Imposter syndrome pops up regularly in the university environment, from first year students wondering if they got what it takes to be at uni, to seasoned and awarded academics who still doubt the validity of their successes. I regularly revisit this topic as I learn more about it.
The origins of this article lie in a question a student once asked about me about how to deal with Imposter Syndrome. I remember feeling a bit stumped at the time because I knew what Imposter Syndrome was, I just hadn’t spent much time considering how to handle it.
As far as a definition goes (stolen from Wikipedia):
Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.[ref]
What is important to capture here is that Imposter syndrome represents a disconnect between a person’s actual ability/ talent/ accomplishments and their perceptions of their ability/ talent/ accomplishments. This can present in a few different ways:
- attributing one’s success to luck, not hard work
- feeling like one doesn’t belong in the presence of others in their field (a feeling of being unworthy)
- a real difficulty in internalising any successes or earned status increases
- increasing amounts of time spent comparing oneself (at a distance) to others
- not taking opportunities when they present themselves
- feeling paralysed in one’s career and not taking strategic risks
- working oneself to the bone trying to be perfect, leading to burnout and mental health issues
Accompanying this are thoughts and fears about being exposed/discovered. The qualified doctor who fears people will discover they know nothing about medicine. The HD student who fears people will discover they actually aren’t a good student at all.
It may seem strange that we’d experience such a disconnect between our actual knowledge/skill and our perceptions of our knowledge/skill but there are a few understandable things potentially driving it.
- We are social creatures who value status, and so it is natural to fear a loss of status or acceptance of the group. Fears of being discovered/exposed may represent fears of not belonging or being rejected.
- The more you know about a topic, the more you realise you don’t know and you can become fixated on your gaps in knowledge and of making mistakes.
- We might not have any good role models in our area.
- Big projects (e.g. a PhD) can often have us working in isolation for long periods of time, on difficult tasks. This can lead to a distorted perception of our abilities because we aren’t seeing the battles other people are having.
- A natural negativity bias can focus us on what we don’t know, at the expense of regularly articulating what we do know.
- As we become more knowledgeable in a field, the pressure to be an ‘expert’ increases as does our responsibility in that area.
- As we progress in our careers, we take on leadership and management roles and thus it isn’t just our decisions that we are responsible for, it is the decisions of those working with us.
- Knowledge and skill aren’t the only things that drive success, so we may fear that we’ve been successful for reasons other than mastery of our topic.
- Perfectionism and procrastination (which many in the academic community struggle with) can contribute to Imposter Syndrome through excessively high standards and frustration at one’s ability to get work done in a timely fashion.
Since that original student question, I’ve been reminded repeatedly of just how common this syndrome is. I had a very pertinent experience of it for myself recently after a string of successes that didn’t leave me feeling happy and proud. On the contrary, I was left feeling fearful and worried that I didn’t deserve, or I couldn’t live up to those achievements. I worried that people would realise I hadn’t earned those successes, and I would be ‘outed’ as an intellectual fraud.
So, it is now a topic I ponder more regularly.
Although it is called a ‘syndrome’, it isn’t a diagnosed condition, so there is little written on how to ‘treat it’. But there are insights from related areas that may inform how we tackle it. Let’s have a look at a few of those.
How do you deal with imposter syndrome?
First things first.
It is important to note that it is worth noting and tackling imposter syndrome if it is there. I was taken by this short piece by Gottlieb 2021 suggesting medical students who struggle with Imposter Syndrome can be less receptive to feedback, which threatens their learning (creating a vicious cycle). More concerning this quote from Bravata et al. (2020) in their systematic review of Impostor syndrome – “Impostor syndrome is often comorbid with depression and anxiety and is associated with impaired job performance, job satisfaction, and burnout”. Eeeek.
Importance out of the way, let’s continue.
The answer I gave to that original student question wasn’t actually too bad, but it needed further clarity.
I answered by saying that imposter syndrome is like many of the different thinking traps we can fall into: being overly self-critical, fearing evaluation by others, self-sabotaging, catastrophising, thinking in black and white etc. It is one of the many ways that our thinking can deviate from rationality [if you thought human thinking was rational, check out this list – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases]
Thus, we don’t address Imposter syndrome by just trying to accumulate more successes. Instead, we need to examine our thoughts and beliefs in the same way we might other irrational ways of thinking: notice them, name them, make room for them, but then also challenge them, let them go and choose how we act in the world on the basis of different beliefs/rules.
