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Imposter Syndrome

What is imposter syndrome?

Although not a medical diagnosis, “imposter syndrome” describes a real condition in which people have difficulty accepting the fact of their own success, and feel that they are a “fraud” or “imposter” who is simply playing the part of a successful person. For example, some graduate students may doubt whether they “deserve” their place in a graduate program—even after passing the rigorous admissions standards—and speculate that the admissions committee “made a mistake” by letting them in. Other times, graduate students may be intimidated by what they perceive as their classmates’ superior intellects or achievements, and end up making unflattering self-comparisons such as “everyone here is smarter than me” or “everyone but me finds this class easy.” Such thoughts are common, and may be amplified for students who are struggling, academically or otherwise. Even worse, such thoughts can exacerbate difficulties by leading to inaction; if a student feels inherently incapable or unqualified, as being an “imposter” implies, then attempting to change may seem hopeless. All of these facts make it imperative to understand imposter syndrome and learn how to deal with it.

People from underrepresented identities may be especially vulnerable to imposter syndrome. However, it can affect people from every demographic and socio-cultural background, even people with long records of achievement. In fact, people generally experience imposter syndrome about areas or activities in which they have already demonstrated achievement; as discussed above, a student may feel like an imposter in spite of having successfully gained admission to graduate school. In contrast, negative feelings about an area of actual weakness or low achievement—for example feeling sadness about a poor grade or feeling down about not attaining fluency in a foreign language—may be detrimental to one’s happiness, but would not necessarily count as imposter syndrome (although if such feelings are excessive, or interfere with one’s life and responsibilities, they may point to an underlying issue like depression; be sure to seek out professional support services, like those offered by CAPS, if you think you might be suffering from depression).

In any case, since imposter syndrome runs counter to the facts of one’s success, simply changing one’s mindset can be a first step toward managing it. For starters, it can be helpful to recognize that feelings of any sort, no matter how valid and real they may appear, are just feelings, not objective facts. While feelings may often point toward the truth (e.g., most people would rightly be afraid if a bear attacked them), they are just as often misleading or deceptive (e.g., some people fear harmless insects, like crickets or millipedes).  

One important way to change one’s mindset, and thus combat imposter syndrome, is developing what Carol Dweck calls a “growth” mindset, rather than a “fixed” mindset, about one’s intelligence and abilities. A fixed mindset means believing that intelligence and aptitudes are fixed at birth, and cannot be changed much, or at all, through effort and practice. On the other hand, a growth mindset means believing that intelligence and aptitudes are malleable, and can be improved through regular practice and meaningful effort. The growth mindset fits in better with modern knowledge of genetics—even if some percentage of our abilities is determined by genetics, what is more important is the interplay between genetics and environment—and is much more conducive to students’ success. Believing in your capacity to improve through practice will inspire you to practice more, which in turn will make you more successful over time.

Developing a growth mindset is also helpful for combatting stereotype threat, an issue closely related to imposter syndrome.  Stereotype threat occurs when a student thinks about a negative stereotype associated with a group to which the student belongs, and this act of thinking distracts the student enough to lower his or her academic performance. For example, research has shown that reminding female students about the (false) stereotype of women’s inability in math leads to those students scoring more poorly on a math test than women who did not receive such a reminder. Stereotypes tend to be rooted in a fixed mindset; they assert that ostensibly innate qualities, like racial background or biological sex, determine one’s success. A growth mindset, which regards personal effort as the primary determiner of success, is thus helpful in combatting the negative effects of stereotype threat. With these points in mind, it is helpful to examine negative self-talk and perfectionism, two other detrimental thought patterns that may be interwoven with, and contribute to, imposter syndrome.

Negative Self-Talk (aka the Inner Critic)

“Negative self-talk” and “the Inner Critic” refer to nagging thoughts of inferiority regarding any aspect of yourself or your life, including accomplishments, body image, and overall self-worth. Unfortunately, these thoughts may occur so frequently that they seem like a form of mental “background noise”—an ever-present, but unexamined, “fact” of life. However, just as with the feelings discussed earlier, these thoughts are not facts, and they do not have to be endured. Instead, we can learn to separate ourselves from these negative thoughts and thus manage them.

You have many tools at your disposal to manage negative-self talk. One powerful strategy is to separate your identity from the messages of your inner critic. If you listen closely, you may notice that the voice of the inner critic sounds like an overly-critical member of your family, a manager who failed to communicate calmly, or another person in a position of power who at some point devalued your worth. Push that voice to the side for a moment. Share kind words with the part of yourself that is the target of the critic’s voice.

Now speak back to the critic, either silently (through thoughts or writing) or out loud. The critic may be expressing your subconscious worries over your own well-being, even if it does so through distorted messages. Recognizing that your inner critic is simply drawing attention to a perceived or actual problem can shape the roughness of the messages into a goal for self-improvement. To identify the inner critic’s voice and its messages, consider practicing meditation or journaling; both practices help you get in touch with your thoughts and feelings.

Perfectionism

One might think that striving for perfection motivates people to perform better, but that is generally incorrect. Perfectionism is a state of mind in which a person holds his or herself to impossible standards of perfection. Since true perfection is impossible, perfectionism makes it difficult to produce work that is imperfect (as all work is) but still “good enough” to achieve one’s goal (whether that goal is earning an A or just getting by).

Perfectionism is often manifested through procrastination or over-preparation. For example, faced with a challenging assignment, a student who struggles with perfectionism might fear failure and thus procrastinate, eventually wasting so much time that a quality product becomes impossible. Driven by the same fear, another perfectionistic student might excessively over-prepare for relatively minor assignments, taking time away from more important tasks and leading, in the long run, to exhaustion and burnout.

Over and beyond academic performance, the real danger of perfectionism is how it convinces students that they will never be good enough, no matter how hard they may try. This extremist nature of perfectionism often discourages students from attempting new challenges in school, work, and life.

As with negative self-talk, identifying the signs of perfectionism can help you to set realistic expectations. Remember that there is a difference between perfectionism and striving for excellence—perfectionism involves pursuing impossible standards, whereas striving for excellence means setting high, but realistic, standards for yourself. For example, a student who struggles with perfectionism might hold off indefinitely on submitting a draft of a term paper or thesis for review, hoping to conceal any flaws or weaknesses from peers or faculty. A student who removes the burden of perfection from herself might submit a researched, if incomplete, draft for feedback, knowing that outside input can improve her final draft significantly.

You can also manage perfectionism by practicing self-compassion. Self-compassion is simply extending to yourself the compassion you would offer to a good friend or loved one. Kristin Neff, who published a book on the subject, offers on her website numerous self-compassion exercises that you can access for free.

Reducing the harm of negative thought patterns like imposter syndrome

Remember that imposter syndrome—along with its cousins, stereotype threat, perfectionism and negative self-talk—is common, and can be managed. Below are practices and mental exercises that you can use to keep imposter syndrome in check:

  • Remember that you are not alone. Many of your peers are likely also dealing with imposter syndrome in isolation. Connect with them to both offer and receive emotional support.
  • Do not compare yourself negatively to others, but do empathize with other people’s struggles. Remember that the ways people present themselves, either in real life or online, are often incomplete images that exclude the insecurities with which they surely struggle. If you suffer in silence, the person who appears to have a perfect life is probably suffering as well. The School of Life has posted a video that explains this idea at greater length.
  • Share your concerns with trustworthy people. Venting can allow you to receive the catharsis and emotional support you need when overwhelming feelings begin to arise, or can lead to a productive and compassionate conversation about improving the circumstances that have been stressing you. Remember that emotional venting has an etiquette and that the person who makes time to listen to you is investing emotional labor in you.
  • List your accomplishments, even the ones you consider unimportant. Seeing the range, diversity, and consistency of your accomplishments supplies contrary evidence to the harsh messages of your inner critic and reignites confidence in your abilities when imposter syndrome rears its ugly head.
  • Adopt a growth mindset. Remind yourself that, even if you’re not excelling right now, you can improve your performance dramatically through effort and practice.
  • Write in a journal to get in touch with your feelings and to “talk back to your inner critic.”
  • Trust the admissions process. The admissions committee is made up of professionals who admitted you because they were confident in your ability to succeed. You should be too.

Recommended further reading

Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York, NY: William Morrow Paperbacks.

Stroessner, S., and Good, C. (2011). Stereotype threat: An overview. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://diversity.arizona.edu/sites/default/files/stereotype_threat_overview.pdf

Dweck, C. (2015, September 22). Carol Dweck revisits the 'growth mindset.' [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/09/23/carol-dweck-revisits-the-growth-mindset.html