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Maybe you rocked the GREs and got into the grad program you barely dared apply to. Or you’ve picked up pre-reqs for your transfer to a four-year program. But that was luck. There’s no way you deserve this…
Feeling like a fraud much? It’s called impostor syndrome, or the impostor phenomenon, and it’s a thing. Here’s what you need to know, and seven ways to crush those fraudulent feelings before they crush you.
The term “impostor phenomenon” was coined by two psychologists—Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes—as a way to describe feelings of fraudulence related to personal achievements. Translation: You think your successes are flukes, and you expect to be called out eventually for being a fake.
These feelings keep you from owning your accomplishments. Instead, you may attribute your successes to external factors, like good timing or connections. Up to 70 percent of us experience the impostor phenomenon at some point in our lives, according to a classic study, and it is especially prevalent in colleges and universities—in both undergrad and graduate programs.
This is not about smarts or talent, experts emphasize. “People who don’t feel like impostors are no more intelligent or capable than those who do,” says Dr. Valerie Young, a leading author and speaker on this topic. “The only difference is that in the same scenario—failing an exam, meeting with your faculty advisor, preparing to make a presentation—they think different thoughts.”
What’s your definition of competence? Check out the 5 types
People who experience impostor phenomenon experience shame when they fail. However, “they don’t experience shame the same way, because we don’t all define competence the same way,” says Dr. Valerie Young. In her book, she identifies five “competence types” and outlines how “impostors” can reframe their specific thinking:
What’s working for you and what will help
“Anything short of a flawless performance is unacceptable from me.”
You care deeply about the quality of your work. Now give yourself permission to have an off day.
“I never know enough. I’m ashamed of not understanding this.”
You love knowledge and learning. Acknowledge that you can never know it all; that’s like trying to get to the end of the internet.
“If I really were smart, I’d have come out
You value mastery. Let go of your thing about ease and speed. All the greats had to work at whatever their greatness is.
“I should be able to do this on my own.”
You work well independently. Recognize that asking for help is a sign of competence and self-worth.
“I have to excel at everything: academics, sports, and student leadership.”
You care deeply about excelling in multiple arenas. Just know that at times you will need to scale back in one area to focus on a higher priority.
For more info, see The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It by Valerie Young (Crown Business, 2011).
Impostors as students
For many students, impostor feelings are short-term. “The impostor phenomenon seems to be more common among people who are embarking on a new endeavor,” Dr. Suzanne Imes told the American Psychological Association in 2013. Returning to school, pursuing an advanced degree, or starting a new job can cause impostor feelings to appear. For others, the sense of being an impostor may stick around. Some student populations are especially prone to it. Maybe you are among the first in your family to attend college, ethnically or racially diverse, a woman in a male-dominated field, or pursuing an advanced degree.
What to do about it
Impostor feelings are in some ways rational, says Dr. Young. In school, you’re being tested every day. And if your community has historically had limited access to higher ed, you don’t have a history of belonging. However, when you look at the people who have acknowledged feeling impostor-ish—among them, Emma Watson, Albert Einstein, Sonya Sotomayor, and Maya Angelou—it’s clear how deserving they were. To find out how to handle impostor feelings constructively, click on the list (left).
7 ways to handle your inner impostor
Click for the whys, hows, & wows
First in your family to attend college? A woman in a male-dominated program? The youngest PhD student in your program? A man of color in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM fields)? There’s probably a group for that. For example, many schools have a WiSE program (Women in Science and Engineering).
As you start to connect with your school and community, your impostor feelings will likely ease, university administrators say. “The truth is that many students—first-gen and those who are not first-gen—feel like impostors when they start. It often takes time to develop relationships and to find groups that you feel most comfortable in. This is normal,” says Dr. Amy Baldwin, director of University College at the University of Central Arkansas, and author of The First-Generation College Experience (Prentice Hall, 2011). Her tips:
- Look for activities and groups that interest you, and join in.
- If you feel as though you cannot get connected in a positive way, talk with a counselor or advisor, or even a professor. They may be able to point you to programs and other resources, on campus or in your community, that can help you adjust.
- Be wary of ruminating on impostor feelings with friends. This may increase your risk of anxiety and depression, according to research involving teens. “You do need to talk about this, but not in that confessional way; you can’t share your way out of impostor feelings,” says Dr. Valerie Young. “You have to practice reframing the thoughts in your head.” (See tip number 4)
“Attending NEW Leadership Oregon [a campus program] and the Oregon Students of Color Conference introduced me to amazing new people.”
—Fourth-year student, Portland State University, Oregon
“I connected with people of my nationality; we are the minority.”
—Third-year student, Community College of Denver, Colorado
“There are systems in place to help you. For anything. Groups for everything. Join. Go.”
—Third-year student, University of Memphis, Tennessee
We’re more likely to remember negative events, info, and feedback than we are to hold onto the good stuff, according to a 2001 study in the Review of General Psychology. That’s due to negativity bias, our brain’s tendency to disproportionately dwell on and react to negative news, and it’s a real downer. All of the focus on our flaws can block us from acknowledging what we’ve achieved—and what we are capable of achieving in the future.
Next time someone praises you for your on-point research skills, relentless attention to detail, or positive attitude, put it someplace you’ll remember to look frequently—like a folder on your desktop. Whenever you feel doubts creeping in, read through your collection of compliments and rest assured that you’re doing just fine.
“Remember that everyone feels like an impostor from time to time. It might seem like other people know what they’re doing, but really, everyone struggles with this. You are not alone. You are not an impostor. You made it to this point for a reason. You belong as much as anyone else, and you bring unique and important qualities to the table.”
