Soon they will all know the truth that I am an idiot and don’t belong here. I better not speak up because I am surely wrong about this. These people know so much more than I do/have so many more accomplishments than I have/belong here and I don’t.
If these self-destructive thoughts sound familiar, then you might be suffering from Impostor Syndrome. First described by Clance and Imes (1978) as an ‘imposter phenomenon’ observed in high-achieving women, it is now generally understood to impact both men and women. I believe it can be observed in a great many graduate students as well.
And why wouldn’t it? We might be in school when others have “real jobs,” and if we are working we are “not serious” about our academics (no matter how well we are performing in our coursework). Every few months there is some evaluative program milestone to get anxious about, as well as a relentless stream of “constructive criticism” from instructors and mentors. The way seems fraught with constant assaults on one’s self-esteem. Not to mention that the work and thinking can be hard (as I wrote about in an earlier post, “Grad School made me stupid“). Feeling like an impostor seems like a very normal reaction to these circumstances. That being said, spending energy on feeling this way can be self-destructive, especially when it prevents us from speaking our minds, taking necessary risks in our work, or just generally experiencing peace of mind. So how to overcome this insidious state of mind? While I’m no expert, I feel I have received good advice on dealing with it and thought I would share it in this space. Additionally, I’ve crowd-sourced suggestions from my Twitter and Facebook networks and found some great ideas for dealing with it from those who’ve dealt with it themselves.
Share how you feel. Find a support group and ask them for help. I find that having diversity in those I talk things over with is a key component to success with this. I have friends who are finished with their degrees, friends in my program, friends in other programs, and friends who couldn’t care less about my grad program. I can commiserate, get advice from those ahead of me, and get grounded from friends outside this crazy, academic world. In this way I am validated while also moving towards a solution. There is nothing that I dislike more than hearing myself complain without also identifying a course of action to overcome the problem. My support network is good at helping me do that.
Be kind to yourself. I can be really good at the negative self-talk. Many years ago, it was suggested to me to imagine that I was directing such talk at a good friend, rather than at myself. I was horrified: I couldn’t imagine saying such awful things to someone I cared about. That was a wake-up call to try and change my thought patterns. When the negative self-talk rears its ugly head, I usually repeat a positive phrase, distract myself, or go ask someone else how they are. All of these are good ways to short-circuit it for me. Also, I usually have a couple of goals related to what I am doing that don’t require external validation to meet. For example, rather than only feeling good if a conference proposal is accepted, I set my own goal to have fun writing it. Goals focused on my own self-actualization make it easier for me to run the gantlet of judgement from my instructors, committees, and reviewers.
Fake it ’til you make it. This was the most common piece of advice from my crowd-sourcing. Acting as if I belong will eventually lead to belonging. Imagining how I would behave if I were not feeling so insecure was useful. I just acted that way until I owned it (I even named my unflappable alter-ego and acted as if I were her. Also, I have a theme song. I don’t know: it just works!)
Help others. When I’m honest with myself, feeling this way is incredibly self-centered. Staying in my head in this state is just unwise. Taking two minutes to help someone else can make the all the difference in how I feel. Ask your classmates how they are. Go on Facebook and see who is having a bad day and write to them. Look around you: does someone need a hand? Sometimes I just write notes (on paper, with a pen, envelope, and stamp) to friends or family to say hello, knowing that it will brighten their day. At various points in my academic career I’ve volunteered in soup kitchens, with the developmentally disabled, and I am still an adult literacy tutor. An hour a week helping someone learn to read is a great way to remind myself that there are a lot harder pursuits than being in a graduate program, and there are many more things that matter than whether my advisor or classmates think I am smart.
All of this being said, grad school can be a really stressful time. If you are struggling with anxiety, depression, or just feel too overwhelmed to tackle your negative feelings yourself, be sure to seek help. Most campuses have counseling centers that offer free depression/anxiety screenings as well as free therapy. Please don’t suffer alone.
Be sure to tell us about your tips to dealing with Impostor Syndrome in the comments!
For more on Impostor Syndrome:
- “Unmasking the Impostor” by Karen Kaplan, published in Nature (2009).
- “Is it a problem of fit or Impostor Syndrome?” from Escape the Ivory Tower blog (2011)
- “Back to School Beatitudes: 10 Academic Survival Tips” on the Crunk Feminist Collective (2011)
- “Impostor Syndrome Quiz” from Overcome the Impostor Syndrome by Dr. Valerie Young
Clance, Pauline R.; Imes, Suzanne A. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, Vol 15(3), Fal 1978, 241-247. doi: 10.1037/h0086006
[Image by Flickr user rhoadeecha and used under Creative Commons license]
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