Fighting Feeling Like a Fake|The Impostor Syndrome

Fraud. Fake. Phony.

Despite being one of only a few people admitted to grad school in a highly competitive process. Despite many academic and professional successes. Despite exceeding the expectations of grad school.

Charlatan. Sham. Incompetent.

A surprising number of graduate students, particularly women, feel like they are undeserving of the successes they have had. They fear being discovered as the impostors that they believe that they are. (Wrongly.)

Loser. Idiot. Deceiver.

There is a name for these feelings: The Impostor Phenomenon or Impostor Syndrome. This particularly affects high achieving women. The good news is that there are steps you can take to reduce these feelings. You can feel as accomplished as you really are.

Feelings are the last to change. Start by changing your thoughts and behaviors.

There are three steps to fighting Impostor Syndrome.

Step 1: Recognize That It Exists

Many obviously successful people confess to feeling like a fraud on the verge of being found out. Even Dr. Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College, talks being a life-long sufferer of imposteritis. What a relief to learn that these feelings are not unique.

The Impostor Phenomenon was first identified in 1978, by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. The original paper was based on their clinical work with over 150 high achievingV Young book women, including graduate students and faculty members. The paper describes how accomplished women cannot internalize their success or convince themselves they deserve it.

The counseling center at California Institute of Technology defines Imposter Syndrome as: “feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence. It is basically feeling that you are not really a successful, competent, and smart student, that you are only posing as such.”

In the last 35 years, many researchers have explored these concepts. Numerous articles describing how to combat Impostor Syndrome have been written for those in business, science, and for graduate students and early career scientists. The culture of academia may breed feelings of impostorism.

My favorite book is “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women. Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It” by Valerie Young (2011). Dr. Young speaks around the country, often to crowds of grad students and postdocs. This post draws on her book and lecture.

Do I Have Impostor Syndrome?

Here is a short diagnostic quiz to assess how acute these feelings are for you, developed by Dr. Clance herself. This is a self-assessment, and can help you to pinpoint the beliefs that plague you.

As you saw in the quiz, there are many ways that successful people explain away their success. There are many versions of “My success is not the result of my knowledge, skills, and hard work.”

  • I got lucky.
  • I was in the right place at the right time.
  • Anybody can do that.
  • Someone made a mistake.
  • They are being nice, or taking pity on me.

Step 2: Own Your Successes

It is not easy to start owning your success. That is the goal of Dr. Young’s book. She says: “You’re already successful. You just don’t own it. That is what this book is about—helping people just like you who have already achieved some measure of academic or professional success to feel successful.” (p. 1)

List What You Have Done

Creating a list of your achievements is an important tool for combatting fraud feelings. Make your list and omit the explanations why you shouldn’t get credit for those things. Just document the cold hard facts. You got into your grad program. You’ve gotten good grades. Mastering difficult material. Winning Fellowships. Conference presentations. Well-received posters. Good teaching evaluations. You get the idea.

But. But. But. Other factors played a role, like luck, timing, or connections. In a second column note what else contributed to your accomplishments (not necessarily for all of them!). In a third column, write down what you did to capitalize on those contributions. Be honest about how you interacted with the good fortune that came your way.

This list is concrete evidence that you are successful. You can refer to it when negative feelings well up. “Maybe I am not such a loser. Look at what I have done.”

Practice Accepting PraiseSomeecard

Stop giving away your success. What do you say when someone applauds your achievement or thanks you for your hard work? Do you try to minimize the praise? “Gosh no, the credit belongs to everyone.”

Instead, say: “Thank you.” That’s it. Nothing more. No deflection, no explanation. It takes practice.

Handling Failure

You also need to change what you tell yourself when things go wrong.

Valerie Young lists five things that people often say to themselves when confronted with mistakes, criticism, or failure (p. 138). How many of these are familiar?

  • When things go wrong, I blame myself
  • When I make a mistake, I have a hard time forgiving myself.
  • I often walk away from conversations obsessing over what I said, or failed to say.
  • I remember every dumb thing I ever said or did.
  • I take constructive criticism personally; it is proof of my ineptness.

Take criticism seriously, but not personally. It is feedback that can help you improve. Failure is a chance to learn.

Remember that being competent includes the right to make mistakes, to ask questions, and to not know all of the answers.

Step 3: Act More Confident Than You Feel

Bear with MaskCounterintuitively, an important strategy for combating the impostor phenomenon is to “fake it ‘til you make it.” Act like the confident successful person you want to be. It is like putting on a costume and acting. What do the confident people you admire do?

  • Own your successes—without bragging. (Instead of offering explanations for why you shouldn’t get any credit.)
  • When you feel underprepared, improvise and trust your instincts. (Rather than apologizing for not knowing everything. Or retreating from the conversation.)
  • Say “Thank You” when paid a compliment. (Instead of deflecting.)
  • Say “I don’t know” and feel that is ok not to know everything. (Remember that we are all always learning. James Hayton calls this embracing a “beginner mindset.”)

Of course I am not advocating becoming an egotistical jerk. You are heading for the sweet spot where you generously share credit, but also publicly acknowledge your successes.

A crucial distinction between impostor feelings and faking it is that you are in control. Impostor feelings come upon you without permission. When you are “faking,” it is a deliberate choice. You are rehearsing the behaviors and waiting for the feelings to catch up. This is a bridge until you finally feel as accomplished as you actually are.

You can enlist friends to help you, too. Staying silent about impostor feelings is another way of perpetuating Pluralistic Ignorance.

Ultimately, the feelings will probably not go away forever. Instead, they can become familiar friends. When they pop up, acknowledge them, and then get to work.


Published March 1, 2016.

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