In my first semester of grad school, I had a professor who talked extensively about impostor syndrome. He noted that grad students very often fall prey to it, and indeed during our seminar discussion just about every person in the room, including myself, admitted to feeling it.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, impostor syndrome is the feeling that when you are surrounded by fellow high-achieving persons, you believe yourself to be a fraud, or impostor, who may at any moment be “outed” as one. That is, even if you are yourself an accomplished individual with accolades and venerable proof of your intelligence and/or skills, you may still feel that you did not deserve those accolades or believe in your successes as confirmation of your “right” to be in that room with other high achievers, and that at any moment something will happen that will confirm that you do not belong in that room.
I’d felt this before grad school, when I began my first job after finishing my undergrad. I remember wearing my new office clothes, walking into my first office job, and suddenly being surrounded by people with more years of experience than my years of existence. For weeks I came home more emotionally than physically drained, because despite getting the job, passing four job interviews, finishing school at the top of my class, and rationally having the skills and knowledge to do the job, I remained convinced that at some point someone would figure out that I’m not fit for the job—that I’m an impostor.
When I was teaching first year undergrad students, I asked them if they felt this as well. I remember watching a number of them visibly relax after I explained to them impostor syndrome. Apparently I’d given a name to the feeling that many of them were feeling in their first months of their university career. Some of the responses I got was that they too felt anxiety that they don’t really belong in that class, that their acceptance into university was a fluke, and that once they hand in an assignment I will fail them and finally confirm to them—and everyone– that they are impostors in a room full of deserving students.
My older brother and even my mother have also both admitted to feeling completely unconvinced of their skills and knowledge before starting new jobs. Despite both having high levels of education, many years of experience in their respective careers, and countless accolades for their work, they have still found themselves feeling as “frauds” when thrust into new situations. They did not begin their new jobs intent to prove to others that they belong in that new position and have the skills to fulfill new duties, but to themselves.
This has made me wonder: do those of us who suffer from impostor syndrome ever really overcome it? As I begin my post-grad job search, I find that I’m questioning myself as to whether I can do the jobs that I’m rationally qualified to do, and whether I really have enough knowledge in the field that I’ve studied for six years. I fear that not only now, but any time that I begin a new endeavour, I’ll be haunted by impostor syndrome in the same way that my mom and brother have, and in the way that I myself have in the past and do today. I wonder: how does one overcome it? If education doesn’t do it (and may even make the feeling stronger), nor years of experience, nor accolades….what makes someone feel like they truly belong in a room?
In general, impostor syndrome tends to affect women and minorities more. This suggests that impostor syndrome is not a completely individual, psychological issue, but one that has (at least partially) societal, class, and privilege roots. Solutions to the problem, then, cannot be left only to the individual to seek out and work out. That is, if a woman and/or person of colour, for example, finds themselves battling impostor syndrome as a consequence of a lifetime of systemic inequality and constant reminders that who they are automatically marks them an impostor, then I think it is clear what we must do as a society to erase this.
However, my question for today is far more humble. My question is about the individual scale. What tricks are there to convince a high achieving person that their accomplishments, intellect, and the like, are real? How does one learn to believe that they have legitimately earned a place in that room? As I’ve mentioned, I’ve struggled with this myself and I’ve struggled with supporting my loved ones and my students in overcoming this—in rewiring one’s brain to not underestimate yourself and/or overestimate others. Because I think that’s what’s ultimately the root cause of impostor syndrome for those of us afflicted with it: we always assume that whatever we know cannot possibly be something that others don’t (or know it to the same depth), especially when surrounded by people of similar education and backgrounds. So whatever we know, we discount as unimportant or already known.
I have found myself in awkward social situations where, as impostor syndrome strikes, I either don’t speak up on an issue altogether (why waste everyone’s time and embarrass myself by showing how shallow my knowledge on subject X is) or when I do speak up I make sure to use my best matter-of-fact voice (and risk sounding condescending to the very people I’m trying to impress). I can assure you that neither silence nor condescension is particularly charming.
So, again, I ask: is impostor syndrome one can ever grow out of or overcome? Are there coping strategies to avoiding self-sabotage of bright minds? Because solutions to this problem, both on an individual and societal level, could truly have an immeasurable positive impact on those who suffer from it and on the communities to which these brights minds could contribute.