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Video: Imposter Syndrome: Understanding and Managing Feelings of Being an Imposter
Presented by: Carolyn Yrigollen, PhD
Hello and thank you for joining this presentation on Imposter Syndrome, brought to you by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Office of Academic Training and Outreach Programs. I’m Carolyn Yrigollen, a biomedical researcher here at CHOP and during the next several minutes, we will discuss how to recognize Imposter Syndrome, why people develop feelings associated with this phenomenon, and some steps you can take to help manage these thoughts. We encourage you to pause this presentation between slides to reflect and discuss real-life examples.
Some of you listening may have heard the term, Imposter Syndrome, but it might be a new concept for others. The term Imposter Phenomenon was coined by two psychologists in a 1978 research paper. Dr. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes described not an actual disorder but a common occurrence of professional women with notable successes and expertise being unable to internalize their accomplishments. These professionals would often relay experiences of feeling underqualified or like an imposter in their field, career, or discipline despite evidence to the contrary. Since then, Imposter Syndrome or Imposter Phenomenon, has been discussed in main stream media and men and women commonly recognize the telltale characteristics in their own self-perception. In fact, many people if asked will recall having imposter-like feelings at some point in their lives.
Imposter Syndrome can often be recognized by identifying some common phrases that you say to yourself or while describing your achievements. Maybe you can relate to telling yourself phrases like these. Everyone here is smarter or better than me. I must of barely gotten here. Someone is going to realize I don’t belong. I was lucky to get where I am. Oh, that just worked out. Students can often feel like imposters in college. They might think that they barely got into their schools because everyone around them seems so intelligent and the course work is more challenging than they may have previously encountered. Or they may think that their professional experiences were acquired by luck. An example of this is a grad school applicant who was writing her personal statement about the experiences she had working in a genetics laboratory during college. Peppered throughout her essay she described how lucky she was to join the lab or work on a project. It was only when a friend pointed out to her how these opportunities came from hard work and accomplishments that she realized how engrained imposter thoughts were for her. With Imposter Syndrome you might fail to give yourself credit for the role you played in your accomplishments.
Have you ever felt like you shouldn’t apply for something since you aren’t a strong applicant? Imposter Syndrome can contribute to you wrongly underestimating your potential fit for programs, awards, jobs, schools, or other scholastic or professional experiences. Imposter Syndrome can also amplify failures so that you don’t see them as part of the learning process but as evidence that you are not capable of succeeding. And conversely, if you are successful at something, you don’t use this as evidence of your ability, but rather the consequence of luck or you convince yourself that it must have been easy to succeed. And finally, people often report being afraid of being recognized as a fraud or that their weaknesses will be obvious to everyone.
There are a number of reasons why someone might begin to experience Imposter Syndrome. It is often seen with people who work at a high stress job or participate in other high stress activities or hobbies. Involvement in some career fields, educational tracks, and competitions can involve aspects where your work is criticized or failure is common as your progress to achieve milestones or goals. Also, if someone is naturally anxious or has difficulty taking criticism, this can exacerbate imposter-like feelings.
The reason that we care about Imposter Syndrome is because of the resulting downstream effects that it can have. Imposter Syndrome may increase stress and anxiety about work or school and become taxing as additional energy is required to try to cope with the feelings. Feeling like an imposter can also make someone feel less inclined to take a risk or try something new because of a fear of not being qualified or capable of achieving the goal. Additionally, Imposter Syndrome can make social interactions challenging when there is a fear that your peers may be judging you. In general, this leads to a decrease in fun or fulfillment in a job, class, or other activity.
