Imposter Syndrome: Ignoring the voice in your head

Author: Michelle Valkanas, 4th year Ph.D. Candidate in Biological Sciences

Have you ever had to fight the voice in your head? You know, that voice that tells you that you are not good enough? That you are never going to be as good as [Insert Name]? That you do not belong here? That everyone will find out that you are an imposter, and that your success was a mistake? That it is only a matter of time before you fall on your face?

While these seem like horrible thoughts, a nightmare even, we all have them. I remember when I received the email that I was accepted into the Ph.D. Program at Duquesne University. I couldn’t believe it. I was so excited. I never thought that I would be smart enough to get a Ph.D., yet here I was staring at an acceptance letter. But then the panic set in. My excitement quickly shifted from joy to self-doubt. I know that I am not good enough to get a Ph.D.. There is no way that I am smart enough. This must be a mistake.

I was convinced that there was a mix-up, so much so that I drove down to Duquesne University that day and signed my contract. That way it was legally bound and they had to let me in. That sounds crazy, right? But every word of it is true. It is not that I am paranoid or anxious. I am not insecure or delusional, at least no more than the next person. I simply had a case of imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is the feeling of not belonging, of being an imposter. In the article Overcoming Imposter Syndrome, Gill Corkindale from the Harvard Business Review defines imposter syndrome as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.” While these feelings are widespread and felt by many, they tend to specifically plague those in disciplines with an assumed stereotype or pre-conceived ideal. In fact, the professions most likely to suffer from imposter syndrome are academics and performers (actors, singers, etc.). Why? Because there is an assumed stereotype for these professionals, an expectation, a set bar. If you are a performer you are expected to be put together and presentable at all times and if you are an academic, you must be very smart and accomplished. In both cases, this sets an impossible standard, a grandiose idea of what an actor, scientist, or pre-med student should be.  Thus, we as academics are comparing our current selves to an impossible self.

So, what can you do it about it? How do we get rid of imposter syndrome? Unfortunately, my reading on the subject suggests that there is no quick fix. In fact, it does not seem like imposter syndrome ever completely goes away; it just comes in waves. The reason for this is probably because as we continue through our careers more expectations are added and the bar just keeps getting higher and higher. Additionally, with success in one’s respective field comes a level of vulnerability. This is especially true in academia.  Relinquishing full exposure of your work for all to see, comes with the risk of criticism, skepticism, and judgement. Some of my biggest heroes have admitted that they suffer from imposter syndrome, even though they are kicking butt in their respective fields.

The good news is that you are not alone. While it is not often openly discussed, most people feel like an imposter. I think that the first step to take charge of these feelings is to acknowledge that they exist. That they are feelings grounded in no evidence. The thing with imposter syndrome, is that amplifies a fear of not being good enough while completely ignoring the evidence (that you do belong there). It is important to try to focus on the facts, the supporting evidence that shows that you are not an imposter. I was once told to make a “compliment folder.” In this folder (or file), you keep compliments that people have given you or awards/honors you received. That way when imposter syndrome starts to creep in, you can read what people actually think of you (that you are killing it!). This helps to prevent you from falling down the rabbit hole. While this is just one of the many suggestions you can find on how to combat imposter syndrome, I think doing this one thing can be extremely useful.

If you go online, there are tons of articles on imposter syndrome and how debilitating these feelings can be. However, I still think we tend to shy away from acknowledging that it is happening to us. I have tried to make it my mission to announce when my imposter syndrome is high. This is almost a way of outing the negative voice in my head. While this may seem silly, it is my way of coping. I think that the best way to cope with imposter syndrome varies from person-to-person, but it is in no way impossible to overcome, no matter how crippling it may feel. StartupBros wrote an awesome article on ways to overcome imposter syndrome that is worth the read if you are looking for more suggestions. So, when you go to apply for graduate school or that dream job, remember you are awesome and are killing it!


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