Do the following statements sound familiar?
- I’m afraid people important to me may find out that I’m not as capable as they think I am.
- I feel my success has been due to some kind of luck.
- I often compare my ability to those around me and think they may be more intelligent than I am.
(Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale-CIPS)
If these beliefs sound familiar, you might be one of many who suffer from Imposter Syndrome, sometimes referred to as Imposter Phenomena (Pauline Clance, Ph.D.)
I was excited and confused when I was first accepted into graduate school to study psychology. How did I do that, I wondered? Surely, the application committee must have made some kind of mistake. Only a few select students were admitted to a class each year.
After college, I worked in the field for a time and saw many of my bright, hard-working colleagues applying to graduate programs, only to be turned down year after year. While I studied hard as an undergrad and filled my CV with several volunteer experiences and accomplishments, I didn’t think I stood a chance. However, I applied to a dozen programs, got interviews at a few, and was accepted to a 5-year Psy.D. program to study Clinical Psychology. I was only 24 years old at the time.
How was this possible? I wasn’t any brighter than any of my colleagues. After all, some had published articles or been co-authors on book chapters. I was convinced they would quickly discover that I didn’t belong there.
I didn’t realize at the time that I was struggling with something known as Imposter Syndrome. It’s not a syndrome like you might think of in the medical world. Imposter syndrome, or as Dr. Pauline Rose Clance refers to it, Imposter Phenomenon, is an experience of feeling like one’s successes are due to luck and not the result of their abilities. They often feel that any successes they have had cannot be repeated and that, at some point, they will be exposed as a fraud or imposter.
Approximately 82% of people, both men and women, struggle with Imposter Syndrome. This can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, isolation, low self-worth, and lack of self-advocacy.
This particular issue is also quite common among underrepresented populations. A recent article in Forbes magazine suggested a direct correlation between the microaggressions (negative comments or actions) experienced by marginalized groups and subsequent feelings of imposter syndrome. Microaggressions trigger feelings of self-doubt that are inherent to imposter syndrome. (Why Imposter Syndrome Hits Underrepresented Identities Harder, And How Employers Can Help, Rebekah Bastian, Nov 2019)
What can cause this phenomenon? Making unrealistic comparisons to others can be fueled by exposure to social media. Attributing your successes and failures to external factors rather than internal ones is another. Or growing up in a family or cultural environment that highly values achievement.
Is it all bad news? Not at all. Feeling out of your depth can also create a desire to improve, learn more, and expand your knowledge and experience.
What can you do if you are struggling with Imposter Syndrome? Dr. Clance has a few thoughts. (Feel like a fraud, Kirsten Weir, APA, gradPSYCH Magazine 2013, 11)
- Talk to Others: When we feel like an imposter, we cannot realistically evaluate our competence and skills. Speaking to supportive mentors, supervisors, and people who know you best is important. Having someone encourage you and note your growth areas can be incredibly validating. Irrational beliefs about our abilities are often perpetuated if we can’t air them out with someone who knows us well enough to challenge them.
- Take Stock of Your Successes: It’s important to take a moment to appreciate and celebrate all that you have accomplished. Spend some time writing down all of the wonderful things you’ve done, what you’re good at, and the personality traits you love about yourself. When we struggle with imposter syndrome, it’s easy to focus on our shortcomings, as this confirms our negative views about ourselves. Pause, reflect, and appreciate how far you have come.
- Stop comparing yourself to others: Social media platforms overflow with information and images that are not entirely based on reality. People tend to post their “best days” and filter their content. Rarely do you see people post about the test they failed, their toddler who won’t sleep, or the promotion they didn’t get. And, if you are posting information on social media that is not consistent with who you really are, that may only exacerbate your feelings of being an imposter.
- Address Perfectionism: No one is perfect! Perfection is not attainable. When we focus on perfection, we are always going to fall short. We will never feel satisfied. Set realistic, measurable goals for success and be honest about the time it takes to achieve them so you can begin seeing the fruits of your labor. Work towards progress, not perfection. Reframe failure not as the end of the road but as an opportunity to learn something new or approach a situation differently.
- Self-Compassion: Pay attention to how you speak to yourself. Are you overly negative and self-critical? Would the language you use to describe yourself ever be part of how you’d talk to a friend or family member? In Ethan Cross’ best-selling book, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, he suggests that the inner voice we use to evaluate our actions (e.g., introspection) can be helpful as a way to reflect on choices and experiences. However, when the “chatter” in our heads becomes a never-ending stream of negative thoughts and emotions, it can lead to harmful rumination, anxiety, depression, and self-sabotage. Speak to yourself with kindness and remember that accomplishments are wonderful but do not define you or your value.
I’ll end with a quote that often helps me when I bump up against this feeling of being an imposter—which happens often:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory or defeat.”
Dr. Megan H. Nervi is a clinical psychologist specializing in psychodynamic and cognitive behavioral treatment approaches for children, adolescents, and adults.