“Impostor syndrome” is one of my favorite subjects to talk about with fellow students. Impostor syndrome refers to the feeling that one is inadequate or unworthy of their accomplishments and the fear that they will be “found out” as a fraud among their peers. It’s more common in high-achieving women, and the earliest reported definition comes from 1978 in a study published by the American Psychological Association (Clance & Imes, Psychotherapy, 1978). It’s interesting how often I meet people who acutely experience impostor syndrome but don’t know that it has a name, or that it was a such a common phenomenon among young professionals today.
If you’ve never experienced it you might think it’s bizarre that I’d actually like to talk about something like that with other people, or that other people are even willing to talk about it when the subject comes up. As a “victim” myself, one of the reasons I enjoy talking about it is the inherent irony. Impostor syndrome is something most students can relate to - especially in a highly-charged, performance-driven academic environment. In fact, in my experience it’s always the most successful, hard-working, and motivated students who seem to be affected the hardest. Another reason is that most people love to talk about it when given the opportunity, and understandably so. It’s a huge relief to know that the person in front of me who is going through the same trials and tribulations of classes, research, interviews, and presentations also feels woefully inadequate and, as it turns out, is not a stalwart of confidence and intelligence so unlike myself.
So how does one “fix” impostor syndrome? Or maybe the question is, can it be fixed at all? I once spoke with a highly prominent scientist, someone decades ahead in my own field, about how to deal with impostor syndrome. He gave a sigh of what seemed like relief, and said to me how he himself suffered from it. His way of dealing with it is simple: he doesn’t. He feels inadequate as a scientist to this day, and told me about how he saves positive reviews he’s received for publications and grant applications to read when he’s feeling particularly down. I was astonished to hear this from someone whose work I revered, but his rationalization of the phenomenon helped me understand it a little better. It’s a perfectly natural reaction, he said, to any environment where competition breeds success and personal value is determined by work performance. It’s not fair or just or good, but it’s natural. The best way to “cope” with impostor syndrome is, not surprisingly, to have a conversation about it. You might be amazed at how many people would love to join in.
To a perfectly rational - and consequently fictional - human being, impostor syndrome should be an easily solvable problem. It’s a product of competition, stress, and pressure to perform, as well as a tendency to value achievements only in the context of others’ accomplishments. It’s not a result of lack of ability, but rather a failure to internalize and accept one’s accomplishments as creditworthy. It might seem obvious that the moment someone realizes this, the illusion should collapse. Unfortunately that is not the case. Impostor syndrome is most often persistently fueled by the high-performance environment students find themselves in, rather than isolated incidents. Acknowledging individual instances where someone is feeling inadequate allows them to deconstruct the situation and realize that their feeling of inadequacy is a fallacy. In fact, that’s a great way to cope with it. However, it’s difficult to do so under repeated events and constant scrutiny of one’s performance.In the meantime, I’ve gotten pretty good at “faking it,” which itself is a misnomer. I often feel as though I’m only pretending to be a smart, capable human being who belongs where I am. In my mind, it’s all a facade until somebody figures out what a grave mistake it was to even let me in here. In reality, however, I’m not pretending at all. I most probably am a smart, capable person whom people who are actually qualified have decided belongs in a top research university. It’s a pretty weird case of cognitive dissonance, I’ll admit. But I’m convinced there are so-called “impostors” all around me who I cancomfortably relate to. Maybe when I’m feeling down I’ll go talk to some of them.
Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247. JOUR. http://doi.org/10.1037/h0086006