“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)
Throughout my academic tenure, I was plagued by a sense of defeated accomplishment. I remember when I submitted my first grant to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a bonafide doctor, 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 stereo in the back of my mind telling me I wasn’t good enough. My research proposal wasn’t worth funding, and that if by some mistake I was funded, eventually my superiors would realize that I was secretly full of crap.
It didn’t make sense. I’m a doctor – an expert – with years of training and experience. Why was I feeling so inferior? Why was I nodding along to recommended changes to my grant that I didn’t agree with simply because it came from my superior (who had less experience in the area)? When I was termed “opinionated” by my mentors – why was that a negative quality? I’m an expert in my field. I do have an opinion – and a well-educated one, at that.
First termed “imposter phenomenon” in the late 1970s by clinical psychologists, Dr. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, it has been historically been referred to as the plague of high achievers.
It was observed among highly successful, respected, educated women and early in its conception was believed to be solely a female problem.
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).
The women who suffered from imposter syndrome believed their accomplishments were due to luck, and that these successes were not based on effort, previous training, scholarship or skills.
Clance & Imes believed that there were four common behaviors that fed imposter syndrome:
- Working yourself to death because if you’re working “hard”, people are less likely to accuse you of being a fraud (you won’t be “found out”).
- Engaging in “intellectual flattery” (i.e., telling superiors what they want to hear rather than expressing your authentic views).
- Using charm to get people to like you vs. letting your skills speak for themselves.
- Letting the criticism in that comes when you are a successful, confident and independent woman in our society.
Fast forward to 2019, imposter syndrome has become (and probably always was) a non-gender discriminant plague of high achievers.
If we engage in behaviors that make it easy for imposter syndrome to creep in, then the more we succeed, the more it grows.
Our successes, in essence, feed the monster.
The more we feed the monster, the bigger, and stronger it gets. The more we attribute our successes to luck, and that eventually our 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 more diminished we become.
The more we dull our confidence and drive for fear of being seen as unfeminine or labeled a bitch, the greater the monsters’ hold on us.
If that hits home for any of you. You might be thinking, “well, that’s a downer.”
As someone who lived in an environment that is arguably the birthplace of imposter syndrome, I feel you.
We’ve known about this phenomenon since the 70s, yet I would say it’s just as prominent now, as it ever was. Here’s what I’ve found, through research and experience, that best helps you cope with feelings of imposters syndrome:
First, you have to accept failure.
You can’t be good at everything, and you can’t be 100% all of the time. You will fail, and it’s okay. Rejection and failure are sometimes the most fortuitous opportunities for growth (if you let it). It’s important to not only make space in your pride for failure, but to not rip yourself apart when you do fail. We are our own worst critics. By constantly tearing ourselves down because we didn’t achieve some self-imposed standard, we are doing more damage than those peanut galleries we often surround ourselves with.
Second, be confident in your ability.
You are not an accident. I did not stumble my way through my degree (okay, maybe a little) and luckily come out with a Ph.D. I busted my ass to get where I am. 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.”. You have to look at yourself in the mirror everyday and know that you are here for a reason. Be confident. Believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else is going to.
Third, remember how you got to where you are.
Remember the training, the work, the copious amounts of coffee, late nights and many hours you spent creating yourself. You don’t get where you are, without hard work. If you have to write yourself a message on a sticky note that you put on your laptop with a reminder of how you got to where you are – do it. I’ve done it. It works.
Lastly, we need to redefine success.
Success that is contingent on achievement is the 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.
In June of 2018 I left my academic life behind to work as a research consultant where I was able to earn an income doing something I was passionate about while still having space to develop my business.
I also left because I realized that – well – #YOLO.
I was miserable. The environment took so much more than it ever gave me. I knew that I was at a crossroad. The path of certainty and uncertainty weren’t as clear as one might think. Most people consider these pathways based on salaries, insurance, and other incentives. For me, it was the certainty or uncertainty of my quality of life. Once I reframed my choice based on my quality of my one life, the choice was simple.
The story of why I left academia is coming. Stay tuned.
Feed your creativity.
Feed your scholarship.
Feed your passions.
Stop feeding the monster.
I’d like to hear your thoughts about imposter syndrome and your experiences with it. Leave your comments below!