Impostor, Heal Thyself

by James Lyda, Director of Mental Health Services

Photo: Marcus Reichmann

But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo.
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here.
“Creep,” Radiohead (1992)

The all knowing oracle of knowledge, Wikipedia, states that Radiohead singer Thom Yorke wrote “Creep” while at university in the late 1980s. Yes, the lead singer of arguably one of the greatest Western rock bands of this, or any, generation, summed up the essence of impostor syndrome in one angsty, yet powerful refrain. And it happened when he was in college. Sounds familiar?

If you read further into the Wikipedia page from which I derived this knowledge, you will learn that it was really about a girl…but the point still stands. Impostor syndrome is real, and for many it rears its head for the first time when crossing the threshold into college. But it doesn’t stop there. Impostor syndrome often chairs the welcome committee for each subsequent threshold crossing we face in our lives. In the paragraphs that follow, I will summarize what impostor syndrome is, what contributes to it, and how to get rid of it in order to help you achieve your full potential.

Impostor Syndrome is a Parasite

If impostor syndrome were an animal, it would probably most resemble the parasitic isopod, C. exigua, otherwise know as the tongue-eating louse. (Don’t worry, they prey on fish, not humans). Much like its animal counterpart enters fish gills, impostor syndrome enters our psyche uninvited. For C. exigua the object of infiltration is a fish’s tongue (it literally replaces the fish’s tongue with itself…gross). Similarly, without proper mental and emotional prophylaxis, impostor syndrome latches on to our sense of self, steals our spirit, our voice, and our potential. Like C.exigua, impostor syndrome doesn’t kill its host — in fact, it is not even considered a medical or psychiatric diagnosis — but leaves the host a shell of its true self. As education leader Kate Maupin states, “You never get to be as smart, successful, or loved, as everyone thinks you are, because you feel like a fraud.”

Enough About Bugs, What’s the Psychology Underlying Impostor Syndrome?

Impostor syndrome, or impostor phenomenon, is a psychosocial phenomenon first described by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 (at the time they thought it was unique to women — it’s not). It is a form of cognitive bias, often occurring when people find themselves in contexts where they feel surrounded by high-achieving people and, as a result, they have difficulty seeing themselves as equal.

Impostor syndrome sufferers have difficulty internalizing the very success that got them to where they are. They fear being discovered as a fraud and minimize their own accomplishments. The result can be a cycle of perfectionism, a poor sense of self-efficacy, low self-esteem, thus hinder the person achieving their full potential, and the cycle repeats. Ironically, Impostor syndrome can also lead people to work harder and overperforming, yielding them more praise and recognition, which they find increasingly difficult to accept. At minimum, it can make achieving one’s potential more difficult and painful than it needs to be.

Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.
– Confucius

Impostor syndrome can be considered to be like an inverse version of another form of cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This is where people with low abilities and low levels of metacognitive awareness perceive their abilities as greater than they are.

Image via Skeptical Science

So what is going on here? Smart people with talents and abilities feel inadequate? Less than smart people with minimal skills feel confident? How can this be?

It has been estimated that 70% of people will experience Impostor syndrome at some point in their lives. Personality, temperament, family upbringing, and cultural influence are all contributing factors. Besides being a manifestation of cognitive bias, impostor syndrome is a form of self-doubt and social comparison, both of which are normal aspects of the human condition. When we combine these natural tendencies with the pressures of high expectations, high ambitions, and competition found in environments with high-achievers, impostor syndrome can result. Impostor syndrome does not discriminate, but women and others with minority status can be even more vulnerable to its effects, which can unfairly mask one’s true competence and abilities.

Why is Impostor Syndrome so Revalent?

There are a couple factors that can contribute to impostor syndrome’s prevalence:

Not Recognizing Impostor Syndrome as Impostor Syndrome

Failure to recognize impostor syndrome due to lack of awareness, or reluctance to accept it, is a fundamental contributor. For most accomplished people, their success can be attributed to something they did. People experiencing impostor syndrome, however, can spend tremendous amounts of time and energy explaining away their success, which eventually becomes the biased belief that they are not really the reason for their success.

It’s a Vicious Cycle

People experiencing impostor syndrome are often successful by objective standards. Coping strategies that allow people to manage their own fears and anxieties related to impostor syndrome — such as perfectionism, shying away from vulnerability, and resisting help seeking — can lead to a cycle whereby they attribute their success to anything but their own competence. The more successful they are, the less they attribute it to their own positive qualities and strengths.

How do I Beat this Thing?

