Do you ever get the feeling that no matter what you do and no matter what you accomplish in life that you are not worthy of being where you are? It is just a matter of time before someone finds out that you are a complete fraud even though you have done nothing to prove that is the case. This feeling is very common with many today and is known as Imposter Phenomena or, more casually, as Imposter Syndrome. At the height of its most crippling powers, this unwarranted feeling that you are never good enough no matter what can wreak havoc on someone’s professional or academic ambitions. Are you worthy of your accomplishments or are you simply an imposter?
Understanding Imposter Syndrome
“It basically describes people for whom there is ample evidence for competence, abilities, accomplishments, but they have a difficult time internalizing or owning those,” explains Dr. Valerie Young, an internationally-known expert on the Impostor Syndrome and author of award-winning book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. “In other words, they can see the degree on the wall, they can hear the positive feedback or the reviews, they look at their paycheck and see that they got a big promotion, but there’s this little voice inside of them says ‘sure, I’m successful. But, I can explain all of that.’ So, they chalk their accomplishments up to things like luck, timing, ‘right-place-right-time’, ‘somebody helped me’, connections, or this kind of sense that ‘they just like me.’”
Dr. Young believes that there are many reasons why people may develop debilitating cases of Imposter Syndrome. But, like many character flaws, it can be easily traced back to someone’s upbringing. “Family messages and expectations, and also from teachers, do play a role. It could be this kind of hyper sense of humility that could be parental or cultural. But also, you might have come from a family where you come home with all A’s and one B and your family’s only response was ‘what’s that B doing there?’. So the message you got early on, is the only thing that is acceptable is perfection. For kids, praise is like oxygen.”
While the fear of not being accepted or being caught by authority figures like parents and teachers can drive this fear deeper into an individual’s fabric, Dr. Young stresses that it is not the smoking gun for 100 % of all cases of Imposter Syndrome. The human brain is a complex thing and this irrational fear could have been built up by a mixture of professional, academic, social, and formative experiences in someone’s life.
But, who tends to feel it the most? While Dr. Young believes that no specific demographic is really spared from Imposter Syndrome, it’s worth recognizing that even successful people feel it sting on the regular. “Universally, graduate students and especially doctoral students feel like imposters,” she explains. “Somebody said to me at Michigan State ‘This is crazy. I have a PhD. I shouldn’t feel like an imposter.’ And I said ‘No, you feel like an imposter because you have a PhD!’ You’re surrounded by, in some cases, Nobel laureates at your university.”
Dr Young advises that the only way to get over this irrational fear is to normalize imposter feelings. This is definitely an important thing to do if you are the first of a certain sex, race or marginalized group to do the job or to pursue a certain degree. Basically, if you feel as though in your head that the burden of representing a specific group is all on your shoulders. But to sum it all up, she has this one piece of helpful advice.
“People who don’t feel like imposters are no more intelligent, capable, competent than the rest of us,” she says. “The only difference between them and us is that in the exact same situation where we feel like imposters, they are thinking different thoughts. Which is incredibly good news because it means we just have to learn how to think like we’re not imposters. The difference would be that the imposter shows up at Havard to get their MBA and they go ‘Oh my god, Everyone here is brilliant’. The non-imposter does the exact same thing and says ‘Oh wow. Everyone here is brilliant! This is great. I’m going to learn so much!”
Check out Dr. Valerie Young’s TED Talk on Imposter Syndrome below: