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Coping With Imposter Syndrome

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September 12, 2016

7:17 PM

“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’ ”

– Maya Angelou

“I’m sorry, but of course my answer is wrong…”

– A woman in one of my science classes (after delivering the right answer)

At the beginning of my senior year I find myself thrust into a lot of leadership positions. The two most pertinent ones are my thesis and new science-y job. I am honored to be involved in both of them, but these new responsibilities have rendered a fresh case of impostor syndrome in me, a condition that is shared by so many people at the top of their game.

What is impostor syndrome?

“Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting 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.”

– (Thanks) Wikipedia

I think the nature of science predisposes its practitioners to impostor syndrome especially, what with its emphasis on disproof, competition, hierarchy, critique, and thorough analysis. These things are credited with facilitating the legitimacy of scientific discovery (and they are certainly present in all academic fields) but their contribution to impostor syndrome does make them suck a little bit.

I think the nature of science predisposes its practitioners to impostor syndrome.

I am a senior; I can cognitively grasp how I should be proud of my accomplishments (three cheers for completing 120 credits!), but I can’t help but feel despair knowing that I could have done more with my time here, that I don’t deserve the right to lead people, or a project, or advise others on their scientific work and/or college experience.

This is a flawed thought process, but it is all too common on our high-achieving campus. I’m dedicating this post to all the brilliant individuals who exist in high places with unfounded self-paranoia. I decided to write about the practices that help me re-frame my perspective on my work.

If you experience feelings of inadequacy while working on a goal or leadership position:

Make a list of what you have done so far: the extent of all of your contributions becomes a bit easier to appreciate when you can visually behold them.

Remember that you aren’t lucky: it has to be nearly statistically impossible that every event that led you to your place of prominence was the result of random chance. You did something right along the way, and that action alone is enough to earn you the position you occupy.

Think about how you can uniquely contribute: this practice is critical when tempted to compare yourself to those around you. You can’t possibly be the master of all knowledge and skill pertaining to every component of your goal. If an individual is more skilled in one of these aspects it doesn’t mean that you are imminently disqualified from your leadership position. It means that you have a nearby resource. Further, it shifts the balance of priority from straightforward technical skill to your own, one-in-a-million strengths. Thinking along these lines is especially important in a project with a heavy creative component, like a thesis.

Do something unrelated but rewarding: if you are having a hard time coming up with a list of your personal strengths, this usually helps. It’s also healthy to get away from your project sometimes to view it as a complementary, not central, piece of your life.

Spend time with people you like: preferably ones that don’t care too much about your project or leadership position. All the better for constructing a more realistic perspective on your work.

Remember that you don’t have to represent anyone but yourself: this is a big one for me, and I think a lot of people who are unique in their field. There is a self-imposed pressure to represent everyone that resembles you that is absent from your area of study. For example: I don’t want to be caught “womaning” in my leadership position. This is a gross way of thinking, built upon my own stereotypes, and it is an illogically large-scale stereotype that I am imposing on all other women. I don’t presume to understand the “best” way for all women to lead, and no one should place such a broad expectation back on themselves. There exists a way for me, and you, to lead in our own respective ways, and that is all we have to worry about figuring out and representing.

Talk to your advisor: sometimes changing your perspective or thought processes isn’t enough to make you feel better about your work. If there is a system or dynamic in your work environment that is making you feel inadequate, you may have to talk to a higher-up, or the source of conflict themself (if possible), to see if anything can be done to make your environment less toxic.

Talk to a counselor: Always a good idea.

Watch Steven Universe: If all else fails.

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  • Carly Martin

  • No doubt just naming these feelings will have a huge impact on a lot of students who suddenly realize a) it has a name and b) they’re not the only one.

    I’m guessing a lot of faculty will identify as well. In fact, the only study I’m aware of where a higher percentage of men then women experienced impostor feelings was one conducted with college professors which would appear to speak directly to the role academic culture plays in fueling self-doubt.

    People who don’t feel like impostors are no more intelligent or capable or talented than those who do. The only difference between them and us is they think different thoughts. Period.

    Which is why I’d add to your helpful list of solutions that: If you want to stop feeling like an impostor, you have to stop thinking like one.

    Valerie Young
    ImpostorSyndrome.com