When I was in grad school, I was a fake, a phony, a fraud.
Or at least I felt that way — very much.
I felt like the program made some exception to accept me, that I really didn’t deserve to be there, that I wore my stupidity on my sleeve and that soon the professors and powers-that-be would find out and kick me out.
That never happened. (I actually left after receiving my Master’s to pursue writing.) But it didn’t quell my fears.
Even when I received high grades and positive feedback and praise, I still felt a gnawing discomfort that I just didn’t belong in such a smart place.
I also wasn’t the only one. My cohort and I talked regularly about feeling like our department had a made a mistake in admitting us. We worried about keeping up, regularly questioned our intelligence and abilities and felt insecure all-around.
Apparently, what we were experiencing is known as the “impostor phenomenon.” In the 1970s, professors Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D, and Suzanne Imes, Ph.D, coined the term.
Clance first noticed this phenomenon with her students. She saw that despite being smart and accomplished students, they still felt unsure of themselves.
To learn about the phenomenon, Clance and Imes held workshops for successful women, where they talked with them about the phenomenon. Despite their successes and accolades, these women still felt like impostors and rationalized their accomplishments were due to “chance or charm,” according to a gradPSYCH article. (Other research has revealed that men also have these feelings.)
A few years ago, The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) also wrote an article about the impostor phenomenon and how it affects science professors and grad students. The author briefly quotes Clance and Imes’s 1978 paper in Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice:
“These women do not experience an internal sense of success,” wrote Clance. “They consider themselves to be ‘impostors’ despite scoring well on standardised tests, earning advanced degrees, and receiving professional awards.”
People who see themselves as impostors think that this somehow protects them from the shock of failure, according to the gradPSYCH article. The perspective goes that if you set low expectations, you won’t be as crushed when you fail than if you proceed with confidence. The drop isn’t as long.
It also takes the pressure off. According to a piece in The New York Times:
In an interview, Dr. McElwee said that as a social strategy, projecting oneself as an impostor can lower expectations for a performance and take pressure off a person — as long as the self-deprecation doesn’t go too far. “It’s the difference between saying you got drunk before the SAT and actually doing it,” she said. “One provides a ready excuse, and the other is self-destructive.”
So some people may be “phony phonies,” who “adopt self-deprecation as a social strategy, consciously or not, and are secretly more confident than they let on.”
(Interestingly, the same article says that impostor feelings may protect against another thing: your own self-delusions.)
But if you are having trouble with impostor feelings, what can you do? These are several of my fave tips from gradPSYCH. (See here for the full list.)
- Be patient. Most people feel like impostors when they take on new responsibilities. Just because you feel underqualified today doesn’t mean you’ll always feel that way, says Leila Durr, PhD. Accepting your feelings–without dwelling on them–can rob them of their power, she notes.
- Acknowledge positive feedback. Too often, says Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, people who feel like impostors don’t absorb compliments. She suggests keeping a praise notebook. Gail Matthews, PhD, recommends asking people to be more specific in their accolades.
- Fight compulsive work habits. Many people who experience impostor feelings develop “magic” rituals that help them study for tests and feel prepared. Experiment with what it would be like to take a test without having pulled an all-nighter, for example.
Do you feel like an impostor? What helps you overcome these feelings? Do you set low expectations to temper the pressure?