I'm here to learn.'"

In line with Dr Raghunathan's argument, Ms Ying Gao, 24, a corporate finance analyst in Hong Kong and an alumnus of Columbia University in the US, attributes her development of mild impostor syndrome to peer comparison.

Born and raised in southern China's Guangdong province, Ms Gao thinks it is normal for children in China to aim for "success", but says competition between young people to succeed needs to be healthy.

To handle impostor syndrome, youngsters should continue to believe in themselves and be determined, she says.

That way, fierce rivalry will serve as an engine to achieve financial sustainability in the long run, as each individual would maximise their potential and become accomplished professionally.

Impostor syndrome can lead to neurosis if a person's identity and self-worth is tied solely to their achievements. Dwelling on such thoughts and emotions can easily lead to stress.

Ms Yu thinks the more pressure a person feels, the more they judge themselves to be incompetent when it comes to their duties, and they may even believe that someone else should take up the job.

But sometimes people can turn impostor syndrome into positive energy by utilising their fears and doubts to listen, ask questions and better grasp a situation so that they can take full ownership of it, she adds.

Mr Xun Wei Siah, 29, a Singaporean PhD candidate who is reading China studies at the University of Tokyo, believes impostor syndrome is not always a bad thing.

Among otherwise psychologically healthy people, impostorism in its mild form serves to keep the ego in check, Mr Xun says. Still, he understands that it can result in people refusing to celebrate their achievements.

"A perfectionist, whenever they achieve, would think, 'there's nothing (for others) to envy; this achievement isn't that unique anyway; I'm not the only one selected', or 'the hard work has just begun.'"

Mr Xun became set on achieving success primarily to compensate for his less-privileged background, he says.

"In Fudan University (in Shanghai, where he earned a master's degree), many students were of a different pedigree from the small Chinese diaspora I grew up in.

"They were born with 'processors' that were a few notches faster than mine. So I had to set my own bar higher." SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST

Related topics

imposter syndrome mental health resilience psychology

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