You see, we each have certain vulnerabilities to different types of irrational or unhelpful thoughts/ beliefs. We might be overly sensitive to the evaluations of others. We might place excessive importance on achievement in deriving our self-worth. We might attribute greater malice to others than is healthy.
The different ways we are vulnerable will be the result of our experiences – often our childhood experiences [that topic is for another day]. The takeaway message is we all have these vulnerabilities. As we discover and learn what they are, we can develop routinised ways of acting that counter-balance the vulnerability.
So what does it mean to act opposite to imposter syndrome?
There are a few things, although this isn’t a complete list. You’ll have to discover some of your own along the way.
- Take the time to do a proper examination of your strengths and weaknesses. In Imposter syndrome, it is our beliefs about our abilities and talents that torment us. We tend to hold our beliefs to be true without due consideration and examination. In the context of a safe psychological space (e.g. therapy), consider looking at these thoughts and beliefs more closely and doing a detailed analysis of your abilities. It won’t all be good news, but it also won’t all be bad news either. Then, when those doubts surface at other times, you’ll know which ones are genuine markers of doubt and which are negative automatic thoughts with little justification.
- When focusing on the tasks you are doing, think about your non-achievement focused motivations. For example, when you attend an exam, think not only about the grade you want, but also the fact that doing exams increases your ability to manage stressful situations. Recognise that there are benefits from task completion that aren’t just about proving your worth to others in an objective way.
- Tackle procrastination. Imposter Syndrome can lead to self-sabotage (prove to yourself that you are a ‘fraud’). Procrastination is one of the most common forms of self-sabotage we see in students. Start a task → worry about ability → delay task → do task at the last minute → get ordinary grades → worry about ability → delay next task → and so forth. Tackle it directly by learning more about it and perhaps doing our Studyology course.
- Seek mentorship/role models. Find someone in your field, who can give you an accurate assessment of where you sit and what you might need to do to develop further. Not only that, I’ve found mentors often provide great advice and guidance on how to find the best fit for our existing abilities (e.g. guidance on job choice). The mentorship relationship is unique in that they become a trusted person whose opinion and assessment of our abilities we can compare against our own self-evaluation. A similar but more indirect way to do this is to identify role models and learn more about their stories, often discovering along the way similar struggles they’ve had.
- Connect with peer networks. “Students who felt they were contributing members of their scholarly communities (e.g., research discipline, department) reported lower imposter syndrome levels, suggesting that they felt worthy of their academic positing” (ref). When we immerse ourselves in communities of others working in our area, we gain support and importantly regular opportunities to get more accurate feedback on our competencies.
- Focus on growth, rather than status. Imposter syndrome can lead us to become overly focused on our performance relative to peers and attempts to constantly prove our worth. The cruel twist is that Imposter Syndrome then distorts our perceptions of our worth, so that we never feel we live up to expectations. Instead, try focusing on making small regular improvements in your areas of interest/work. What is one thing you could do for this upcoming essay that will make it better than the last? What is one thing you could do this exam period that would make it better than the last? Focus on improving relative to where you are now, not comparing yourself against others.
- Say’ thankyou’ when people give compliments or express gratitude for your work. Imposter Syndrome can lead us to minimise/ignore the expressions of others about the work we are doing. Accepting compliments or congratulations with a simple ‘thankyou’ is a good starting point for noticing appropriately when you are given positive feedback. It gently marks those moments when we are given evidence of the good work we’ve done.
- Find a humble but meaningful way to highlight some of your achievements. If we follow-through on our Imposter Syndrome beliefs, we can get stuck in a constant loop of trying to prove our worth through achievements. In that process however, we actually tend to ignore the achievements themselves. The second we finish one thing, we move on to the next with zero self-recognition of what we’ve achieved. If possible, without it becoming an obsession in itself, find a a straightforward way to publicise your progress. For example, I have found that regularly updating my LinkedIn profile with key milestones to be a useful way to mark my achievements, but do it in an appropriate way. Alisa Cohn, an executive coach talks about creating a ‘success highlight reel‘.
- Have some interests outside of your core work. I most commonly notice Imposter Syndrome to negatively impact a person’s topic of study or work. This makes sense as one’s area of study or work is the dominant place from which we might be getting our sense of self-worth. Thus it is useful to have spaces outside of work/study that contribute to our sense of who we are. Hobbies, interests, extra-curricular activities that help round us out as people. You can even choose things that you aren’t necessarily that good at to help reconnect you to the simple joys of being curious about learning something new and the challenge of getting better over time.
