Beating Impostor Syndrome

Guest post by Katy
For this With Those with Imposter Syndrome
“For those With Those with Imposter Syndrome” by: Alan LevineCC BY 2.0

Two simple words — “Impostor Syndrome” — might recently have saved my career.

One of the fantastic commenters of Offbeat Bride recently referenced “Impostor Syndrome” in a comment that Ariel then picked up on. I felt the need to share. This is a concept that has recently become a big part of life — because of these two little words, I feel I’ve come to understand how I was relating to my work a million times better, and this understanding has genuinely changed my behaviour.

Because I’m writing this (more or less) anonymously, I’m going to be vague on the details. I’m a PhD student in my final year. This means that in the second half of 2012, I was starting to apply for academic jobs. My friends and family believed in me, my supervisor was extremely supportive, my referees were encouraging, and everything in my past academic record suggested that I had every chance of getting a job in this (admittedly crazy-competitive) field. And yet, I felt crippled by doubts.

In fact, they weren’t even doubts to me. I knew I wasn’t good enough at X, Y, and Z to get a job. I knew I was less knowledgeable than I should be in key areas. Everything I wrote was flawed. Everyone who read it would blacklist me forever. Even when I started getting shortlisted for a few jobs, it just made the feelings worse. Even if I got a short-term research job, I reasoned, I would never get a permanent lectureship, because I wasn’t good enough — so it was immoral for me to take a job that should go to someone who had a long-term shot at an academic career. I started to see neutral, off-hand comments from colleagues as veiled insults, and came home in tears. At one point, I genuinely considered withdrawing all my applications.

Then one day, desperately Googling things like “academic failure” and other depressing phrases, I found a post referring to “Impostor Syndrome.” I don’t even remember now which one it was, I’ve read so many since. The definition as given on Wikipedia is:

…a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

My first thought, I kid you not, was, “Well, some people might have Impostor Syndrome. But my success has genuinely been down to luck and deception.” This thought really woke me up. How could my reactions to things be so totally skewed?! Not only did I react to success by thinking, “Wow, I tricked them again, but they’ll find out I’m rubbish soon…” I was also reacting to INFORMATION ABOUT PEOPLE WHO HAVE THAT REACTION TO SUCCESS by thinking, “But I genuinely am a fraud.” What the hell?

Changing my behaviour

I needed to sort my brain out. It had been an intense few months, but it was time to take stock. I asked my supervisor for a progress review, and he suggested writing down everything I had achieved in 2012. I’ll be honest, there was lots — it had been a busy year. As I made my list, I concentrated very hard on the dismissive comments that came to mind, trying to convince me that achievement X didn’t count because it was a fluke, or someone else had really been responsible for event Y. I truly listened to how crazy those dismissive comments were. And I pushed myself to give a long, long list of accomplishments to my supervisor, with lots of detail on what I was most proud of. And for the first time in a while, I really did feel proud of myself.

I still slip back into the old habits from time to time, of course. And I’m still applying for jobs (or waiting to hear back from older applications), which probably means I have a lot of rejection coming up in the first few months of 2013. But to be honest, I feel fine about that. It will be tough, but now that I know I can treat myself better and take ownership of what I have achieved, I think I can avoid reaching such a low point again.

Tips for the unconvinced

I know what you might be thinking, if you are in the grips of Impostor Syndrome — that’s not me, that’s just for academics, that’s not a real thing, and so on. Okay, so it’s kind of pop psychology, but I really recommend reading about other people’s experiences if this might at all apply to you. It’s not just for academics, though a lot of the best posts I’ve found relate to academia, because that’s just me. Do some googling.

My favourite blog posts and articles on this issue are:

Are there areas in your life do you feel like an impostor? How could you, or perhaps DID you, overcome the sensation?

