Overcoming the Imposter Syndrome

Much of the material in this post comes from Valerie Young’s The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women. While written primarily for women, the book is a fantastic read for anyone struggling with imposter syndrome. You can learn more about the book here.

Have you ever had the nagging feeling that you’re just faking your way through life and it’s only a matter of time until the rest of the world “figures you out?” I’ll let you in on a secret: most successful people feel this way at some point in their lives. Called the “imposter syndrome,” this feeling can be crippling and debilitating but also overcome-able. I hope this post will help anyone struggling with imposter syndrome realize that you’re not alone and provide some tips and things you can do to deal with (and eventually overcome!) feeling like a fraud.

Figure 1. (Un)fortunately, feeling like an imposter is a very common experience. (Credit: errantscience.com)

Manifestations of Imposter Syndrome

The most obvious effect of imposter syndrome is that feeling in the pit of your stomach that you’re going to “get found out.” But it can also make an appearance as the following coping behaviors[1]:

  • Overpreparing and hard work — if you work hard enough and prepare enough (to the point of being obsessive), the higher-ups will note that and not your shortcomings.
  • Holding back — you can’t fail if you don’t try, right?
  • Maintaining a low or ever-changing profile — if you stay under the radar or move on from a job or project relatively quickly, then no one has a chance to realize you’re faking it, right?
  • Use of charm to win approval — if people like your wit and charm, then they’ll overlook those areas where you feel like an imposter, such as your intellect.
  • Procrastination — you might say you work well under pressure. But you’re really giving yourself an out when the end product isn’t as good as it could have been. Even worse, if you do succeed after procrastinating, you’ll tell yourself that you just fooled them again!
  • Never finishing — by not finishing that project, you avoid being revealed as a fraud and you also avoid the shame of being criticized.
  • Self-sabotage — if you show up late or drink too much, then you can blame your performance on that, right?

Do any of these resonate with you? You might not have realized that these behaviors can actually be coping mechanisms for imposter syndrome! To start changing these behaviors, realize that they don’t do anything to address your imposter feelings and instead serve only to shield you from any potential shame or humiliation. Ask yourself: what do these behaviors help you avoid, what do they protect you from, and what do they gain you? Now ask yourself what would happen if you never changed those behaviors. What opportunities would you miss? What possibilities would be forever closed to you? What is the ultimate price you pay? For example, as a chronic procrastinator, procrastination allows me to spend more time on things I enjoy. But ultimately it causes me unnecessary stress, regret that I didn’t put forward the effort I know I could have, and likely missed opportunities to learn more about my field that would undoubtedly have helped advance my career. The costs certainly outweigh the gains for me, and it’s changed the way I approach deadlines.

Fortunately, there are small actions you can take to begin countering your coping mechanism(s). If you rely on charm, enjoy your next accomplishment instead of seeking validation. If you sabotage yourself, start paying attention to what you’re doing and why. Choose a small goal to accomplish this week if you typically hold back or don’t finish your projects. Share your accomplishments with someone. Ask for feedback from someone you trust. Accept your next compliment graciously. Join a study group to help you stay on track with your deadlines. Spend a few minutes every day visualizing yourself being confident in a situation where you typically wouldn’t feel confident at all. If you’re a procrastinator like me, get your calendar out and set a deadline for that thing you’ve been putting off. Literally schedule in a block of time to work on it, and stop thinking you can’t work on it unless you have a whole day to do it. You’ll be amazed at how much more you can accomplish by taking advantage of those random 15-20 minute blocks of time!

The hardest part by far is getting started. So resolve to take one of these small actions this week. And then the same for next week. Once you get started and start feeling good, you’ll probably keep going.

