I remember back in graduate school when I was first applying for academic positions. At that point, I had been studying psychology intensely for about 8 years and had a pretty good grasp on the topic (although I’ve learned a TON more since then). I had published some of my research and received strong student evaluations for my teaching. My graduate advisor told me I was ready to move on.
By all accounts, I was well prepared to take the next step and become a psychology professor. And yet, one thing continued to linger in the back of my mind:
“I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not ready for this. I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
These thoughts would pop up at random times and make me wonder whether I was just a big fraud who really didn’t know what he was doing.
I remember one specific time when was I interviewing for a job. During my research talk (which is a common part of academic interviews), a professor in the audience asked me a question about one of my studies. After I gave my answer, he shook his head a bit, as if to say, “Nope, that’s wrong.” Although he said nothing further, I knew for sure that he had found me out—I was just a punk kid who didn’t know what he was talking about. Obviously, I wasn’t going to get the job…
Well, as it turns out, I did get the job. Moreover, after thinking about the professor’s question for awhile, I realized that I had answered his question correctly. He was the one who was wrong!
About a year later, I was sitting in my office reflecting on my first semester as a college professor. I remember thinking to myself, “Wow! I actually do know what I’m doing. My advisor was right: I was ready to become a college professor.”
And yet, even though I had experienced a number of “successes” by that point, I still had lingering doubts about my ability to be a really good college professor.
So why did I doubt myself?
Hello Imposter Syndrome!
This phenomenon—that despite our external accomplishments, we still don’t believe we’re good enough—is known as “imposter syndrome.”
And I think it keeps a lot of people from doing things they really want to do in life.
First introduced by the psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes and studied in high-achieving women, imposter syndrome (which Clance and Imes called the “imposter phenomenon”) refers to the lingering belief that we’re not competent or that we don’t deserve success, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.
People with imposter syndrome believe that they are phonies or frauds and that any success they have achieved is due to luck or other external factors. None of their success is due to intelligence, ability, or hard work.
The interesting part about imposter syndrome is that people who suffer from it tend to be the only ones who can’t see that they have what it takes to be successful—that they’ve “got the goods.”
Unfortunately, I see this syndrome a lot in my students (and others). In fact, I still see it in myself sometimes.
Imposter Syndrome: A Couple Examples
Let me give you a couple more examples of what imposter syndrome looks like.
A few years ago, I had a student who was clearly exceptional. By all accounts, she had excelled during her college years: She had a very high GPA, great scores on her graduate-admissions tests, extensive research experience (including a publication, which is rare for undergraduates), and even teaching experience. Plus, she was just an all-around good person.
But when it came time for her to apply to graduate programs, I noticed that she was applying to programs that were clearly below her ability level. When I asked her about it, she proceeded to tell me how she “wasn’t that good” and that there was no way she’d ever get into a top-notch program.
After some discussion, I finally convinced her to “up her game” a bit and apply to some PhD programs. I still don’t think she believed in herself, but she went along with me anyway.
Long story short, she ended up getting into several excellent PhD programs. She is now in a highly rated graduate program and doing very well.
More recently (as you know if you’ve been following my blog at all), I decided that I wanted to get into a band again. I had played guitar in a few different bands when I was younger, and I realized that I really missed that part of my youth.
There was a problem, though: I didn’t think I was good enough. I had spent the last couple of years taking lessons and getting my “chops” back. And still, I didn’t believe I was good enough to join a real band.
Eventually, I convinced myself that I needed to take the first step and see where I stood. I remember getting together with my future bandmates and talking about what we hoped to accomplish if we decided to start a band. I kept telling them over and over that I might not be good enough or up to their level (because all of them had played in bands recently). In fact, I think my negative talk made them doubt my abilities, even though they hadn’t even heard me play yet.
Well, the first rehearsal came, and as we started practicing our songs, I realized that maybe I could hold my own. We started to learn more and more songs, and I found myself being able to play them competently.
For the first time in my recent guitar-playing life, I thought to myself, “Maybe I’m not an imposter!”
I knew I had (and still have) a lot more to learn, but at the very least, I came to realize that I had greatly underestimated my ability. (I’m also incredibly fortunate to have bandmates who are very supportive and who continue to tell me that “you got this” when I start to question my ability.)
A Few Problems with Imposter Syndrome
Unfortunately, there are numerous problems that come with having imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome can lead to burnout.
Because people who suffer from imposter syndrome don’t want to be “found out,” they often work incredibly hard to cover for their perceived shortcomings. They hope that doing so will keep others from finding out “the truth.” Unfortunately, they overwork and eventually become burned out.
Imposter syndrome is self-perpetuating.
When people suffer from imposter syndrome, they often purposely hold back from performing at their highest levels. Then when their performance suffers, it confirms their pre-existing beliefs about being imposters. And so the cycle continues.
Imposter syndrome keeps people from setting their sights high and pursing big, important goals.
When people believe they don’t have what it takes to be successful or to achieve their goals, they often don’t even try. They convince themselves they’re not able. They also convince themselves that not failing is more important than achieving their big goals or pursuing their dreams.
And so they stay put, not improving or growing in any important ways.
Or if they do try, they set the bar really low so they don’t have to experience failure. In this case, these people often pursue what psychologists call “performance-avoidance” goals.
Performance-avoidance goals are those where the objective is simply to avoid doing worse than others. For example, a student who pursues performance-avoidance goals in class simply wants to make sure he doesn’t get one of the lowest grades in class. He can avoid “failure” by showing others that he has, in fact, exceeded the goals he set for himself—even if they are relatively low (and even if they do result in a less-than-desirable grade).
The problem with these goals is that they typically have a negative effect on motivation and performance. People who set the bar really low don’t get excited about what they’re pursuing. And because their goals are relatively easy to reach, their performance doesn’t improve that much.
Imposter Syndrome: We All Have It
Interestingly, as I’ve talked to more and more students (and others) about the idea of imposter syndrome, I’ve come to realize this:
Many of them believe they’re the only ones suffering from it. They believe that everyone else but them has it “figured out.”
But here’s the reality:
A number of studies over the past 30 or so years have shown that upwards of 70% of people (including Albert Einstein and actress Emma Watson) experience imposter syndrome at some time during their lives (for more examples, see here and here).
I know this is definitely the case for many of my students. As they struggle to get their lives in order, they convince themselves that they’re the only ones who still have questions about their abilities or concerns about where they’re headed in life.
And because being an imposter is perceived as a “bad” thing, they take steps to make sure others don’t find out the truth. Instead, they claim that everything is good, that they know exactly what they want to do with their lives, that they have everything figured out.
Unfortunately, when everyone takes steps to conceal their imposter syndrome, what we’re left with is the collective perception that “I’m the only one who doesn’t know what I’m doing.”
The fact of the matter is that many of us have, at one time or another, suffered from imposter syndrome.
And if that’s the case, we should be willing to open up and talk to others about it. In fact, one of the best treatments for imposter syndrome is talking to others and realizing that many (if not most) people are in the very same boat.
When we finally accept the fact that “we’re all imposters,” we’re more likely to try things out and see where we stand.
And when we finally take a chance and do that, we often surprise ourselves.
If you have a minute, I’d love to hear what you think about this post. Have you ever dealt with imposter syndrome? Do you know others who have? How did you deal with it? Please leave a comment below.
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