Comments on Beating Impostor Syndrome

  1. This feels very familiar to me in my work life. Despite five years of stellar employee reviews, I still feel like I’m not qualified to do my job. I feel like if someone sat down and had a really long and in-depth talk with me they would finally see that I just get by on my memorization abilities and upbeat personality, certainly not my intelligence or critical thinking skills. I still feel like the only reason I’ve ever been promoted is because the other people I work with are just lazier and/or crazier than me. While I don’t know how to get past these feelings, I’ve come to think that even if I’m an imposter, the rest of the people I work with are either imposters as well or just super lazy so I will probably be OK.

  2. Imposter Syndrome is really hard to kill, even when you have a name for it and recognize you’re doing it. I spend half my day at work worrying that eventually, someone will clue in that I really don’t do much, or that I mostly just getting other people to tell me the answers first or something on those lines.

    So far, my solution has been to go on being said imposter until someone finds me out and fires me. And to try to remind myself that I’m probably not really a fraud. Probably.

  3. You know what I thought when I read this? Well, she might have impostor syndrome (note that I’ve been familiar with imposter syndrome for maybe 4 years or so), but I’m just honestly horrible at everything!

    I just started a masters program, so it’s even greater than usual for me.

    But (particularly as I’m in a male-dominated area) what’s helped me a bit is to realize that everyone kind of overestimates their abilities and skills (it’s been shown that generally males overestimate or oversell their skills while women tend to do the opposite). I have to learn to do that too as that’s the norm. For some reason, that little fact helps a bit for me.

    • Hi Kess – I think this can be even harder for women in a male-dominated area. Hang in there!

      Have you also heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? This is a phenomenon where the most competent under-rate themselves, and the least competent over-rate themselves. So be assured, if you under-rate yourself, it’s probably because you *do* know what you’re doing!

      • It makes it even harder because I do see “imposters” at work – those who definitely overrate themselves! I know I don’t give myself enough credit, but I also don’t want to be like some of the frauds I work with.

  4. This. Oh, this.

    I was in graduate school working towards my master’s in music performance when I had a severe performance injury that left me unable to play or finish school. Let’s just say that wasn’t the greatest time for my mental health.

    Since then, I’ve recuperated enough to start subbing with my local orchestra, but I found that I would walk into the performance hall riddled with doubt, fear, and insecurity–“what am I doing here, I’m not good enough to be here, and I was never good enough to be here,” and so on. And then I happened across a post by literary agent Rachelle Gardner, who used the phrase “This is what I do” as a reminder to combat those squirming feelings of inadequacy.

    I still have those thoughts and worries, but it’s a little easier now to say to myself, “Yes, there’s that feeling again. But this is what I do, so I’m going to do it.”

  5. Hmmm…I do understand this feeling very well, but not with my work. It’s odd. I have this feeling with some social situations. If people around me are “cool” and charismatic, I feel as if I have a huge beacon above my head that alerts everyone around me that I’m actually an awkward nerd. I’m fine being a nerd, but I do feel imposter syndrome in those types of social situations. I think it’s those high school feelings resurfacing.

    My solution: hang out with fellow nerds. Yay!

  6. If you haven’t seen it, Amanda Palmer calls Imposter Syndrome “The Fraud Police” and made a speech about it

    I suffer from this MAJORLY. I’m making a total career shift, I’m still learning, and I’m still walking around sheepishly not convinced that I have any qualifications to be even trying to make a go at starting my own business. It’s good to know that there’s a lot of this out there.

  7. When I read the title and started reading this post, I had a feeling it was an academic. And I was right! This is RAMPANT in academia (most of the grad students I know experienced it). I’ve also run into it around artists and musicians who equally think that they suck, in reality, and that people are going to figure that out.

    One of the best things I’ve found for combating it is to talk to people around you and realize that a lot of you feel the same way. If you have someone who is like a mentor, it can help to know that someone you like and respect feels similarly.

    And there is the age-old advice that you just keep pretending you believe in yourself and if you do that, sometimes you find out it’s true.

    A lot of this is about internal dialogue or monologue too. What you say to and about yourself is important. It may sound hokey, but cutting down on negative comments about yourself or internally can really help. If you wouldn’t say it about your friends, why on earth would you say it about yourself? I give my husband, an artist, shit for this. Actually, I threaten him with a squirt bottle, like we do the cats.

