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.

Worthy

Know your worth.
Know that you, just as everyone else, is worthy of love.
Don’t let yourself stay with someone who wants to be with another
When all you want is to be wanted by someone who only wants you.
When she leaves, and you remain as his remaining crutch,
The only shoulder to cry on
You will always be wondering
What if she stayed?

Go ahead and cover the walls of your glass room with pictures of a fantasy.
Paint the insides of your eyelids with what you want to see
And tell yourself that you’re fine. That this is what you wanted.
Look in the mirror and tell yourself that you’re in control
And then force yourself to feel what you think you should feel.
Live in your false comfort.

Dream, imagine, and hope all you want
But know it does not have to be this way. 

Not as long as you believe you are worthy. 

Fetishism isn’t flattery

I am Canadian. I was born here, my mother was born here, my entire immediate and extended family lives here. However, my ethnicity is “Asian”. I don’t need to be too specific to get my point across here. I haven’t been in too many situations where someone was outright racist to me, but there have been small jabs throughout my life. The fact that I grew up in a country that places value in a eurocentric ideal of beauty has been very apparent.

Let’s go back to junior high. A classmate of mine was asking about my race, and when I told them, they exclaimed, “I can’t believe you’re full Asian. Your eyes are so big, you look only half!” The way they said this and the way everyone around me reacted made me feel like this was the best compliment I could have gotten. Now, if I heard that, I would be far from flattered.

I really do think this classmate meant well. We were young, around 12 years old, and they were trying to tell me that they thought I fit into the widely accepted standard of beauty. And while this was a nice gesture, this also has darker implications. I would compare myself and always end up glum because although I had some features of a white girl, I wasn’t a white girl. Therefore, I figured, I would always be second, less pretty, compared to a white girl. And it’s not just me – this is such a widely held belief. For Asian males and females – we have grown up in a society that tells us white is beauty.

A year later, things took a strange sharp turn for me. This was back when MSN messenger was a thing. I was messaging with one guy who actually did think I was pretty. This was my introduction to the Asian fetish. Our conversations became less than innocent after a while. Whenever I tried to turn the conversation around and talk about something else, he would tell me not to be so frigid and relax, take a joke! Me, being young, shy, and too polite for my own good, learned that it was best to brush these things off. I started high school with these people, and the comments would come to me online and in person.

Is it true Asians are the tightest? Is it true they will do whatever their man tells them to do? They’re always loyal and submissive. Some of them pretend to be innocent but they’re actually sluts. Are you an Asian hoe? Hey my friend hooked up with an Asian girl and she let him do this and that. Would you let a guy do that to you? I’ve only been with one Asian, I need to change that. 

This is the kind of talk I would hear from the time I was 13 and lasted throughout high school. I have an old conversation from MSN saved because my friends didn’t believe me. Here’s some choice excerpts.

You can hang out with me and my friends. That is, if you don’t think they’ll rape you. 
They would rape me? Why would you say that?
Well what if they were drunk and you were acting slutty? They like Asian hoes.
Ok, but I don’t act slutty.
No, but you should. You could get so many guys. You’re Asian.

By the time I left high school, just hearing his name would make me want to throw up. I couldn’t look him in the eye and I would go out of my way to avoid him.

If you tell me you think I’m beautiful or hot or whatever, but then you mention you have “yellow fever”, I am exiting that situation so fast. It’s not flattering. You assuming that I should be flattered for your attention under any circumstance is bullshit. You can be attracted to whoever you’re attracted to – but don’t think that telling me that you have a special place in your pants for Asians is going to go over well for you.

Yes, I’m more desirable to some, but it’s because of my race. That’s telling me that I can be easily replaced by another. That’s telling me I’m your hunting trophy or another number for your “Asian girl” count. I’m a landmark story you can tell your friends. I’m not a person to you.