Imposter Syndrome and How to Fix it
Written by Dorothy Zhao // Illustrated by Maria Ahmad
Or, at least, how to live with it. You aren’t alone when you feel like a fraud in a sea of successful people.
Fake it ‘til you make it.
That’s what everyone tells me. Even if I don’t feel confident or know enough to fulfill every qualification, that’s okay! And, besides, I’m qualified anyway, right? My resume is two pages, I have a full-time job offer after graduation and I’ve been selected as a valedictorian candidate of the Washkewicz College of Engineering.
Every morning, I wake up and feel like I’m choking. Or drowning. Or losing. I feel this overwhelming urge to give up entirely on school, my career and my future.
Imposter syndrome affects everyone, but especially high achievers and minorities. Anyone who has the pressure of accomplishing tasks for the first time in their family or generation can relate. As an Asian American woman in engineering, I especially felt isolated and like an imposter. I desperately wanted to belong and to be accepted by my peers and professors since the first day of class freshman year. As a last semester senior, I worry about heading into the workplace this summer after graduation. I know I’ll feel hesitant and unsure of myself and my skills. I know I’ll probably think “I’m only here because I’m a diversity hire” or “I’m in this position of a software developer solely due to the fact that my abilities have been vastly overestimated.” In work environments, women have a tendency of judging their own performance as worse than they actually are or attributing their success to just luck.
In the 1978 paper titled “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” and written by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, they define this phenomenon as an internal experience of “intellectual phonies.” They surveyed women who had “outstanding academic and professional accomplishments” but believed they are not actually intelligent. These women affected by the imposter syndrome reported having symptoms like generalized anxiety, lack of self confidence and depression. The women interviewed think they’ve fooled those around them, despite their achievements. Clance and Imes enumerated four behaviors that maintains the imposter syndrome I thought were intriguing and enlightening.
First, because the fear that one’s lack of ability will be discovered is always present, one studies and works diligently to prevent that discovery. There is a reinforcing cycle of worrying about one’s intelligence, working hard to cover up insecurities and receiving adequate grades or performance. I know I’ve gone through several of these cycles and the feelings of success are addicting, but fleeting. Clance and Imes described the belief of thinking one could actually succeed, then one would instead fail as that of a “magical ritual,” to which I agree. I can’t believe I can succeed, but I’m surprised when I do. It feels almost superstitious.
Second, women choose to not reveal their real opinions or ideas when asked to do so. Intellectual inauthenticity, as mentioned in the research paper, can manifest in intellectual flattery. On some level, I could understand supporting someone else’s ideas instead of my own -simply because I thought mine weren’t impressive enough.
Third, charm and perceptiveness are employed by women to gain the approval of superiors and peers. A woman makes it her goal to be liked and to be recognized as competent. This behavior was something I strongly related to because despite what I’ve been told by those around me, I don’t think I’m intellectually superior, creative or special in any way. I have a hard time believing people who say so because they might have based their opinions on my other attributes. That begs the question, do I need outside approval? Shouldn’t I have confidence in my own abilities? The women of the study oftentimes believed true geniuses and innovators did not need validation. As a result, they themselves lacked integrity by engaging in the phony behavior of being charming.
Fourth and finally, as long as one maintains the notion that one is not bright, one can avoid societal rejection. Clance and Imes cited previous studies that pointed out how successful, independent women can be viewed as unfeminine and suffer other negative consequences. This last factor of imposter phenomenon didn’t stick out to me as much as the others because I don’t necessarily fear being regarded as aggressive or masculine. If, or once, I become successful in my career, I would feel empowered enough to ignore certain parts of society that might judge me.
Those experiencing the syndrome devalue their worth and undermine their expertise.
Jessica Bennett, a journalist at The New York Times, points out imposter syndrome as more than just feeling like a fraud. Those experiencing the syndrome devalue their worth and undermine their expertise. I know I carried this dread for two consecutive internships, thinking I was going to get fired at a moment’s notice by my manager. I tutored a family friend and didn’t even want to accept the check. I even believed on some level that I didn’t do anything meaningful enough in my internships and classes.
However, we can fight the imposter feeling. Know you’re not alone. Visualize success. Write down three things you’ve done well today. In fact, it helps me a great amount to remind myself what I’m good at. I won’t explain away or diminish my successes. It wasn’t just luck, hard work or other people’s help - my triumphs can come from just my innate ability or intelligence. At the risk of sounding like a braggart, I also must remember my failures. The internships and colleges I applied to but didn’t get accepted into, the classes I’ve gotten less-than-satisfactory grades in, and the experiences I’ve missed as a result of my introversion have all been mistakes and learning opportunities. Repeat after me: failure does not make me a fraud.
Mike Cannon-Brookes is the CEO of Atlassian, a software company he started with his friend straight out of university. He is now a billionaire, but he suffers from imposter syndrome, too. He even gave a TED Talk about his imposter syndrome and how he used it for his own benefit. Cannon-Brookes starts off by stating he had no grand plan, and he’s felt for the past fifteen years that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing most days. The co-founder of a multinational company describes being petrified someone would call him out and just guessing his way out of situations. He addresses his audience, saying you have to figure a way out of the situation you’re entrenched in.
“You know you’re not skilled enough, experienced enough, qualified enough to justify being there, yet, you are there,” he emphasized.
Imposter syndrome isn’t a fear of failure or being unable to do it, necessarily. It’s more of a sensation of getting away with something and a fear of being discovered. Cannon-Brookes, however, believes that isn’t all bad. The feelings can have some benefit. He mentions multiple times in his TED Talk that as he introspectively looked into his own experiences of imposter syndrome, he tried to harness them for a force for good. He knows he isn’t alone because the assumption that successful people don’t feel like frauds just isn’t true. He encourages everyone to keep trying and learning. Instead of freezing up, try to keep the conversation going. Successful people don’t question themselves -- they question their ideas and knowledge. They aren’t afraid to ask for advice to hone their ideas. Cannon-Brookes concludes that it is okay to be out of your depth. Be aware of your imposter syndrome. So long as you don’t freeze but do harness the situation, you can turn your imposter syndrome into a force for good.
Imposter Syndrome Test: https://paulineroseclance.com/pdf/IPTestandscoring.pdf