I just bought a car. Marched right down to the dealership with my husband, negotiated for an hour and left with a signed offer in hand. I just chose a health insurance plan, trying to calculate how much I’d have to pay with each option if I somehow broke a bone, got appendicitis and needed five new prescriptions all in the same year. I just got a Christmas tree — not a small one that says “I’m temporary,” but a respectable, medium-sized one that we will use for years.
But in my head, as I do all these grown-up things, the same question keeps rolling around.
Has anybody noticed that I’m an impostor adult?
I attend meetings at work with senators, ambassadors and community members passionate about a cause. They shake my hand, and I wonder if they can see it in my face — I’m just pretending to know how to adult. Pretending to feel like I belong in important meetings.
But deep down I’m waiting for someone to say, “Wait a minute. She’s not an adult. Who let her in here?” and with relief, I’ll nod my head and go back to my mom’s house where there’s a real adult to take care of things.
But recently my mom confessed to me that she also feels like an impostor adult. As a BYU master’s student, back at school after 30 years of adulting and raising five kids, she says that despite her life experience, she sometimes feels unqualified because the younger students know how to use technology better than she does. As she puts it, “the more you learn, the more you know what you don’t know.”
I polled some of my friends to see how many of them feel the same way, and of the 68 friends who responded, 67% said they do not feel like real adults. When I asked at what age they thought they might feel like an adult, many listed age 30, and one friend responded, “if there’s someone older than me, they’re the actual adult.”
It turns out that almost half of Americans have adult impostor syndrome. According to research conducted in 2022 by OnePoll for Avocado Green Brands, of 2,000 American adults surveyed, 53% felt like an adult at age 18. Their research then points to life milestones that their respondents said signal adulthood, such as buying a home, having kids, purchasing a new mattress, setting up health insurance and so on.
I’ve done 22 of the 30 adult milestones listed — but I still feel like I haven’t achieved the level of adulthood that others around me have.
But while we think of impostor syndrome — whether at work or in adulting in general — as a negative thing, it does have proven benefits. The Harvard Business Review Magazine published an interview with Basima A. Tewfik, an assistant professor at MIT Sloan who studies impostor thoughts. She found that impostor thoughts increase interpersonal skills: “Essentially, impostor thoughts make you more ‘other oriented’ — more attuned to other people’s perceptions and feelings — which makes you more likable.” She also reports that “there’s no empirical quantitative evidence that impostor thoughts degrade performance.”
In Tewfik’s recent paper published in June in the Academy of Management Journal, she discusses this link between impostor thoughts and a focus on others. She advises that “overcoming impostor syndrome” may not be the right approach because it is not necessarily a bad trait, and hyperfocusing on it can lead to more anxiety, not less. Instead, impostor syndrome requires more nuance, and those who struggle with it do not need the added fear of a negative stigma.
Tewfik told the Harvard Business Review when asked if she thought these positive traits made impostor syndrome a good thing: “I wouldn’t go so far as to say ‘good,’ but one of my goals with this research was to remove some of the stigma and give a more balanced view. ... It’s OK to have impostor thoughts sometimes. It’s not a ‘syndrome’ or a pathology.”
While impostor thoughts are not something to seek after, those of us who have them can relax a little knowing that it won’t hurt our performance at work or in life. While we eventually want to overcome the insecurity, the research shows that it isn’t doing us overall harm.
And it does feel a little better to know that in a room full of adults, you are likely not the only one wondering how you got there.