Do you frequently question your abilities and wonder if you’re good enough or smart enough? Do you feel like a fraud and worry that people will find out who you “really” are? Do you diminish and dismiss your accomplishments? Do you constantly compare yourself to others and feel like everyone else is more qualified than you? If you answered yes to some of these questions you may be experiencing imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome involves feeling like a fake or fraud despite evidence of high achievement and accomplishment. Even though you’ve earned a degree and are progressing through graduate school, or receive praise for your work, you question your abilities. Imposter syndrome also involves worrying that you got into an academic program or got a job by mistake, and feeling like you are fooling people into thinking you are smart. Overall, people who experience imposter syndrome feel that they are not good enough.
Imposter syndrome may be even more challenging for people of color because stereotype threat may exacerbate it. Stereotype threat is the stress that results from worrying that you will confirm negative stereotypes about the intellectual capacities of people from your gender, racial, or ethnic group. The combination of imposter syndrome and stereotype threat can negatively effect your performance on tasks that you would be able to do well without this additional stress. Additionally, people of color may wonder if they were admitted to an academic program or got a job because of token diversity initiatives. This can increase insecurities about whether or not you really belong in a workplace or academic setting. Further, people from marginalized groups often navigate challenging racial, cultural and gender dynamics, as well as microaggressions, which can further exacerbate imposter syndrome.
I work in the counseling center at one of the top universities in the US and a large proportion of students that I see in therapy or interact with during outreach programming experience imposter syndrome. Despite a lot of evidence that these students are intelligent and qualified to attend this university, many of them feel like imposters. I am giving a couple of talks for students this week on imposter syndrome and since it is a common problem I thought I would share my recommendations here as well. The following are key strategies for overcoming imposter syndrome
Fully acknowledge your accomplishments
One of the drivers of imposter syndrome is not acknowledging your accomplishments. It is essential to take ownership of the things that you have accomplished and not blame them on luck. Owning your accomplishments helps to challenge the belief that you are a fake or fraud. As women, many of us have been socialized to dismiss our accomplishments. We’re seen as arrogant if we fully acknowledge our hard work and abilities. In order to overcome imposter syndrome it is necessary to let go of fears that people won’t like you or that you’ll be viewed negatively for owning what you’re good at. Being confident in what you can do does not mean boasting or being arrogant, it’s about being honest and authentic.
How to: Take a few minutes to reflect on, and write down some accomplishments that you are proud of.
Know that you didn’t get to where you are by accident
You did not get your job accident; you did not get into your academic program by accident. Wherever you are working or going to school, know that someone looked at your application, qualifications, and references and decided that they wanted to admit you or support you because of your unique gifts, experience and abilities.
Acknowledge the stress of stereotype threat and microaggressions
These experiences take a toll on your productivity and well being. When we don’t recognized the systemic factors that are negatively influencing us, it can be easy to feel like we are experiencing poor treatment or additional stress because there is something wrong with us. Acknowledging systemic problems can help you to de-personalize these stressors. For example, if you are a black woman and you feel that your suggestions in meetings are commonly overlooked, it is important to recognized the sexism and racism that may be at play in your meetings so that you don’t start to question the validity of your ideas overall.
Let go of emotional reasoning
Emotional reasoning is when we make conclusions about ourselves based on how we feel. For example, because we feel stupid in a moment, we conclude that we are stupid. If you are in graduate school or have a challenging job it is common to feel confused and stressed at times. Whenever we are learning something new, this is usually accompanied by not completely understanding things for a while. This does not reflect poorly on you, it is simply part of the process.
How to: See if you can accept feelings of uneasiness and confusion without assuming they mean that you are not capable.
Identify and let go of unhelpful thoughts
Reflect on your thoughts about not being good enough. How do these thoughts make you feel? How do they affect your behavior? Are they helpful? Usually, thoughts of not being good enough make us feel sad and anxious, cause some of us to procrastinate or overwork, and are generally unhelpful. Working to try to dispel the idea that you are not good enough feels differently than working towards something positive (e.g. what you want to contribute to a project). If you get caught up in negative thoughts about yourself, I encourage you to shift your focus to things that are important to you and what you can offer.
How to: When negative thoughts arise, see if you can let them go like passing cars and focus your attention back on what is happening in the present moment.
Seek concrete feedback
Imposter syndrome can distort our assessment of how well we are doing. Instead of relying solely on your own assessment seek concrete feedback on your work and progress. Assume that your supervisors or professors are being honest with you about your progress and performance.
Accept affirmations from others
Women are socialized to reject compliments and affirmations. We do it in a number of ways from denigrating ourselves and accomplishments when someone affirms them to deflecting and focusing attention on the person providing the compliment. In order to overcome imposter syndrome I encourage you not to brush off affirmation, let it sink in.
Identify your strengths & What you can contribute
One thing that can fuel imposter Syndrome is comparing ourselves to other people. When we compare ourselves to others we often downplay our accomplishments, while highlighting theirs, which can leave us feeling inadequate. I encourage you to spend less time comparing yourself to others. Instead, spend time reflecting on your skills and talents.
How to: Think about and write down the unique perspective and life experiences that you can contribute to the settings where you work and/or go to school.
One of the challenges with imposter syndrome is that it can make us feel isolated. While struggling with imposter syndrome, we can wonder if we are the only ones with this experience. It is important to know that you are not alone in imposter syndrome and to actively work to connect with other people who can help you challenge your feelings of imposter syndrome.
How to: Create a network of peers who you can be open with about your insecurities and struggles.