    • YES. This. Artist and academic, I earned the stupid MFA just so I could feel like I can be a “real” artist. Bollocks.

      The thing that finally saved me from getting literally no sleep in grad school over this not-good-enough-must-make-more-art thing was a course called the Landmark Forum. Life changing, and though I still see the early warning signs of impostor syndrome sneaking around sometimes, I can recognize and laugh them off.

  8. I don’t identify myself as an academic. I have my Bachelor’s, but I didn’t pursue my Master’s because (ha) I figured I wasn’t good enough. I dropped out of my major in college because I figured I wasn’t good enough.
    I’m a writer/editor/graphic designer and I just feel like I’m faking my way along.
    Part of the problem for me is that doing some things well comes naturally and easily to me, so I’m confused when people praise me. People are like yes yes write this or do this ad for me you’re so good! and I just don’t understand what’s supposed to be so special about my work. I guess I don’t feel like I’ve worked hard enough for it?
    And another thing is that by and large, I’m self-taught on the programs I use. I don’t know how to do very many advanced things, so I feel like I can’t do ANYTHING. And I’m an editor, but my grammar is pretty loose (see also: this sentence.) I just keep waiting for someone to call me out on my incompetence. (Shh, not now. 😛 )
    I don’t manage it well at all yet, but I feel like I’m learning to hear praise and compliments on my work without writing them off. I keep telling myself “Hey! This person took the time to tell you ‘job well done.’ That’s not something someone goes out of their way to say, just to be nice. They noticed you and your work. TAKE IT.”

    • I think you hit on something really profound; if it comes easy, it must not be that special. Being good at something takes FUCKING WORK! If you didn’t have to bust your balls, it must not really be that awesome. I think we need to re-wire our brain to tell the difference between things that are easy because “anyone” could do it, and things that are easy because we have a unique and special talent.

      • “I think we need to re-wire our brain to tell the difference between things that are easy because “anyone” could do it, and things that are easy because we have a unique and special talent.”

        This. It’s not always easy to know the difference. But it’s so important to make that distinction.

        For example, we all know Dootsie has a special talent for writing and giving advice! (And she shouldn’t talk herself down so much.)

  9. I have been accused of/described as being “afraid of success” a few times… is this the same kinda thing? I always figured people thought it was a nice way of calling me lazy.

  10. I love this whole article, and I especially identify with the criticism spiral. I didn’t do this ONE THING right, so that must mean I can’t do ANYTHING right. No, that just means I didn’t do this one thing right. This one thing does not have any power to erode my other knowledge or skills.

    PS I just spent the last two hours inhaling The Professor Is In. I want to give that woman a hug.

  11. Wow. This is something I do all the time. Especially when it comes to acting. I always think that everyone’s just being nice or pretending when complimenting my acting work. I always feel like my directors aren’t giving me negative notes or telling me how awful I believe to be because they think I’m a lost cause already. The thing is, I get cast in amazing roles. I do performances and shows regularly. I just think that all of it must be due to luck or people just being nice friends and giving me opportunities.

    Now I’m in grad school and I’m doing this academically as well. I didn’t even realize that this wasn’t a normal thing at all. I am so thankful for this post. Especially that line, “My first thought, I kid you not, was, ‘Well, some people might have Imposter Syndrome. But my success has genuinely been down to luck and deception.'” I was thinking the exact same thing before reading that. This has been a very eye-opening post.

    • Thanks Sariah – I think this is incredibly tough to avoid in grad school, especially if you are prone to negative thoughts already. But I really hope the article has helped.

