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Impostor Syndrome

May 15, 2016

In this post, I want to talk about the fun little bag of emotions called Impostor Syndrome. I’m willing to bet that many of you have experienced this phenomenon, even if you didn’t realize it had a name.

I was a first year grad student when I learned about Impostor Syndrome. Overwhelmed with my new environment and surrounded by people who seemed to know WAY more than me, I worried constantly that someone would “find me out.” It honestly felt like I’d been accepted to the program by accident. Had a drunk intern at the admissions office accidentally dropped my application into the “accepted” pile? Even though I was doing as well as my peers, these nagging feelings wouldn’t go away… so I just pretended to know what I was doing and hoped no one would realize I was a fraud.

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Life as a young grad student

So if you’ve ever felt this way in the past, or if you’re currently feeling this way, fear not. You’re normal! Depending on your personality, it might be something you experience for your entire life (lol join the club).

So what is Impostor Syndrome? Well first of all, it’s not actually a “syndrome,” because it doesn’t meet the qualifications to be a mental illness. It’s just a catchy name that was coined by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes back in the 1970s. They recognized that many high-achieving, highly successful females were unable to internalize their accomplishments. Instead, these women would attribute their success to luck rather than merit. They experienced fraudulent feelings and often expressed concern that someone would soon discover they were incompetent.

Although the initial research was focused on females, we now know that men experience “impostor” feelings just as frequently as women. Interestingly, men were more likely to report these feelings when the surveys were given anonymously, suggesting there are unique social pressures on the male sex to appear confident and competent.

Donald Trump

You don’t say…

This chronic self-doubt is different than low self-esteem, because people who experience Imposter Syndrome don’t necessarily feel bad about themselves. Rather, they discount their successes as luck, or feel they somehow hoodwinked everyone into believing they were qualified. It’s extremely common in graduate students, who have to meet high achievement standards that are both extrinsically and intrinsically set for them. It’s compounded by the fact that many people pursuing higher degrees have been labeled as “the smart one” since they were very young, so they feel pressure to live up to that standard.

So if you’re sitting there reading this frankly illuminating blog and thinking, “Gosh! That sounds like me!” – then let me assure you that you aren’t alone. Research shows that at least 70% of people have “Impostor” feelings at some point in life. Often it is in a professional setting, but it can happen in pretty much any scenario. Once recognized, it can also be managed. This little graph provides a nice illustration of perception vs. reality when it comes to Impostor Syndrome:

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The people around you are always going to know things that you don’t know. But don’t forget that it goes both ways – YOU know lots of things THEY don’t know either. The smaller the overlap between your Venn diagrams, the bigger your “impostor” feelings might seem, but rest assured that there’s a good chance the others are feeling the same way about you.

Impostor Syndrome can be very common when starting a new job, being promoted, joining a new social network, etc. If something like this ever triggers Imposter Syndrome for you, try to remember that everyone has to start somewhere. Just because you’re new to the game doesn’t mean your unqualified. And no matter the situation, never let these feelings convince you that your success happened by accident!

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