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What is Imposter Syndrome and How Do You Conquer It

What is it?


My whole academic and professional life I’ve felt like I was never doing enough. After every accomplishment I made, I felt like there was another one to accomplish. I never felt like celebrating my victories, no matter big or small, due to something called Imposter Syndrome. The term was created in 1978 by two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, but it has definitely been around longer, as high achievers have always existed. 


Imposter Syndrome is defined by psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD. as a “feeling that everyone else knows exactly what they’re doing, but you feel lost,” even when you are successful. Whether it’s a promotion, new job, or raise, you feel like it wasn’t deserved.  


If you think it sounds familiar and that it applies to you, you’re not alone. Imposter Syndrome disproportionately affects women and minority groups, but it can happen to anyone. In fact, 70% of adults will experience it at some point in their life.


In the past, I’ve always felt like someone else deserved the promotion or job because I haven’t done enough. The positions of power that I have been able to acquire, I didn’t believe I deserved them. So if you can relate and find solidarity in this experience, what do we do? Well, the first step is recognizing whether or not you have Imposter Syndrome. 


How to recognize it?


Imposter syndrome can be difficult to diagnose because there are multiple ways it can manifest itself. Some of the most common ways imposter syndrome manifests itself include: feeling like a fraud, devaluing your self-worth, and undermining your experience or expertise. 


Even when you’ve made it, whether you got the job or the recognition, you can’t shake the feeling that you have tricked everyone into giving it to you, making you feel like a fraud. My roommate shared her experience with imposter syndrome as an “out-of-body experience” she often experiences at home. Sitting at her desk doing her homework, she will often ask herself the question “What am I doing here?” even though she very much deserves to be at Florida State University, because she got in. 


You might also be too willing to offer your time to others. This could include accomplishing a certain task at work for free, or when people are willing to pay you for your time you decline, not thinking your time is worth the money. In the past, working on group projects I have let other people in my group take credit for my work because I didn’t think it was that good, to begin with.


Undermining your experience or expertise might also be something you experience. This could be anything from doubts about a job you were just hired for or lying about your qualifications once you get a job. My friend recently just got an internship with a Florida House Representative, and she remembered driving in for the interview feeling uncertain. She arrived at the Florida Capitol, parked, saw the people while going through security, and thought “How did I get here, I am not supposed to be here.”


I know a lot of these examples have been in the workplace, but you can experience imposter syndrome anywhere. Any parent has probably felt clueless at some point in raising their child. They may feel unqualified at times, unprepared for the responsibility of raising a child. Without properly dealing with these emotions and feelings, they may be unable to make decisions for their child, immobile, and afraid they are going to make a decision that will mess up their child’s life. 


It is also possible to experience imposter syndrome in romantic relationships. People may feel unworthy of the love and affection they receive from their significant other. They may also have a crippling fear their partner will discover they’re not actually that great or worth loving at all. This feeling is the reason a lot of people self-sabotage in relationships leading them to end it before the other person can. 


How to beat it?


The American Psychological Association presents seven ways to tackle imposter syndrome and get rid of it for good. 


The first is to “Learn the Facts.” Learn what cognitive distortions are contributing to feeling like an imposter. Ask a professional and maybe start a conversation with your peers. Jessica Vanderlan, Ph.D., a clinical instructor of psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and a psychologist at Siteman Cancer Center, leads small groups of medical residents in discussions about the impostor phenomenon. These seminars were established to help prevent burnout among new physicians. One of the most beneficial questions she asks is “What facts support that you deserve to be in your role?”


The second is to “Share your feelings.” If you don’t trust your own facts, maybe you will listen to friends and family. APA suggests sharing your imposter feelings with others to reduce loneliness and open a door for others to share what they see in you. It is recommended not to do this within the workplace as this may worsen the imposter feelings. For people that identify with underrepresented identities, it can be helpful to connect in empowering spaces and communities, which can provide validation and empathy for navigating the impostor phenomenon in oppressive systems.


The third is to “Celebrate your Successes.” People who suffer from imposter syndrome tend to not celebrate their successes and move on quickly when people congratulate them. Pay attention to how you respond when someone congratulates you, and focus on speaking more positively about yourself. Take time to applaud yourself for whatever you happen to accomplish, no matter how small you may think it is. 


The fourth is to “Let go of perfectionism.” The APA says to focus more on progress rather than perfectionism. They also encourage you to reframe the way you view your failures into opportunities to learn. I know this is easier said than done. This is the one that I struggle with the most. 


The fifth is to “Cultivate self-compassion.” Audrey Ervin, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, frequently sees the impostor phenomenon in her patients, and encourages using mindfulness. Ervin says using mindfulness can help you shift from an external locus of self-worth to an internal one, which can help you let go of perfectionism. Ervin says “It’s about learning to recognize those feelings of fear and learning to truly be OK as you are, without your accomplishments.”


The sixth is to “Share your failures.” Discussing your failures with others can help you paint a more realistic picture of what people are dealing with. Even people who you think are perfect and at the top of your class can fail, and they probably did to get to where they are now. Ask them how they came back from these failures and what they learned from them.

The seventh and final way to tackle imposter syndrome is to “Accept it.” As you work through these steps, imposter syndrome will probably take less of a toll on your well-being. This doesn’t mean it will never come back. It is normal for these feelings to come up during any major career change. But it's important to remember you are not alone. Even the former first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, has spoken and written about imposter syndrome. When she was younger, she used to lie awake at night asking herself: Am I too loud? Too much? Dreaming too big? “Eventually, I just got tired of always worrying what everyone else thought of me,” she said. “So I decided not to listen.”

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