    • As a fellow actress, I feel you. I just started auditioning for things in October, I didn’t go to drama school (heh, I thought I wasn’t good enough), and I am not on the big “professional” sites because I can’t afford them. However, I’ve been cast in a short film, three feature films (2 speaking supporting roles, 1 lead), and a TV pilot (supporting character). I have a call back for another lead in a feature film this week. I’m not trying to brag, but the evidence would seem to suggest that I’m pretty good at this whole acting thing. However, I get absolutely gripped with anxiety some nights because I just cannot fathom that I’m really any good. I worry that directors will fire me when they see how bad I actually am. That other actors will see my fraudulence and ostracize me. I keep myself up at night with this crap.

      Acting is such a personal and vulnerable thing to do. You open yourself up in ways that you don’t in an office job. It’s also incredibly competitive, which leaves you open to all kinds of subtle passive aggression from other people. It’s very easy to internalise someone else’s petty jealousy or snobbery and make it your own little voice telling you you’re not good enough. I’m just learning how to tune it all out and focus on the performance. How to trust myself and my ability to do the job right. It’s tough going, and I’m for serious freaking out about the lead role I’m doing this summer, but my mantra has become, “you can do this, you are doing this, you will do this, you will rock it”. YMMV, but it helps to have a little mantra for me when the voices kick off.

  12. I just finished my bachelors degree after taking forever to do it. I left Biology as a major, because I walked around always feeling like everyone there was loads smarter than me. Now I’m considering it for my masters. Still think everyone is smarter than me…trying not to chicken out. Thanks for the article 😉

  13. I am two years out of college and I’ve been working in a retail job that I like a lot but that was supposed to be temporary. I’ve been trying to make a little side money with my art lately but find myself totally bogged in imposter syndrome-esque torturous thoughts. I recently read a book called Steal Like An Artist that really changed my thinking and I would recommend it to any creative person who makes a regular habit of mentally shooting themselves in the foot. It’s a really short, almost coffee table style book that’s super awesome.

  14. This totally doesnt just apply to academia or careers. I totally know people who do this in their interpersonal relationships. Despite having multiple loving, committed, and supportive relationships (both romantic and platonic) they are convinced that it is only a matter of time before those people realize that they actually aren’t interesting or lovable. They will be jealous because they are convinced that it will be easy for their partners to “find someone better” or they will push people away, convinced that they are just being preemptive in order to save themselves the pain of that person inevitably leaving them. I wonder if there are resources for Imposter Syndrom as applied to being a lovable person, or if it has another name in that context.

  15. I have impostor syndrome in two areas of my life. The first is that I’ve been studying divination and other magics since I was eight or so- about eleven years now. Since I’m “Only nineteen” however, I often discount just how much I really do know.

    The second is that I have a two year old. Even though he’s doing just fine compared to other toddlers, and I have absolutely no reason to worry, I consider myself a lesser-mother. Though, that probably has something to do with other parents discounting me as well!

  16. Thank you for writing this! I went back to school for my degree in Chemical Engineering, and the entire time I felt like my professors were passing me just because they liked me/felt bad for me. I also never felt like I deserved my job or was competent at all. Now I’m a stay-at-home mom who feels like people are lying when they tell me I’m a good mom. Thank you again

  17. So glad to see people discussing this. Imposter Syndrome certainly does run rampant (especially with women?), and I fall prey to it all the time. I’m halfway through my PhD in Bio, and I have an incredible mentor and a generous merit-based scholarship, as well as a job lined up after my degree. Yet I am CONSTANTLY worrying that my advisor will “find out” that really I’m completely incompetent and stupid, even though I have been very honest with her about what I consider to be my academic “failings”. Constantly thinking that I am not the best suited person to my job and my research, and if only I was better at X, Y, or Z that I would be more qualified (especially when there’s a person nearby that you think really does “have it all”!).

    Hopefully we can all come together as a community and tell each other that we are awesome and deserve our success!

    • I don’t know if it really is a gendered thing. Instinctively, I think it might be, but is that just because women admit to having these feelings more often? I’m not sure.

      But academia is a killer, especially when most of your role models are male, as in my case. As fantastic as my supervisor and other teachers have been, I don’t think they always appreciate how tough it can be.

      But congratulations on all your success so far! With a scholarship and a job already, it sounds like you are a fantastic researcher, and I hope you can internalise that more.