- Check and recheck your standards and expectations. We know that perfectionists constantly set standards for themselves that are unachievable and are typically unrelenting in modifying these expectations. Truth is though, life is incredibly complex with multiple factors interacting to create our current reality. That complexity means goals we set yesterday might not always be appropriate today. We have to be willing to adjust and shift goals/standards as we go. This doesn’t mean abandoning them altogether. But it means that as new information comes to light, we might need to adjust our expectations. Say you get a bad mark on an exam. You could lament the fact you didn’t meet your expectations for that exam, or you could use that new information to prompt a review of your exam preparation strategies and see how to change them for next time.
The other thing I want to say about imposter syndrome is to be realistic and kind about your abilities.
This goes back to what I talked about at the beginning of this post.
It’s perfectly OK to not be the best in the room. In fact, it will be rare that you are the best in the room at anything. And it is good to be honest with yourself about where you think you sit relative to others, but to do so with kindness.
I was an ordinary researcher. I am a better than ordinary ‘eMental Health Project Officer’.
I am an ordinary guitarist. I am a better than ordinary collector of pot plants (plants in pots, to be clear)
I am a below average high jumper.
All of these are OK.
Being realistic and kind means also accepting that abilities aren’t set in stone. If I devoted the right amount of time to it, I could significantly improve my guitar playing. If I knuckled down and enhanced my research methodology knowledge, I could be a more capable researcher. I might even be able (with a lot of effort and coaching) even do a mildly OK high jump.
But I am ok with how I am in those areas. Maybe that is a level of acceptance that comes with age.
You’ll find the place and space that works best to the capacities you have. It might take a few tries, but you will get there.
The role of the organisation
Because Imposter syndrome has the capacity to contribute to career paralysis, burnout and mental health issues, organisations where it is common (e.g. Academia) need to think about how they foster environments that help address it, that is, aggregate, not just individual solutions.
This can take a few different forms such as changes to workloads, hours and administrative overload. It can include fostering open discussions of people negative self-assessments and the conditions that might be contributing to them (e.g. uncredited work efforts). An organisation could revisit its core values and look at how it might create a culture that celebrates information sharing, collaboration, seeking feedback and accepting mistakes. It might try to uncover norms or rules that mean some people’s contributions are going unseen.
We can’t rely on individuals alone shouldering the burden of tackling Imposter Syndrome, because this leaves the impression that the dysfunction sits entirely within the individual. Instead, it is environmental, individual and interpersonal factors interacting to produce this outcome. Consider how you provide feedback to your colleagues. Even a small shift in how you provide feedback (i.e. 10% increase in praise) might assist another person feel more comfortable in their position.
I’ve noticed Imposter Syndrome pop up in the most capable people I know. That tells me it is perhaps partly baked into human psychology.
As a social species, it makes sense that we might get carried away by concerns that we aren’t good enough or that people will discover our flaws and reject us accordingly. Our brain’s attempt at problem-solving the threat of being rejected from the pack.
Ultimately however, these are just thoughts, generated by a brain that has threat detection as a primary goal.
We can learn to co-exist and live well despite these mental companions.
If you find yourself quite disabled by these kinds of thoughts, do some further reading on the topic. You’ll find plenty of people have written articles on the topic and developed their own ways of dealing with it. I’ve included a few reading options below. The topic is discussed quite a bit in academia now.
In reading these, you might realise how common the experience is, and in turn realise the thoughts you are having, whilst uncomfortable, aren’t a barrier to success. You can then find mental and behavioural routines/ habits that counterbalance these beliefs.
If you do, I am confident that those around you will be interested in your experiences, as you are definitely not the only one to confront this curious bedeviling phenonmenon.
Read more 📚
The impostor phenomenon – https://www.sciencetheearth.com/uploads/2/4/6/5/24658156/2011_sakulku_the_impostor_phenomenon.pdf
Q&A with psychologist Jessamy Hibberd – https://psychwire.com/ask/topics/1vto7yq/ask-jessamy-hibberd-about-imposter-syndrome
Try this (paid) Future Learn Course from University of Southern Queensland – https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/overcoming-imposter-syndrome
An article worth reading for PhD students – http://ijds.org/Volume15/IJDSv15p737-758Sverdlik6626.pdf