Have you ever felt like you don’t belong in a certain places, like a job or a graduate school program? Ever feel like you’re not really as smart as everyone else in the room, and that one day you’ll be “found out?” If so, you’re certainly not alone, not by a long shot.
“Impostor syndrome,” as it has been dubbed, is a phenomenon that occurs to many people, especially those with "high-achiever" personalities. This occurrence, though not a diagnosable illness, it is a kind of intellectual self-doubt; even those who have many achievements under their belt get those feelings of inadequacy.
First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in the 1970s, impostor phenomenon occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.
Does that sound familiar? For some of you it certainly may; I know it does for me.
In my life, many brilliant people I respect have told me that I should consider going to law school. I have a very analytical mind, and can apparently see the way that law works.
I competed in mock appellate advocacy for three of my four years in undergrad. Two of those years I, along with my partner, worked our way up to national competitions. A few years ago we ended up in the top 32 out of hundreds of teams. I did well in these competitions; I was able to create solid arguments (thanks to some excellent coaching) and we both excelled.
Yet whenever the idea of law school comes to mind, I doubt myself. I doubt if I can do the work, if I will be able to keep up with all the “geniuses” that would surely be my classmates. How could I keep up with them? Are they going to suddenly realize that I feel so inadequate compared to them, regardless of how well I do?
These are all telltale signs of impostor syndrome; I seem to have it and I’m sure that there are plenty of you reading this who can empathize. What can we do about this issue? Luckily we are not without hope. The APA offers several suggestions for overcoming this self-doubt.
Talk to your mentors. Mentors are those whom we trust; if we confide in them and open up, we can out that we are not alone in this struggle, but also that these fears are often irrational. William Somerville was a grad student who struggled with this despite high achievement, but talking to his mentors greatly helped him to overcome.
"The thing that made so much difference was supportive, encouraging supervision," he said.
Recognize your expertise. Know that if you are in grad school or a highly complex work field, you’re there for a reason. Obviously, someone has recognized that you’ve got what it takes to be there. With that in mind, don’t become arrogant of your abilities, but recognize that someone else saw what you have to contribute and wanted to have you there.
Realize no one is perfect. We are fallen individuals. No one can do everything perfectly all the time. At some point, each of us will mess up somewhere. I’m a messed up person, I recognize this. I need a Savior just as much as anyone else on this earth. I can do things well, but I am not perfect. The humility factor keeps my mind in check when working or considering future endeavors. Don't underestimate the power of humility!
It’s not easy to open up about this kind of struggle. Those of us who are high-achievers don’t want to be seen as weak or vulnerable; that’s our worst fear. However, if we are to overcome an issue such as this, it requires opening up with people we trust so that they can help us.
Have you ever felt like an imposter? Know that you're not alone.