  18. I had this feeling all my life. I always feel like successes are just flukes. That I am really incompetant. After graduating I was terrified that my only skills were in writing essays and I had nothing to offer beyond it.

    Then I got a job that reinforced that. I had a boss who would tell me every day that I was useless, couldn’t show initiative, wasn’t good at writing, wasn’t organised etc. She would call me up to complain at me that the train she was on was too crowded or one of her papers was in the wrong place. I ended up being severely depressed and very ill as she confirmed everything I had thought about myself. I was absolutely rock bottom, crying every day when I woke up through fear of going to work. I quit the job.

    I now have a job where I have lots of targets which trigger this ‘god I will fail them all’. Except I keep meeting them. And my new boss is a reasonable person and I work for a charity. Even now though I feel like it is only this job I am good at and I had better stay here forever because other bosses would hate me again. I keep having nightmares where my old boss shows up to take over the charity I now work for and love…

    • Mariel, I’m so sorry you had to go through that. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to have your worst fears “confirmed” by a terrible boss like that.

      I really hope you can take some confidence from your new job, and start to build up some belief in your skills and how valuable you are. Good luck!

  19. Thank you everyone for the responses to the article, I’m really glad if it has helped you at all. On the one hand, it makes me really sad to hear that such great, successful women (and men) have these doubts about themselves. But on the other hand, I love that we can come together as a community and support each other!

  20. Ok, wow. I totally get this. I have been feeling like this for a long time, probably ever since school, and only now, as my depression is finally starting to get better and I have an amazing counsellor, am I starting to not feel like this all the time. It also helps that for the last year I have been working with the most amazing boss who tells me that I am geniunely doing well.

  21. Thank you for writing this. I’m in my final year of coursework for my PhD and I feel like this all the time – I’ve been talking myself out of exam supervisors because I feel like I would be “wasting their time when they could be working on someone’s committee who is better qualified” than me – which is ridiculous. Academia isn’t a very validating community (at least, not that I’ve seen), so I really liked how you pointed out ways to recognize your own achievements – without external validation. Great post.

  22. Thanks for a wonderful reflection! I am really quite convinced that imposter syndrome in the academy is a vicious cycle – many react to their own imposter syndrome by treating others poorly! I’ve been a professor for six years, and I just began to come to terms with this recently. For me, I had to decouple my identity from my job – essentially, to convince myself that my self-worth is not dependent on my academic performance, and my work performance cannot be assessed based on the way I’m treated by my colleagues. This was a revolutionary change for me.

    Please continue to maintain your self-worth as you move on!!!

    I recently had a conversation with my wonderful, brilliant, and much-accomplished advisor. She didn’t get over imposter syndrome until retirement. Isn’t that sad?

  23. I can relate a lot to this. I am SLOWLY learning to counteract negative thoughts with positive ones, to keep track of and celebrate even small successes, and to remind myself that even the most accomplished and successful people in the world are still human. They still make mistakes, and feel insecure sometimes. It’s an ongoing process that requires me to actively change my internal dialogue.

  24. I had a really good lecture in medical school from a doctor who does a lot of ‘how to pass exams’ type lectures, which started off with him saying “I have been doing this job for thirty years and I am still afraid that one day I will get found out”. What he was saying was basically that all doctors feel they don’t know enough, aren’t good enough, and worry that one day someone might find out and suddenly realise that they’re a fraud. It made me feel much better, although I do still worry about being Found Out.

    • YES! This is huge in medicine too. I do my job and people thank me and say how wonderful it was, and in my head I’m like “eh, it was easy.” I have to remember that the only reason it was easy is because I’ve spent years and years and years studying it and practicing it. Now that I’m an attending I get nervous being on call because I’m it and there’s no one else to ask for help. But it’s always been fine, because I really do know what I’m doing. And when I teach residents, I get nervous when they say something I don’t know or know well. I have to remember that there’s no way someone can know all of any field and there’s still lots and lots I can, and do, teach them.

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