I have been working in the field of college student mental health for almost 15 years. As I mentioned earlier, college and universities are hotbeds for impostor syndrome. Looking back, I know I experienced some impostor syndrome in college, but it wasn’t until graduate school, when I experienced my first serious bout of it, that I became aware of what was going on (it helped that I was studying counseling psychology). Since grad school ended I have been an intern, post-doc, early career professional, and now a manager and director. At every step of the way, I have experienced some level of impostor syndrome, but because of what I learned when it was at its worst, the intensity and duration of this affliction has dramatically lessened.

Let’s get meta and take this very piece of writing, for example. As you may have noticed, I opened this treatise by citing Wikipedia…Wikipedia! There was a time when my impostor syndrome, fueled by perfectionism and the fear of being perceived as unintelligent, would have prevented me from associating myself with such a provincial source. After years of practice, and gaining some wisdom along the way, I am at a place where I can keep impostor syndrome at arms length, and not allow it to consume me. Wait, is this just Dunning-Kruger in full effect? Am I being overconfident here? Oh, see, there it is. Shoo, impostor syndrome! We got this.

I have also had the privilege of experience, and have been empowered to help support countless undergraduate and graduate students, as well as postgraduate trainees work through impostor syndrome. Here’s what I know helps.

Get Educated about Impostor Syndrome

The key is recognizing the disconnect between our self-perceptions and objective truth. If you’re reading this, you are already walking down the path of awareness. Keep going. Take a look at the work of impostor syndrome expert, Dr. Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. Also, expect impostor syndrome — and call it out when you see (or feel) it. Stop to reflect on how this mindset grew in you, find the many factors that contributed to it, and take a step back to decide whether you still want it to influence you.

Adopt a Growth Mindset

In a 2016 article in Harvard Business Review, Carol Dweck, the guru of “Growth Mindset” states, “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts). This is because they worry less about looking smart and they put more energy into learning.” That last sentence is key. Impostor syndrome can become this obsession with looking smart or accomplished. Much of the energy becomes dedicated to appearances, when the energy could be used toward other, more productive endeavours. If we accept that we must have done something right to get us where we are, and we cultivate that into believing that we can do it again, even in the face of novel challenges, we can dismantle impostor syndrome. Which leads to the next tip…

Make a Conscious Effort to Recognize Your Past Accomplishments

Taking time to acknowledge past accomplishments does not dilute it, nor is it a sign of arrogance. One of the key aspects of developing the confidence to believe we can accomplish what we set out to accomplish, known as self-efficacy, is being able to experience, recognize, and internalize our accomplishments. This must come with a healthy dose of humility, but, ultimately, our ability to recognize accomplishments is an important factor that allows us to assess our abilities in an objective manner. If we are exclusively focused on what we are not doing well, we are seeing only a skewed perception of what we think we are, rather than who we truly are.

Let Go of Unhealthy Perfectionism

OK, so maybe you come from a culture or family with the belief system that one should always work harder, or do better. Maybe part of your identity is based on how perfectly you accomplish what you do. This attitude can be a wonderful strength that is extremely motivating. Like many things in life, however, too much of something can create a backlash that turns against you. Instead, finding a balanced approach can help you use that strength to the full effect, yet not be as affected by its negative consequences.

Find Some Self-compassion & Remember: You are Human

Yes, you are indeed human. Surprise! This can be a fact that is rather difficult to accept. Humans are imperfect; we make mistakes, fail, feel bad about it, and look horribly ungraceful during our fall. But and that’s how we learn. This happens to everybody — not just you. Learning to be OK with this and truly embracing your humanity not only makes the process of accomplishing things more enjoyable, it can lead to better results, too. Why? Because you can absorb so much more when you are paying attention to the process, than the narrow focus adopted from an outcome-oriented mindset. Humanity also helps to connect with others, which then leads us to…

Build a Support Network & Talk to Someone About Your Experience

This can include peers, mentors, neighbours, or even professional counselors. Finding people with similar cultural, ethnic, or professional backgrounds can be of great help to shine light on what you might expect during your personal and professional journeys, but don’t limit yourself to those who look just like you, or who have similar backgrounds or interests. Be diverse in who you hear from, learn vicariously, draw on inspiration all around you, and you may be surprised to hear how people can be so different, yet so similar. A support network with a broad perspective can help you with reality checks when you are in the middle of an impostor syndrome episode, and enrich your own perspectives of yourself and others.

At the end of the day, impostor syndrome is a real phenomenon, yet it is something that is not based on reality. The discrepancy between how we feel — fake, incompetent, not confident — is so powerful that it can minimize our accomplishments into nothing. These feelings are real and can come from many sources, including cultural, familial, personal, social, academic, and societal influences. Hence, beating impostor syndrome also means that you are healing from the many forces that have shaped you in unhealthy ways. Instead of passively accepting how you have come to believe the things that you do, make a conscious choice: Heal yourself, make a statement, and be who you truly are and can be!

Special Thanks to Dr. I-Ching Grace Hung 洪宜青 who contributed to this article.