Imposter Syndrome: What It Is And How To Rise Above It
This month is all about acceptance. And let’s be real: self-acceptance isn’t easy. We hear all the time how important it is to accept our faults, our weaknesses. But what about our strengths and accomplishments? Thoughts like “Am I good enough to be here? What did I do to deserve this? Oh god, what if they find out I’m actually not all that!?” can plague anyone from the college freshman stepping onto campus for the first time to the boss lady CEO. This type of chronic self-doubt has a name: Imposter Syndrome. Coined by psychologists Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes in 1978, Imposter Syndrome describes the pattern of dismissing your achievements in the face of success.
How do you know if you suffer from Imposter Syndrome? Dr. Valerie Young, a psychologist and author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, has compiled these questions to identify those who deal with Imposter Syndrome:
Do you secretly worry that others will find out that you’re not as bright and capable as you are?
Do you tend to feel crushed even by constructive criticism, seeing it as evidence of your “ineptness”?
Do you live in fear of being found out, discovered, or unmasked?
Do you sometimes shy away from challenges because of a nagging self-doubt?
Do you believe that other people (students, colleagues, competitors) are smarter and more capable than you?
As much as I hate to admit, the answer for me to many of these questions is yes. In fact, a 2016 study of American medical students found that nearly half of female medical students experience imposter syndrome, and that imposter syndrome was significantly associated with markers of physician burnout. As a fourth-year medical student exploring different career paths and working my way through endless exams and clinical rotations, I am no stranger to self-doubt. So from personal experience, here are my three recommendations for how to work through Imposter Syndrome.
1. Know you are not alone.
If you too said yes to one or two (or all) of Dr. Young’s probing questions, know that you are in good company. Below are a few of my favorite quotes from celebrities working through their own versions of feeling like a fraud at every stage of success.
“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.” –Maya Angelou
“It’s almost like the better I do, the more my feeling of inadequacy actually increases, because I’m just going, ‘Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud, and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved. I can’t possibly live up to what everyone thinks I am and what everyone’s expectations of me are.’ It’s weird — sometimes [success] can be incredibly validating, but sometimes it can be incredibly unnerving and throw your balance off a bit, because you’re trying to reconcile how you feel about yourself with how the rest of the world perceives you.” –Emma Watson
“So I have to admit that today, even 12 years after graduation [from Harvard], I’m still insecure about my own worthiness. I have to remind myself today, you are here for a reason. Today, I feel much like I did when I came to Harvard Yard as a freshman in 1999 … I felt like there had been some mistake — that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company and that every time I opened my mouth I would have to prove I wasn’t just a dumb actress. … Sometimes your insecurities and your inexperience may lead you to embrace other people’s expectations, standards, or values, but you can harness that inexperience to carve out your own path — one that is free of the burden of knowing how things are supposed to be, a path that is defined by its own particular set of reasons.” –Natalie Portman, Harvard Commencement Address 2015
2. Take time to reflect on your achievements.
When Imposter Syndrome takes over, it’s easy to dismiss your success as the result of “getting lucky” or “cheating the system.” To tackle this toxic mindset, I find a bit of intentional reflection to be helpful here. Success is a team sport, so first list the people in your life who have helped you get where you are (mentors, teachers, friends). Next, turn the spotlight to you. What are qualities about yourself that you owe your success to? Examples include perseverance, compassion, grit, creativity, organization, etc. By honoring your mentors and personal qualities that speak to your success, it will be much easier to kick the feeling of being a fraud.
3. Start small and let go of expectations.
Recognizing Imposter Syndrome and calling it by its name is a huge first step for the chronic self-doubter. Next, it’s time to take action. Identify one small thing that you’ve avoided because you feel like a fraud. Maybe it’s starting a new hobby or exploring a new career path. Then, do something about it! Sign up for an art class in your neighborhood or reach out to people in the career you are curious about and ask to shadow them. For me, this meant going out on a limb and asking to shadow a faculty member in a highly competitive specialty. Things may not go as planned and the small details may not be perfect, but by taking that first step, you are already on your way to turning self-doubt into self-confidence.
Have you ever experienced Imposter Syndrome?