You are sitting in the hallway in a particularly uncomfortable office chair. The sturdiness of your business suit that has been sitting in your closet for an entire year is rough against your skin. You grip your résumé as you look around at all the people that are waiting for the same interview. They are probably more qualified than you — they all look so professional and accomplished. You look down at your résumé hoping that all the numerous accomplishments that crowd the page will grant you some solace, but everything you have ever done seems inadequate — all based on chance, luck, and opportunity not on your actual skills as a potential job candidate. Will the interviewers see right through you?
Feelings like these are not just self-doubt, they are selfdestructive, and hold all of us back from realizing our true potential. Imposter syndrome is a worldwide phenomenon that you are not alone in feeling and there are ways to combat the symptoms.
Imposter syndrome, according to Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes — two psychologists who first recognized it, is when an individual experiences self-perceived intellectual phoniness or unworthiness in the face of achievements. There wasn’t always a name to this psychological pattern of self-doubt however. The birth of imposter syndrome began in 1978 when Dr. Clance, a therapist, started to notice many of her highest achieving undergraduate students feeling as if they didn’t deserve admissions into university- feelings that she recognized in herself when applying to graduate school. Seeing as these feelings were of course unsupported by the hard work and achievements her patients had accomplished, she chose to investigate it further with her colleague Dr. Imes. Together they studied 150 high-achieving women and came across a surprising result that no matter the external validation for their accomplishments, the woman never truly felt valued or capable of the things that they had worked hard to achieve. The researchers then created what is known as “the imposter cycle” which is a test that allows individuals to determine whether they experience imposter syndrome or not. This test is given to an individual being faced with a task from work or school. After achievement of said task, if the individual is flooded with feelings of self-doubt and fraudulence that intensifies with each subsequent task, they are identified to have imposter syndrome. Although the study was done on woman, it was later proven through other research that imposter syndrome can prey on any individual- and in particular those who are a minority or extremely successful in their field.
The imposter syndrome includes 6 dimensions and experiencing only two of these dimensions would categorize an individual as having imposter syndrome. These categories include the imposter cycle mentioned above as well as the need to be the best, a fear of failure, a shunning of compliments disguised as modesty, a guilt of success, and carrying the weight of the world. Some common phrases expressed from said individuals include “I must not fail”, “I feel like a fake”, “I am just lucky”. If you have experienced imposter syndrome, you are constantly looking over your shoulder truly believing that you are going to be found out- that someone is just waiting to see you fail, watching in the corner as you make mistake after mistake, ready to send you home. For some people it may be the voice in your head telling you that you are not [good, worthy, smart, talented, etc.] enough, for others it can be the constant need to overwork to live up to an unattainable perfectionism as any flaw will be seen as incompetence.
Regardless of how imposter syndrome may manifest itself in your life, you are not alone in experiencing it. According to the International Journal of Behavioral Science, 70 percent of adults admit having the symptoms of imposter syndrome. Even though that is a majority of the population- it is likely that the statistic is even higher. One common occurrence among those who experience this phenomenon is that they tend to be very successful people- typically the last people you expect them to be. Anyone can experience its symptoms from your self-assured classmate to your confident colleague because imposter syndrome is a mental process; you can’t just look at someone and recognize it. Nobody- not even the most successful people in the world- are immune to the effects of self-doubt especially in a society like ours in which we strive for perfectionism and measure our worth through comparison with those around us. Maya Angelou, famous author of 11+ books and a woman of many high achievements, is quoted as saying “I’ve run a game on everybody, and they are going to find me out”. Albert Einstein, whose name is echoed by dreamers and achievers worldwide stated “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler”. If you ask those around you, you are likely to be surprised that there is a huge proportion of our population that suffers from the same feelings of self-doubt as you.
However despite its prevalence, imposter syndrome seems to be this dark secret that everyone has, but that we are all too scared to admit to having because of our fear of being found out- it is like a never-ending loop that we drag ourselves through because of an unfounded belief that vulnerability is a weakness. However, the only real way to stop the symptoms is to do the very thing we are all afraid to do- and that is to talk about it because you are not alone in how you feel. The first step is realizing you have imposter syndrome, that you are not alone, and that you have the power to take ownership back of your successes. The thing about imposter syndrome is that it is like a pest problem. It can hide out in the depths of your attic multiplying with each achievement that you earn- but the second it makes itself known, the second you hear the voice for what it actually is, is when you can call the exterminator and gain back the joy and pleasure of accomplishing tasks that it tries to steal. And this process is not one to be done on your own; remember you still need to call the exterminator to get rid of those nasty rats. The more we express our weakest parts of ourselves to those we trust, the easier it becomes to recognize the effect that these harsh thoughts have on us and the weaker their hold on us becomes.
That brings us to the next step, which is owning your value. There is no luck in this world and if you have made a name for yourself in any way, then it took your hard work, skills, and many sacrifices to get there. When you start to hear that voice in your head telling you that you aren’t good enough- stop it by focusing on your abilities and skills rather than your deficiencies. Make a list of all of your strengths and what are you good at. Ask your friends, family, teachers, bosses; anyone that has worked with you and that knows you well enough. Keep this list with you on your phone so that the second that you start to question your place you can be reminded that you worked to get here, and you deserve where you are at. Focus on the gifts that you have and the things you have worked to achieve no matter how big, small, or unrelated it may seem.