—Second-year graduate student, University of Regina, Saskatchewan
“Continuously update your CV and résumé as soon as you think of something to add. I find this helps me track my successes and remind myself of everything I have already accomplished when I am feeling like an impostor.”
—Fourth-year graduate student, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador
Yes, we’re suggesting that you keep track of your failures. The key is to also track how you dealt with them and what they taught you, so you can see how those negative experiences resulted in something good—including building your own resilience (the ability to handle life’s changes and challenges).
“Developing a healthy relationship with failure, mistakes, and constructive criticism is key, especially for people who feel like impostors because we experience shame in the face of all three,” says Dr. Valerie Young, who has spoken at 80 colleges and universities about the impostor phenomenon.
Check out this Princeton professor’s reverse résumé to see all the awards he didn’t win, programs he didn’t get into, and positions he never got. Then treat yourself to an episode of the Freakonomics Radio podcast Failure Is Your Friend. The point? We focus so much on achievement that we tend to ignore the setbacks that are an integral part of getting there.
“If you want to stop feeling like an impostor, you have to stop thinking like an impostor,” says Dr. Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It (Crown Business, 2011). “Those who don’t feel like impostors have different thoughts than those who do.”
So what do you do? “You have to reframe failure, our unrealistic expectations, and fear. We’re all entitled to make a mistake and be wrong. We have a right to ask questions; we have a right to not understand, and no one feels confident 24/7,” says Dr. Young.
Even if you don’t believe the reframed thoughts, keep going. “You don’t have to feel confident to act confident. Don’t let the feeling of fear rule the action. What we want is to no longer feel like an impostor, but feelings are the last to change. Over time, your feelings will catch up,” she says. Another way to practice: “Giving advice to someone in the same situation can help you internalize it,” says Dr. Baldwin. Here’s what reframing can look like:
Your advisor recommends that you take a more advanced course.
“I have no idea what I’m doing; I’m not smart enough.”
“I’m going to learn a lot. This is a great opportunity to challenge myself.”
You get negative feedback on a writing assignment.
“I suck at writing.”
“The more I write, the better I get.”
Before you present, you have sweaty hands, a nervous stomach, and a dry throat.
You want to ask a question in class.
“People will think I’m not smart enough for this class.”
“Probably half the class wants to know this too.”
“The key to staying in college for all students, regardless of your background or identity, is making sure you take advantage of as many opportunities as possible to integrate yourself both academically and socially,” says Dr. Luoluo Hong, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at San Francisco State University. Here’s what Dr. Hong recommends:
- Show up for class, show up for class, show up for class!
- Take advantage of your professor’s office hours to discuss questions or ideas
- Get to know your faculty
- Live on or near campus if you can
- If you live close to campus, get a job nearby
- Join a club in your community
In addition, check out every resource your college offers, even if you don’t think you need it. Get to know the rec center, health services, counseling center, career center, tutoring service, disability accommodations, and financial support office. Talk to your professors, classmates, teaching assistants, resident assistants, librarians, and everyone else you encounter. You aren’t doing this alone, and there are resources available that you don’t even know about.
“Getting help outside of class from TAs and the professors made me feel like less of an outsider. In many ways, when I was young, I felt like I would sound too stupid if I asked a simple question. I cannot stress this enough: Ask every question you want. Even now in my professional career I often ask questions of the most basic nature because when questions are asked, people start thinking on topic. Soon the ball starts rolling and sometimes amazing things happen!”
—First-year graduate student, Missouri University of Science and Technology
“Engage a faculty member who may have a similar background or share some of your experiences,” says Dr. Adrian K. Haugabrook, vice president for student success and engagement at Wheelock College, Massachusetts. People like to be asked.
A mentor who understands your experience can be especially helpful if you are navigating two distinct social environments: college and home. Even if your family and friends are proud that you’re in college, you may find yourself playing it down when you go home, so that you can’t be accused of feeling superior.
“I suggest other students not to try to do it all on their own like I did. Go talk to an advisor and try to find a mentor who can help you navigate college life.”
—Second-year graduate student, Florida International University
“Talking to various mentors and leaders, I discovered that many individuals have experienced the ‘impostor syndrome.’ The trick is to keep your head high and realize many other people feel the same way you do.”
—Second-year graduate student, Boise State University, Idaho
One small, essential thing you can do right now to deal with impostor feelings: Learn how to take a compliment. You can do this. Yes you can.
“Practice saying thank you and acknowledging your work, rather than explaining it away,” says Dr. Valerie Young, author and speaker.
It can be helpful to recognize your own cognitive dissonance. “We feel uncomfortable when we have two oppositional thoughts; for example, feeling negatively about yourself and receiving a compliment,” says Dr. Keith Anderson, a psychologist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. “Our natural tendency is to revert to the oldest thought, the negative one. Practice overriding this instinct by focusing on the compliment.”
“Your work on the migration pattern of ancient swallows was exceptional. Good job!”
“Oh, it wasn’t that great. I just used the research. I could have expanded the intro.”
“Thank you. I worked really hard on it.”
“Awesome presentation on the function of neurotransmitters in mice with social anxiety.”
“Aaargh, I must have said ‘um’ four hundred times.”
“That’s great to hear—thank you.”
The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It: Valerie Young
Crown Business, 2011
Keith Anderson, PhD, FACHA, Psychologist/Outreach Coordinator, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York.
Amy Baldwin, EdD, director of University College at the University of Central Arkansas; author of The First-Generation College Experience (Prentice Hall, 2011).
Adrian K. Haugabrook, EdD, vice president for student success and engagement, Wheelock College, Massachusetts.
Luoluo Hong, PhD, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management, San Francisco State University, California.
Katharine Meyer, PhD candidate, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia.
Valerie Young, EdD, speaker, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It (Crown Business, 2011).
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