Imposter Syndrome & What You Can Do About It

A 1984 study by Margaret Gibbs and colleagues of randomly-selected U.S. psychologists found that about 70% of them experienced Imposter Syndrome feelings.  Do you feel like an imposter?

According to the California Institute of Technology Counseling Center, Imposter Syndrome is “a collection of 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.”  In other words, it involves a willful denial of reality in favor of an unattainable standard of perfection that exists largely in one’s own head.

Imposter Syndrome & What You Can Do About It

Ironically, some of the most inflicted individuals are among the most educated: imposter syndrome inflicts those enrolled in graduate programs disproportionately, even prompting this article by Stephen Aguilar in Inside Higher Ed addressed to fellow graduate students suffering from the same affliction and offering some tips to help avoid it, including building relationships within the academic community, attending conferences, and avoiding the ‘humble brag’—e.g. “I can’t believe I just got my paper accepted in __ journal!  My argument wasn’t even that great!”

In other words, don’t pretend that all your accomplishments are merely happy coincidences and good luck.

Since there’s a statistically large chance that you, too, suffer from Imposter Syndrome, try to be aware of the tendency to attribute successes to external factors such as ‘luck’ or other people.

Moreover, avoid constantly raising the bar that’s necessary to clear, in your mind, in order to be worthy of success.  It’s not necessary to attain perfection in order to have earned your accomplishments.  So don’t be afraid to own your successes and assume responsibility for having reached your goals.

Maggie Warrell suggests making a list of “all the key things you’ve accomplished over the last five years.”  Writing your achievements down on paper makes them concrete in a way that is more palpable than when they merely exist inside your head.

I, especially, can relate to this phenomenon.  Because I was a first-generation college graduate, I often felt alone and without a large number of peers who could relate to coming from a less affluent background.

At Harvard University, Ana Barros started the Harvard College First Generation Student Union, which regularly hosts meetings and discussions of their experiences “trying to pass as middle class,” among other things.

Studies have shown that ethnic minorities at predominantly white institutions, especially, may experience a sense of intellectual phoniness that is characteristic of IP—likely in part because of being not only an ethnic minority in U.S. society but being in the minority at the college they attend, as well.

Photo Source:Flickr/Alex de Carvalho

Photo Source:Flickr/Alex de Carvalho

Denise Gormley and Christine Colella, faculty at the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing, authored a study on student confidence and motivational theory that proposes a few potential educational solutions to the problem of lack of self-confidence and motivation in students.

Motivation theory involves the idea that “attention, relevance, confidence, and satisfaction are requirements for learners to become and remain motivated.”

Moreover, satisfaction “denotes the ability of the teacher to help students feel good about their accomplishments.”  Note that, in order for students to feel satisfied, they must feel confident first—hence aware of their accomplishments in a way that allows for them to believe in their own abilities, as opposed to passing them off as luck or coincidence.

This element of self-awareness was crucial to the students’ success.  The teachers also modeled clinical skills and judgment that would be crucial in interactions between nurses and patients in the field.

Some of the factors integral to student engagement and motivation included active participation in learning, student-faculty interaction, and interaction with peers.

The study concludes with the following: “The ultimate goal is to develop lifelong learners who are capable of motivating and scaffolding themselves.”  Additionally, all these teaching strategies were instrumental in keeping online learners engaged—an especially impressive feat!

Considering that our world population is increasing at an alarming rate—we should expect approximately ten billion people in the world by 2050—it’s natural to want to stand out, feel relatively unique, and make a difference in the process.

Start, perhaps, by attempting to solve the potential problems of overpopulation: apparently, if threats of overpopulation aren’t addressed, three billion people will be living in poverty; moreover, increasing competition for natural resources will lead to increased conflicts, possibly war.

However, widespread implementation of green building and sustainable living standards, along with universal access to family planning, can help alleviate the burden that overpopulation will have on our societies’ infrastructures, as well as our planet.

One of the best pieces of advice I came across in my research on Imposter Syndrome was a wonderful piece published in late 2015 by illustrator Carl Richards.  In it, Richards argues that perhaps it is best to allow the ‘demon,’ or nay-saying voice in our head, to stay, acknowledge its existence, and proceed to disregard its validity.

Acknowledging the existence of the voice is empowering because the subsequent discrediting of its opinion makes each subsequent appearance less significant than the time before, until, eventually, its voice is drowned out by the louder voices reminding you of your real self-worth.

Ultimately, each of us is a unique individual with specific emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical needs—so specific, in fact, that most prescription drugs work for only half of the people to whom they’re prescribed.

Because of this, it’s worthwhile to look into a variety of different ways to ‘treat’ damaging beliefs like Impostor Syndrome: from talk therapy to anti-anxiety medication to anti-depressants or a combination of a few different approaches.

Sometimes none of the above approaches are effective, and, rather, a preventative, natural approach involving peer support and mentorship—combined with exercises such as aerobic activity, yoga, or meditation—prove to be the best treatment.

Regardless of how it’s dealt with, it’s important to be armed with knowledge about Impostor Syndrome: the factors involved in its presence, how to identify it, and how to treat it in a way that will most empower a person while simultaneously disempowering that person’s negative thoughts.

Hopefully, this article helps you go forth into the rest of your day or evening feeling inspired, motivated, and encouraged, despite the negative thoughts that seem to plague the brightest and most talented among us.  Write a tip about what technique works best for you in the comments below!

Imposter Syndrome & What You Can Do About It

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