The impostor experience

“Impostor Syndrome” was first described by Dr. Clance and Dr. Imes in 1978 in an article looking at the inability of high-achieving women to internalize academic success. In other words, these women were unable to take credit for their successes, often being afraid that they will be exposed for being a fraud and attributing their success to luck or chance. Later, Dr. Clance had stated, “if I could do it all over again, I would call it the impostor experience, because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness, it’s something almost everyone experiences.”

The Impostor Experience is not a recognized mental illness in the DMS-V, however it is a topic of interest to psychologists, especially studying individuals working in academia. As a doctoral student studying in an all-female lab, I have found that every other grad student has described some form of impostor experience at one point in their academic careers. Although this syndrome is seen in both males and females, based on my experiences and conversations I have seen it more prevalently in females. A lot of this, I believe has to do with societal expectations of women.

Some common signs that someone may be feeling like an impostor include:

  • Perfectionism and subsequent inability to either begin or finish tasks
  • Extreme fear of failure (“I can’t fail”, “if I don’t do this, I’m a failure”)
  • Undermining one’s achievements or successes, attributing them to luck or chance (“I just got lucky”, “anyone else could have done this”)
  • Fear of being “exposed” as a fraud (“I feel like a fake”, “someday someone will see right through me”)
  • Rejecting/discounting praise

A lot of these signs act hand-in-hand with anxiety and depression, but the way women are conditioned to be growing up in Western society compounds these effects. Finally, personality plays a huge role in the development of the impostor experience.

In my experience, I have felt the need to turn down praise in order to not seem egotistical or overbearing. I have felt the need to downplay my achievements in fear of seeming like I am bragging. Growing up very shy, I have always shied away from too much attention or recognition. Unfortunately, instead of humbling myself, I ended up tearing down my self worth and often selling myself short. There is some sort of common belief that tells women we cannot be assertive, and by extension we may perceive that to mean that we cannot be successful or proud of our success.

Once you acknowledge you may have impostor syndrome or impostor experience, you can start tackling this problem by:

1) Taking note of your successes and achievements.

In my experience in DBT, this is a skill called “accumulative positives”. Since some of us so often focus so much on negatives and criticisms, it is good to periodically acknowledge the good. And not just mentally – it helps tremendously to physically write down your achievements. By doing this, it makes these successes seem more concrete and “real”.

2) Realizing you are not perfect, nor do you have to be.

Oftentimes we just need to take that leap when we are so afraid to start or finish a project. For writing, sometimes I get stuck in my head and delay blogging or writing for days. It’s when I realize that I don’t have to get it perfectly on the first try (or even by the last draft) that I put out some of my best work. Life is rarely an all-or-nothing event. Edits and changes can be made after the fact. It is okay to be less than perfect. It is okay to ask for advice. It is okay to start a project before you feel 100% “ready”.

3). Talk to others, and realize you are not alone.

Struggling with these feelings can be difficult, and there is no need to go through it alone. Often our thought processes are clouded by our own doubts and simply talking to another person can help clear the fog. If you are also a grad student, you will likely find talking to others (if you are comfortable doing so, of course) will reveal many other students feeling the same way. Looking at the girls I work with, I see them all as strong, independent, and admirable women. Knowing that they struggle with self doubt and feelings of inadequacy does not make me think less of them, just as it does not make them think less of me. If anything, the realization that you are struggling and continuing to push through makes you stronger and braver than you could imagine.

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