You’re Not the Only One: Thriving in the Face of Impostor Syndrome

Do you feel like maybe you don’t belong here? Or that your acceptance into college was a mistake and that any day now, you’ll be kicked out? It sounds like you might be dealing with impostor syndrome, something that many high-achieving individuals struggle with on a daily basis. The truth is, you do belong here, and you are not alone.

So, what is impostor syndrome? Caltech Student Counseling Services divides “impostor feelings” into three subcategories:

  • You feel like a fake. You believe that you do not deserve your success or professional position and that somehow others have been deceived into thinking that you do. This goes hand-in-hand with a fear of being “found out,” discovered, or “unmasked.”
  • You tend to attribute your success to luck or to other external reasons, rather than to your own internal abilities. You find yourself saying things like “I just got lucky this time,” or “it was a fluke,” and you worry that you will not be able to succeed the next time.
  • You discount or downplay your success, saying “it is not a big deal,” “it was not important,” or “I did well because it is an easy class”, etc. You might also have a hard time accepting compliments.

Impostor syndrome can manifest in lots of different ways. Maybe you don’t take advantage of opportunities because you think you are unqualified. Maybe you can’t see your own accomplishments for what they are and only recognize your failures. Maybe you have trouble accepting praise. Author Joseph Kasper explains that he “tend[s] to externalize accomplishments and internalize setbacks,” meaning that he sees his accomplishments as “flukes,” but his setbacks as proof that he is, in fact, an impostor.

While anyone and everyone can experience impostor syndrome, as Rachel Herrmann explains, “women, people of color, and first-generation college students…are particularly prone to impostor syndrome,” for a number of reasons. So where does it come from?

At their root, these feelings and behaviors are indicative of chronic self-doubt, which can itself be quite complex. But in many ways, the academic environment often fosters and even encourages this doubt by endorsing criticism and rigorous evaluation, isolation, and fierce competition. To put it simply, there are lots of things to be anxious about in college all the time, and this can wreak havoc on our self-esteem.

Let’s be realistic, it’s likely that your impostor syndrome will never go away. As Kate Bahn explains, more success may even make it worse. Keep in mind though that if you are feeling this way, it’s very likely that your colleagues are as well. Some of the brightest people experience impostor syndrome. Case in point:

“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out’.”—Maya Angelou

“The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.”—Albert Einstein

To give you an example, a professor in my department- a tenured, well-established academic- recently explained to my cohort of graduate students that she constantly compares herself to another well-respected and admired faculty member whom she sees as more successful and energetic. But the reality is that this “more successful” faculty member is also comparing herself to other faculty members, and so on. Realistically, you can’t “cure” yourself of impostor syndrome, but you can learn to cope with it so that it doesn’t control your life. Now is the perfect time to develop strategies for dealing with impostor syndrome, both to empower yourself and to support your colleagues.

So what can you do to deal with impostor syndrome? Here are some strategies:

Set intentions for personal growth.

Awareness of the problem can be empowering. When you are aware of it, you can address it, and you don’t have to be a prisoner to it. Bearing this in mind, what are some small changes that you can make in your life to deal with impostor syndrome? This could be in how you speak to yourself or in the opportunities that you take, etc.

Try writing “SMART” goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Reasonable, Trackable/Timely). For example, I often find myself passing up job opportunities because I feel unqualified, even when my experience perfectly matches the job description. To tackle this, I resolved to apply for a job that I had been hesitating on. Writing my cover letter forced me to take stock of my accomplishments, which boosted my self-esteem and made me realize “wow, I really CAN do this.” Keep in mind that setbacks are inevitable, even with reasonable goals and try to be patient with yourself.

Set intentions for building a community of support.

Impostor syndrome tends to compound when we become isolated from like-minded people. Of course, sometimes it’s difficult to find the time while you are studying, but it is important to build different kinds of relationships within your academic community, both professional and personal. Similar to setting intentions for personal growth, this strategy takes goal-setting to a broader level: supporting others. Think of some ways in which you can support your colleagues and friends in their work.

In my case, I often found myself comparing my accomplishments (or what I thought were my “deficiencies”) to those of a “Rock Star” student, someone who seemed to be receiving awards, getting published, vetting competitive offers, etc., much more than I was. My envy was becoming toxic and interfering with my motivation to continue with my research. So I decided that instead of complaining that “X got funding, and I did not,” I would say “Wow, good for them! They deserve it. I’m doing cool stuff too.” It really helped.

Keep a record of your successes.

It seems simple, but it really helps. Keeping stock of your successes is very important for coping with impostor syndrome—and not just the big stuff. Anytime someone sends you a supportive email or gives you positive feedback on a job well done, keep a record of it. Print off that email from your professor that says “hey, good job! You’re on track.” And anytime someone praises you in person, write it down. Keep these notes together, and when you start to doubt yourself, flip through them to remind yourself that you are doing just fine.

Impostor syndrome can interfere with your motivation and your self-worth, and it can stop you from taking advantage of opportunities that you are absolutely qualified for. Setting goals for personal growth, supporting colleagues, and taking stock of our successes are great ways to cope with self-doubt. Impostor syndrome can be overwhelming at times, but you do deserve to be here, and you are certainly not alone.

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