Working Around Imposter Syndrome: Who do You Think You Are?

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Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor once told the New York Times that she was always looking over her shoulder, wondering if she measured up. Author Maya Angelou said that every time she wrote a book, she felt like she had “run a game” on everybody, and they would find her out.

“In every job I’ve had in the last 25 years, I’ve been the first woman to hold my position,” Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, wrote in an op-ed for Slate. “As my career progressed, so did the intensity of my feelings of failure.” 

The common thread in each woman’s story is impostor syndrome. According to Klawe, the term applies to successful people who are unable to internalize their achievements. They may feel like they’re fooling the people around them into thinking that they’re more competent than they are. They may attribute their own success to luck, computer errors or may downplay their accomplishments.

 

Tracy Callandrillo, director of American University’s Counseling Center, cautions against conflating impostor syndrome with garden-variety self-doubt. Impostor syndrome, she says, involves a pattern. For example, failing a test could make someone more determined to try harder next time. Others, however, dwell on their failures.

“Failure is a big piece of attaining success,” Callandrillo said. “But the difference is, when you attain your success, are you able to own that? Or is there a pattern of [telling yourself] ‘I got that because I was lucky,’ or ‘Someone made a mistake?’”

I have spent my years since Princeton, while at law school and in my various professional jobs, not feeling completely a part of the worlds I inhabit I am always looking over my shoulder wondering if I measure up. —Sonia Sotomayor


Imposters suffer from more than just self-doubt, according to Valerie Young, an author and educator who specializes in impostor syndrome.

 “Most everyone experiences self-doubt— which is normal and healthy because it keeps us humble,” Young said. “People who feel like impostors, however, feel like the fact that they do doubt their competence just ‘proves’ they’re less competent [than] people think they are.” 

Impostor syndrome can be an intensely shameful experience, and for those who feel like a fraud, the prospect of being outed can be terrifying.

 “That’s one of the central ways in which impostor syndrome has power,” Callandrillo said. “Especially in college, there’s a very strong pressure to act like you have it together when, in reality, pretty much no one has it together all the time.” 

Researchers have found that impostor syndrome can affect anyone, regardless of identity. However, it does disproportionately affect certain groups.

 “While both men and women experience impostor syndrome, women are far more susceptible,” economist Kate Bahn wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Given the messages of inadequacy that many women have internalized throughout their lives, it’s hardly surprising that many of us are wondering if we can hack it.”   

The syndrome is also more common among people of color, as well as those who do not identify as straight and cisgender. Science journalist Kirsten Weir researched imposter syndrome in marginalized groups, ultimately concluding in an article for the American Psychological Association that “differing in any way from the majority of your peers — whether by race, gender, sexual orientation, or some other characteristic — can fuel the sense of being a fraud.”

“But the difference is, when you attain your success, are you able to own that? Or is there a pattern of [telling yourself] ‘I got that because I was lucky,’ or ‘Someone made a mistake?’”  

Instead of suffering in silence, Callandrillo advises students to pay attention to their internal dialogues and to look for patterns.

“Noticing patterns helps you change your patterns,” she said. She also recommends talking about it to others.

“Getting it outside of yourself makes it less powerful,” she said. 

Klawe, for example, gives presentations on what she calls “impostoritis” to students and fellow scientists. She believes that developing coping mechanisms and building a support system can be beneficial. 

“I wake up most days with a voice on the left side of my head telling me what an incredible failure I am,” she wrote. “But the voice on the right side tells me that I can change the world — and I try to pay more attention to it.”

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