Imposter Syndrome: The plague of high achievers

Why do so many bright women, despite consistent and impressive evidence to the contrary, continue to see themselves as imposters who pretend to be bright but who really are not?

(Clance & Imes, 1978, p. 242)

 

I recently submitted my first National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant as a bonafide PhD. The hardest part wasn’t the conceptualization of the research area, development of the proposal or even the writing. Instead it was the voice in the back of my mind repeatedly telling me that I wasn’t good enough, that my research proposal wasn’t worth funding and that if by some mistake I was funded, eventually the powers that be would realize that I was secretly full of crap. I realized that these feelings were commonly experienced by both my colleagues and friends, in and outside of academia.

First termed “imposter phenomenon” in the late 1970s by clinical psychologists, Dr. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, has been historically referred to as the plague of high achievers. First observed among highly successful, respected, educated women and early in its conception was believed to be solely a female phenomena. Clance & Imes found that “the clinical symptoms most frequently reported are generalized anxiety, lack of self-confidence, depression, and frustration related to inability to meet self-imposed standards of achievement” (Clance & Imes, 1978, p. 242). People who suffer from imposter syndrome believe they have gotten lucky in their accomplishments. That these successes were not based on effort, trial and error, previous training, scholarship or skills.

How are we feeding this?

Clance & Imes believed that there was at least four different types of behaviors that fed imposter syndrome:

  1. Working so hard in hopes that in doing so you won’t be discovered
  2. Engaging in “intellectual flattery” (i.e., telling superiors what they want to hear rather than expressing your authentic views)
  3. Using charm to get people to like you vs. letting your skills speak for themselves
  4. (particularly among women) Letting the criticism in that comes when you are a successful, confident and independent woman in our society

Fast forward to 2017, imposter syndrome has become a non-gender discriminant plague of high achievers. The problem with imposter syndrome is that if we choose to let it in, the more we succeed, the more it grows. The more we feed the monster, the bigger, and stronger it gets. The more we attribute our successes to luck (& that eventually that luck will run out), the more we feed it. The more we blindly agree with our superiors and fellow colleagues because we want them to like us, the bigger the monster gets. The more we dull our confidence and drive for fear of being seen as unfeminine or called one of many degrading terms, the greater the monsters hold on us. You fear that everyone will realize that you aren’t as skilled, knowledgable, and talented, as you seem.

So, how do we cope?

1. Accept failure. You will fail, and it’s okay. Most of the journals I submit manuscripts to have an acceptance rate between 10-20%, and many other journals out there are even lower than that. Rejection and failure are sometimes the most fortuitous opportunities for growth (if you let it).

2. Be confident in your ability. You are not an accident. You did not stumble your way through your degree (okay, maybe a little) and luckily come out with a Ph.D. (insert M.D., Ed.D., D.P.T., Psy.D., D.V.M., Pharm.D., etc.). You busted your tail to get where you are. For us Ph.D.’s, we had to stand up in front of our mentors, peers and seasoned faculty and defend the legtimacy of our research before we could be deemed worthy of the title “Dr.”. Be confident. Believe in yourself. They did.

3. Remember how you got here. Remember the training, the work, the copious amounts of coffee, late nights and many hours you spent creating yourself, your work and furthering your scholarship. You don’t get where we are, without hard work.

4. Redefine success. Success that is contingent on achievement is a breeding ground for imposter syndrome. Success isn’t just measured in an accepted publication or funded grant, it’s having the perseverance (& bravery) to try again in the face of rejection.

Feed your creativity. Feed your scholarship. Feed your passions. Stop feeding the monster. 

 

References:
Clance, P.R & Imes, S.A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 15(3), 241-247

 

I’d like to hear your thoughts about imposter syndrome and your experiences with it. Leave your comments below! – N

XOXO,

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