A clinical psychologist explains: Imposter Syndrome in academia

“I have this feeling that I am an ADHD hooligan and then when I am in the hospital talking to the doctors about my research, I think that ‘now they will notice that I am just some heckler’. I think that to be really believable, I should be a grey mumbling bore, otherwise I am completely unprofessional. At the bottom there is this feeling that I cannot do anything, anyone could do this better and explain these things better. Then when someone says something good to me, there is instantly this glass wall in front of me, preventing me from feeling the feedback. Basically, I think that if someone gives me positive feedback they do so out of pity.”

– Female psychologist, PhD student, 19 years of clinical experience.

This experience, described by a friend who agreed to be quoted here, is shared by many. At the same time, we tend to believe that nobody else is having these kinds of thoughts and experiences, digging ourselves deeper into the loneliness of imposterism.

Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that you are not good at your role, that you are an imposter and have only achieved your status and role via default when other colleagues are much more experienced and knowledgeable than you.

Not a real syndrome

Much to the dismay of clinical psychologists like myself, we live in times of self-imposed Google diagnoses, where every problem needs to be called a “syndrome” in order to be taken seriously. In case someone still needs to hear this: Imposter Syndrome is not a real medical syndrome nor a diagnosis.

It is a term introduced in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes after they noticed that many of their clients were high-achieving women who were tormented by the thought that they were not really successful and have only fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Later on, research showed that this feeling of not having really deserved one’s success and the accompanying fear of people finding out about one’s ‘incompetence’ is not limited to women, nor to academics, but is known to people of all kinds of professions.

Rather an experience or a phenomenon

Talking about a syndrome often causes people to discuss whether they ‘have’ it or not, as if we are talking about a viral infection. Some researchers, for example Sakulku and Alexander, have started to call it ‘Imposter Experience’; in the 1980s Harvey and Katz used the term ‘Imposter Phenomenon’.

In their 1985 book If I'm So Successful Why Do I Feel Like a Fake, Harvey and Katz define the Imposter Phenomenon as consisting of three aspects:

  • the belief that you have fooled others
  • the fear of someone finding you out
  • not being able to attribute your successes to your own talents.

It is often claimed that at the root of the imposter experience is indeed a failure to internalize one’s own successes; in other words, problems in feeling that you have achieved something because you are skilled and smart.

What the literature says

Much of the psychological literature describes Imposterism as a personality style that includes a strong urge to be the best and the confusing combination of both being afraid of failure and being afraid of success, indeed, feeling guilty when succeeding. Thus, people with imposter experiences tend to have a very complex relationship with success. They want to have it, but they are afraid of having it. Sometimes, the imposter dynamic has been described to include a secret fantasy of how unique and special one is. This fantasy induces shame and guilt, and is then covered up by denying one’s successes.

Further adding to this complexity, sometimes we foster completely unrealistic thoughts of what it means to be successful. When we identify strongly with our work, we also tend to forget that being incompetent and feeling incompetent are two different things.

Imposter Syndrome vs. normal feelings of self-doubt

Before proclaiming that you have Imposter Syndrome, remember that feelings of self-doubt and being afraid of not surviving any of your challenges are normal. Nobody feels certain of their abilities all the time, nor is this needed for you to be successful – actually, quite the opposite. It is normal and part of the process to sometimes feel incompetent.

With Imposter 'Syndrome', we are talking about a whole different experience: strong and persistent feelings of your achievements not being deserved and worries that you will be exposed as a fraud. No matter to what degree you feel such imposter feelings, or perhaps you just have difficulties in attributing success to yourself and fully internalizing your achievements, you might get some practical insights from this article.

Dynamics of the Imposter Experience

Several researchers have noted that people with imposter experiences tend to set very high goals for themselves and then either overprepare or postpone doing what they are supposed to do. They deny positive feedback and attribute all success to external reasons. The fact that they succeed after putting way more hours into a task than anyone would have ever asked them to, causes them to draw the conclusion that had they not overprepared, they would not have succeeded. Hence, you should pay close attention to whether you take excessive amounts of time to do your tasks in order to cover up your supposed incompetence.

Indeed, it can be useful to pay attention to whether you actually really are guilty of intellectual inauthenticity in the form of hiding your ideas or not openly showing your talents. Many people with imposter experiences actually feed their own feeling of intellectual fraudulence by not stepping up and displaying their talents openly.

On a related note, sometimes academia can feed a mindset that real success comes easily, without effort, thus subscribing to a myth of 'natural genius'. As a consequence, hardworking people can easily think that their diligence is sound proof that they do not belong to this naturally talented group. They can end up trying to conceal the fact that they work hard, in the fear of thus coming across as not naturally smart enough.

Dealing with the Imposter Experience

Here are some suggestions to cope with and even get rid of imposter experiences.

a. Develop a level of self-awareness

Learning to cope with, and even get rid of, imposter experiences means you have to develop a deep level of self-awareness. This includes becoming aware of your own self-imposed achievement standards and situations where you have been intellectually inauthentic. As imposter experiences grow out of boomeranging away all positive feedback, it is useful to try and note down all the positive comments you receive and also your responses to them.

In what ways do you personally tend to mitigate and negate good feedback?

The Imposter phenomenon concerns not being able to integrate professional praise with your self-concept, and no amount of external proof of your success will help if you do not really feel at a gut level that the praise is really about you and well deserved too.

On a related note, it is good to learn to celebrate your small wins and accomplishments properly. Make sure you occasionally make your small wins into a big deal.

b. Develop a realistic self-image

As in so many other challenges we encounter in the academy and outside it, developing a realistic self-image is the basis for good self-esteem. You are unique, not special. You are neither perfect nor terrible. Taking criticism is an important skill in building a realistic self-image and comes in handy in academia, where knowing how to take blows gracefully is one of your core skills. While building your self-esteem, make sure you don’t overgeneralize single failures and overestimate the number of mistakes you think you have made. Foster a growth-oriented mindset instead of focusing too much on concrete achievements; celebrate chances to learn and grow, not only occasions where you are perfectly nailing it.

c. Go out of your comfort zone

People who are prone to imposter experiences often strive to conceal their imperfections by staying away from situations where these limitations would show to others. Thus, it is necessary to go out of your comfort zone and take risks. For an over-preparer who cannot imagine doing anything in a quick and dirty manner, just forcing themselves to cut down time they spend doing things can send them off to the deep end of their discomfort zone. Only in this way can you get out of the overpreparation loop and stop attributing your success only to hard work.

d. Mentor juniors

To gain some perspective into your true accomplishments, it can help to mentor juniors, such as younger researchers. Fostering connections and feeding an environment of openness and honesty can relieve all the darker consequences of academic pressures. Only by talking about our experiences openly do we understand that the highly valued 'rockstar researchers' have also made mistakes and occasionally doubt their abilities.

End note

In academia, the pressure to perform combined with the need to look like you are on top of everything can lead to internal mismatches. The more glory and strength you try to show outside, the darker and smaller you feel inside. It can help to know that you are not alone with these feelings. By reaching out, we challenge our own imposter experiences and those of others and are able to meet everyone eye-to-eye, first and foremost as fellow humans.


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