Figure 2. Everyone knows something you don’t know. But it’s important to remember that you know something they don’t as well. (Credit: @aliciatweets)

Mindsets That Can Lead to Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome also has a lot to do with how competence is defined in the mind of the person struggling with feelings of fraud. There are a few distinct categories[2]:

  • The Perfectionist — competence=perfection. That is, anything short of perfection means incompetence. When this view pervades every aspect of your professional life, it’s easy to see how that breeds imposter feelings.
  • The Natural Genius — competence=inherently intelligent. That is, the natural genius believes they’re not competent at something unless it comes naturally to them. They might not even realize that there’s a step between “beginner” and “expert!”
  • The Expert — competence=knowing everything there is to know. But since it’s not possible to know everything, it’s easy to see how imposter feelings can creep in for the expert.
  • The Rugged Individualist — competence=doing everything yourself. Working together is ingrained into our society, so thinking you need to do everything yourself in order to be truly competent is a recipe for imposter feelings.
  • The Superman/Woman/Person/Student –competence=doing all the things and doing them well. Valerie likens this category to being the perfectionist, the natural genius, and the rugged individualist on steroids. With this mindset, how could one not struggle with imposter feelings?

Now, this is not to say that anyone who identifies with these descriptions feels like a fraud, but these personality types tend to exacerbate imposter syndrome due to each type’s definition of “competence,” which, let’s be real, aren’t actually that realistic. It’s clear that some redefinitions are in order:

  • The Perfectionist — sometimes “good enough” really is good enough. Not everything deserves 100% of your effort and time.
  • The Natural Genius — real success takes time. Challenges are opportunities to learn and grow, so embrace them!
  • The Expert — there is no end to knowledge. You can’t possibly know everything! You don’t need to know everything, all you need is to know someone who knows what you don’t.
  • The Rugged Individualist — identify the resources you need to do your work. Yes, this sometimes will include other humans! Smart and competent people know how to ask for what they need and find people who know more than them. It is okay to build upon the work of others.
  • The Superperson — it is okay to say no. In fact, you need to sometimes! Imagine the message you might be sending to your (future) children by implying you need to be involved in everything to be successful. By removing unnecessary tasks, you have more time for things that matter.

You might identify with one or more of these types. For example, I see myself as the natural genius, the rugged individualist, and lately the superperson (yikes, right?). The first step toward changing your mindset is recognizing which types describe you. Then start taking action! Realize that while the extremes exist, we usually fall somewhere in the middle. Be content with being wonderfully average! No one is perfect, no one knows everything, no one can possibly do everything by themselves. If you’re a perfectionist, feel free to have high standards, but don’t be ashamed when you fall short. If you’re a natural genius, by all means strive for mastery, but realize that it takes time and effort to get there. If you identify with the expert, realize that knowledge doesn’t end but that you can still value knowledge. As a rugged individualist, be proud of the fact that you can do things yourself, but realize that you don’t have to. If you’re a superperson, recognize that you don’t have to do it all but you can still strive to do your best at multiple things.

I would like to end by saying that I have by no means figured this all out. I still struggle with feeling like a fraud more often than I’d like to admit sometimes, and feelings of fraud rarely disappear entirely for anyone. But the biggest step toward managing those feelings is acknowledging them and facing them head-on. Pick one thing to work on this week to address your coping mechanisms and start to internalize the redefinitions of competence for your personality type. I hope you feel a bit more educated and prepared to tackle your imposter syndrome after reading this post. Onward, fabulous human!

[1] Chapter 4 from The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women
[2] Chapter 6 from The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women

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Additional Tips and Resources

Of course, I can’t possibly cover in this 1000-word blog post what Valerie discusses in a 300-page book, so I encourage anyone interested to check the book out.

You may find these blog posts interesting or useful: one, two, three, four. A Google search will turn up many, many more.

Finally, imposter syndrome unfortunately is an all-too-common fact of life for most graduate students and many undergraduates. The good news is that you’re not alone, by a long shot. Even celebrities like Meryl Streep and famous authors like Maya Angelou struggled with feeling like a fraud. Find friends, classmates, or even an advisor that you can talk about these things with — this may have been the single most effective thing that helped me begin to deal with my imposter syndrome!

 

About Stephanie Hamilton

Stephanie is a physics graduate student and NSF graduate fellow at the University of Michigan. For her research, she studies the orbits of the small bodies beyond Neptune in order learn more about the Solar System's formation and evolution. As an additional perk, she gets to discover many more of these small bodies using a fancy new camera developed by the Dark Energy Survey Collaboration. When she gets a spare minute in the midst of hectic grad school life, she likes to read sci-fi books, binge TV shows, write about her travels or new science results, or force her cat to cuddle with her.

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