Dealing with Impostor Syndrome: Tips from the UCSD Faculty

Allison Chan
Published in
7 min readNov 7, 2020
Photo by Rainier Ridao on Unsplash

During our first general body meeting of Fall Quarter, we had a panel of professors and lecturers discuss their experiences being a part of the LGBTQIA+ community alongside their professional and academic lives. We had a great conversation about Impostor Syndrome and ways to combat it: here is the article based on their responses. Thank you to all the professors who shared their stories and advice!

What is Impostor Syndrome?

Impostor Syndrome is the persistent feeling that everyone else around you knows what they are doing while you have no clue. Even when you do get good results, you chalk up your achievements to luck or to other people. It’s being afraid to try out new things for fear of being “found out” that you aren’t the intelligent, accomplished person that people thought you were.

Left unchecked, Impostor Syndrome can leave you feeling isolated as you are afraid to be vulnerable and reach out. Your self-esteem becomes fragile; accomplishments seem to mean little while set-backs seem to be the end of the world. You stop yourself from pursuing opportunities, thinking that you wouldn’t be able to reach them anyways.

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Useful Perspectives to Keep in Mind

Impostor Syndrome Defined

The very definition of Impostor Syndrome implies that these patterns of thoughts aren’t realistic or helpful. But, what if you are actually unqualified? What if your accomplishments are due to luck?

That may be, but that doesn’t stop your level of self esteem from influencing your life. Why are your present accomplishments so tied to your self-worth? Is there a better way to think about it?

Growth Mindset

Having a growth mindset means you understand that your current abilities aren’t fixed, but they are all skills that can be developed over time through experience.

Sure, things might not be the greatest at this very moment, but there is always potential for growth. You can treat every experience as an opportunity to measure where you are at and where you can improve.

If you have a growth mindset, it doesn’t make sense to base your self worth off of your current abilities. Why should you be upset that you aren’t doing well when you can improve? Your present skill level is just that, your present skill level. It says nothing about your worth as a person or your future potential.

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How do you talk to yourself? Would you be okay talking to your friend in the same way? How would you respond if your friend talked to you like that?

Most of us talk to ourselves in ways that are completely unacceptable to say to others. We criticize and berate ourselves for not being good enough, while not recognizing how hard we are working or the circumstances that we may be in.

How would starting to talk more kindly to yourself affect the way you feel? How might it put into perspective the things that you are actually going through? It is not only an exercise in learning to be kind, but also in realizing the truth of how things really are.

Good Enough is Good Enough

Do you ever see something someone else has made: a video, a website, a blog, an essay, anything, that you think is terrible? Be real, there is some really low quality content out there. And that’s okay. The people who made it are still going through their lives, maybe even getting better from the experience they gained.

My point is, it’s okay to put something out there even if it’s not perfect. What’s the worst that could happen and what could you stand to gain from the process? People could point out that it’s bad in which case you gain more knowledge on where to improve. Or, they could give you some positive feedback which is always nice. There are no bad options.

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Concrete Actions You Can Take

Up until now, we’ve been talking about different perspectives you can consider, but here are some ways that you can implement those thoughts into action.

1. Reach out to others

One big issue that comes with Impostor Syndrome is the feeling of isolation. You think you’re the only one feeling this way so you don’t reach out. Go against the fear and talk to someone about it. It’s very likely that they have been feeling the same way. And if not, they will be happy that you trusted them enough to tell them and offer you support.

2. Listen to other people’s stories

Another way you can feel more connected is to seek out other people’s stories. I was surprised and comforted to know that many people that I look up to still struggle with Impostor Syndrome. It made me realize that feeling good enough isn’t based on a particular accomplishment or milestone: it’s about mindset. It’s much easier to make progress with the feeling that many people are making the same journey with you.

3. Celebrate someone else’s successes

Making the effort to congratulate someone on their success is a great way to connect with others. Not only does it help the other person, but taking the time to compliment someone else takes your mind off of your own perceived shortcomings. There is more to life than being individually successful. Moreover, you can work to cultivate a culture that lifts each other up, rather than putting people down for their weaknesses.

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4. Question Your Emotions

Often, we may feel incompetent and think that because we feel that way, we are that way. We feel like our work isn’t good, so it must actually not be good.

Recognize that just because you feel something is true, doesn’t mean it is. Catch yourself thinking these thoughts and question them. Is there any basis for them? Is there any reason why I should think this is untrue?

5. Ask for feedback

One way you can collect evidence to question your beliefs is to ask for feedback from others you work with. This can be scary if you are convinced that they think poorly of you, but you might be pleasantly surprised with what they say. Just to be safe, be ready for criticism, and view their feedback as an opportunity to make progress. Be open and accepting of what is and people will be honest with you in return.

6. Test your beliefs

Adding onto that, if you are afraid of taking an opportunity or putting something you’ve made out in the world because you are afraid that it isn’t good enough, how can you really tell unless you’ve tried? If you’re rejected from a job or an internship, then you confirm that you might need more experience, and good, now you know and can work on that. And if you’re accepted, revise your beliefs!

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7. Pay attention to the positive

It’s human nature to focus on the negative; the things that are the most dangerous and painful need attention if we were to survive in the past. However, always focusing on what goes wrong ignores the reality that most things are pretty much okay in modern life. Yes there are some real problems to work on, but it’s important to take into account the wins and celebrate them as well.

Instead of thinking about the 5% you got wrong on a test, think about the 95% you got right. Remind yourself that day in and day out, you’re still completing assignments, making it to meetings, and getting out of bed. It could be better, but it’s still pretty good as it is. It’s possible to acknowledge what is going well now at the same time as wanting to improve in the future.

8. Reflect on the progress you’ve made

Think about where you were a year ago. How about 5 years ago? What has changed? Could you have imagined that you would be where you are now 5 years ago?

Most likely, a lot has changed. Similar to how it’s easy to ignore the things that are going well, it’s easy to take for granted how much things are better than they used to be. Instead of comparing yourself to others around you, think about how far you’ve come and how much you’ve grown from your younger self.

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You can condense all of this advice into a couple of concepts: make an effort to connect with others, question your thoughts, and recognize the good in yourself. These aren’t things you can do once and never again, but practices that are best when integrated into your daily life. Remember that where you are now is not where you’ll always be and there’s always something you can do to keep moving forwards.

Special thanks to Dr. Adalbert Gerald Soosai Raj, Dr. Justin Meyer, Dr. Ashley Juavinett, Dr. Itay Budin, Dr. Steven Boggs, Dr. Cressida Madigan, Dr. Arun Kumar, Dr. David Quarfoot, and Dr. Emily Grossman! Thank you all again for speaking at our GBM and for sharing your experiences and advice!