And finally, prove the voice wrong and use it to empower you rather than tear you down. It is ok to be in a situation that you feel like you are not skilled enough for- rather than allowing that to stop you from pursuing it- allow it to challenge you. Challenges are often what allow us to become successful because it pushes the barriers of our beliefs so that we can accomplish the unimaginable. If Albert Einstein had allowed his feelings of self-doubt to overcome him, he wouldn’t have gone on to become the present-day representation of genius. Take whatever you are most passionate about and whether you are skilled or expert enough to accomplish it, pursue it with everything that you have in you because that is the best way to prove the voice wrong. Don’t be so afraid to fail that you never even try because that is the greatest failure of all time. If you really feel like you are inadequate at something or thrown into a situation that you feel trapped in, then do everything you can to learn and use your fear as motivation and momentum to carry you through.
In a popular Ted Talk addressing imposter syndrome, Mike Cannon-Brookes, co-founder of software company Atlassian, brilliantly said that the most successful people don’t question themselves, but rather their ideas and knowledge. He empowered others to not be afraid to talk about their self-doubt and to ask advice in order to hone and improve oneself. If you take anything from this, I want it to be that you are not alone in these feelings. I myself battle feelings of self-doubt in almost everything I do, in fact I still remember when my first article for the AMP came into print and how scared I was that someone was going to read it and think that I wasn’t a good enough writer. I almost let it stop me from submitting the article in the first place, and if I had let that fear of being found out win- I never would have gone on to enjoy writing many more pieces i am passionate about. Anyone can suffer from imposter syndrome regardless of one’s background, interests, jobs, or passions, but hopefully starting the conversation about it can stop it from robbing any more joy from our lives. Here are some stories from fellow classmates at UTD who struggle with imposter syndrome and hopefully reading them can remind you that together we can stop feeling like we don’t belong and remember that we do and we are worthy.
Q&A With UTD Students
The following students are responding under pseudonyms to preserve anonymity.
How has impostor syndrome affected your life?
Anonymous:Impostor syndrome makes me feel like I’m not good enough, and especially with the pre-med classes that I take, it makes it feel like I’m always waiting to fail. A bad grade can make me feel like I am not good enough to go to medical school or possibly the reason that I won’t be able to be a doctor. I know my passion is to become a doctor and that is a huge part of what I want to do with my life, but at the same time I feel like there are so many more people that are more accomplished or better than me and I hear that voice telling me, “You’re not good enough.” While I do tend to define my success by my comparison to others, I also feel like that is how the system is set up where we are told to look at the way other people are doing things — especially as a freshman looking at all the things that seniors are accomplishing — and believing that you aren’t doing nearly enough. Typically, when you have the same goal as someone and they are doing better than you, it can really stress you out.
Herb: It has affected myself in many ways. For me, impostor syndrome manifests itself as this little nagging voice that in every daily action is always saying “someone is going to find you out.” It has affected me most I think academically and in relationships with other people. A lot of my friends are McDermott [Scholars] or honors and it always feels like I’m never going to measure up and never going to be able to measure up. It has made me very self-critical, making it really hard to just do things and has made me become more of a perfectionist in a lot of areas because if you aren’t perfect, somebody is going to find you out. If you pull one stitch out, the entire rug comes collapsing.
Explain some of your symptoms or things that you hear in the face of an accomplishment.
Anonymous: After getting a really high grade, I first feel proud, but then I also get that feeling that next time will be worse. Like I tell myself that “OK, this time you did well, but just wait for the final, wait for your next failure.” I am always slightly on the defense when it comes to grades because mostly I do OK, but despite that, I am always waiting for that one test the will make my GPA drop and be the cause of me losing my future.
Herb: Literally every accomplishment ever feels very hollow in a way. I don’t think that there are very many things that I’ve done that I feel proud of because I am always thinking that it is just the luck of the draw that led me to do it. Someone is going to find out that I didn’t put in enough work or that I am not good at whatever it is that I did. I often feel like I didn’t deserve the accomplishment.
What have you done to address impostor syndrome and its symptoms?
Anonymous: I think finding self-worth is the best way to address it. To stop worrying about other people and focus on yourself because I think a lot of my symptoms come from thinking about how other people are doing. I try to change my mindset to: “You improved, you’re doing better.” It shouldn’t be about how you compare to others, but rather how you do in comparison to your past self. Another way I combat the symptoms are to take on challenges because if you succeed at things you don’t think you will succeed at, then maybe you aren’t an impostor — maybe you were meant to do it.
Herb: I am seeing a counselor on campus and we do talk about how impostor syndrome manifests and holds me back from doing certain things because I am so afraid that I am going to mess up and somebody is going to figure out that everything else that I have done ever is all just fake and that I am not worth it. There are a lot of times that I can name where I have purposefully held myself back because of that fear of being found out.
If you could tell someone experiencing this anything, what would you say?
Anonymous: This sounds really cheesy, but you are not alone. Especially anyone who has big plans for their future, you’re never going to feel prepared for it, but the fact that you’re somebody to look out for and the fact that you want to be successful, you’re working towards something and you ARE improving. Eventually you will not feel like an impostor because you will have succeeded.
Herb: First, you are not the only person feeling this and that is not a bad thing. For the longest time I thought that I was the only one who was feeling this way, but I’m not and neither are you. Also, I read somewhere that there is a straight white man doing exactly what you are afraid to do and if they feel entitled to do it then so should you. A lot of it is recognizing that that one mistake isn’t going to unravel your entire life — it is just one small mistake.