So let’s come up with some tools to help combat Imposter Syndrome. First try to identify and acknowledge imposter thoughts. For example, someone might think to themselves in a meeting or in a classroom discussion, “I have an idea, but if I say it, people might think it is a bad idea or that I do not belong here.” Now, put it into perspective. Is the group asking for ideas? Does that idea fit into the current topic that is being discussed? And recognize that it is likely that having an idea the group doesn’t agree with isn’t related to how the group perceives the individual’s value or past and future contributions. By making a habit of recognizing and evaluating imposter thoughts it will be easier to identify them and mitigate their negative consequences. Also, managing how criticism is perceived can be helpful. Learning to take criticism on an essay, work product or performance without relating that criticism to your value or ability is crucial. Asking for feedback can be great because we learn how to improve in whatever activity we’re investing our time into and the more you do this, the more comfortable you will be with it. If getting criticism on your work is very challenging to you make sure to choose supportive people to provide feedback when possible. Remind yourself of why you aren’t an imposter. You might even want to keep a file of all of your accomplishments. Hey, it is harder to argue with evidence. And practice having positive thoughts and self-confidence. These are other qualities that improve with repetition. If you are struggling with Imposter Syndrome, you may want to seek the help of a professional as depression or anxiety might be an underlining problem. Otherwise, you will want to confide in your friends or mentors. In general, talk about it. Often, we are our worst critics and hearing the thoughts out loud will help you evaluate how realistic they are. When we talk about Imposter Syndrome, we often realize we are not alone.
Here is an activity that will help you practice the tools that were discussed using the past experiences that you have had. Remember, when you use these skills, the stronger they will get. Okay, first choose a time when you had imposter thoughts. Maybe it was right before a big presentation or when you joined a club or new organization. Remember some of the key phrases or ideas we discussed earlier. I was lucky to get here. Someone is going to realize I don’t belong or that I’m an imposter. That everyone else is smarter or stronger or more of whatever you think your weakness is. Feel free to share these experiences. How did Imposter Syndrome manifest in this particular instance. Were you afraid your work wasn’t good enough? Did you think that someone might say you don’t belong? Did you think if you failed it might prove that you are a fraud? Now how did you react to those thoughts? Maybe you decided not to join that organization or you lost sleep the night before that presentation. Did you find yourself stressed, irritable, scared? Maybe you reached out to a trusted friend and that helped. Or you worked on the presentation to make sure there were no mistakes. As an aside, perfectionism is another way people cope with Imposter Syndrome, but it can be really draining and prevent you from ever thinking that your work is good enough. Now that you have relived this experience of imposter thoughts, can you think of things you could have done differently or more productively? Could you have compared your imposter thoughts to your real accomplishments? Could you have talked to a mentor or teammate? Maybe you could have identified imposter thoughts that were obviously unrealistic. Or make a habit of reflecting on the activities that lead to Imposter Syndrome and how what you thought might happen and what actually happened differed.
Here I will do an example. Choose a time you had imposter thoughts. I remember having imposter thoughts at a weekly update meeting at my first job out of college. I would meet one on one with my boss and before each of these meetings, I had Imposter Syndrome thoughts. How did Imposter Syndrome manifest? Well, I believed my boss would think that I didn’t do a good job, that she realized she made a mistake hiring me, that I didn’t belong on her team. I was even afraid she would fire me. How did you react? It would cause be to get really stressed leading up to our meeting. Before each meeting, I had a real feeling of dread. Looking back at this experience, could I have done something differently? Absolutely! I could have written down reasons why I was good at my job or all the times my boss and colleagues complemented me on something I did. I could have confided in someone, especially my boss who was a great mentor. And I could have taken a moment after the meeting to process how the outcomes were the opposite of what I told myself might happen and why that might be.
I hope that you found this presentation helpful. Recognizing Imposter Syndrome is important because it allows us to actively manage it. While it is possible to always have imposter thoughts, balancing those thoughts with a better perception of your talents, strengths, and abilities will help lessen their impact. Practice building your self-confidence by seeking out trusted mentors that are great at pushing you to keep advancing and recognizing when you are ready to take on a new challenge. Keep a list of your accomplishments and review how amazing you are every few weeks or months. Acknowledge that you are feeling like an imposter because what you are doing is not easy, but incremental progress is often the key to success. Don’t forget to take risks that will give you valuable professional experiences and if you meet the criteria, apply. Don’t second guess it. If you meet the criteria, you deserve to apply. Finally, remember to be kind to yourself. The thoughts and judgements you have to your own abilities are likely far tougher than you have for a friend. So treat yourself like a friend.
If you would like more information on Imposter Syndrome, these resources are a great place to start. Thank you for joining us. This concludes our presentation on Imposter Syndrome.