Feeling Like a Fraud? Reframe Your Thoughts to Confront Imposter Syndrome

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What is Impostor Syndrome? How common is it? What are ways in which we can do combat Imposter Syndrome?

It is almost exam time, so it’s a perfect time to talk a bit about Impostor Syndrome. Why? Because right now you are probably looking at the person in your chemistry class who says he doesn’t need to study, and thinking you definitely do, so you don’t belong here. Or, you are reviewing your paper and thinking it is horrible (even if you get a good grade on it).

It is literally rampant right now. And, possibly even a bit contagious.

So what exactly is it?

Impostor Syndrome is by definition a “psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed a fraud.” This belief remains consistent despite external evidence (successes!) of their competence and the person often thinks they do not deserve what they achieve, or got their successes by luck or even tricking others! It is not an actual disorder defined by medicine or psychiatry, but that doesn’t make it less real.

Sound familiar?

Let me better illustrate it with examples from you:

 ·      “I go back and forth between feeling like I am an impostor and don’t really deserve to be here, and sometimes feeling extremely competent and like I absolutely do. Sometimes it feels like the times when I feel competent should cancel out the Impostor Syndrome, but that doesn’t seem to be how it works”

·      “The jobs I’ve had complimented me on my performance. Though any time someone tells me I’ve done something well, I immediately think they’re only telling me this because I’ve actually performed badly but they want to make me feel better. I understand those thoughts aren’t true, but I can’t help it”

·      “Sometimes it feels like people my age are competing to be struggling the most. For example, you’ll say something like “I had so much homework yesterday.” And someone will respond, “You’re telling me, I had to take a 5 hour exam and work and I had homework on top of it.” This makes me feel like I need to be struggling and unhappy or else I don’t belong, and when I finally get some free time, I don’t feel happy about it, I just feel like I’m not doing enough.”

If you are reading those statements and thinking to yourself “is that me?”, well, thank you, that is precisely the point. It is most of us. Maybe not all of the time, but sometimes is enough.

The first step is acknowledging how ubiquitous these feelings are, talking about how annoying/frustrating/saddening/anxiety provoking these feelings can be, and discussing it in the open, together, without letting our feelings of shame get in the way. By doing so, we feel less alone. And, by talking about our similar feelings, it is less likely that something you say to a friend this week will actually trigger these thoughts in them.

For example, if a friend tells you that they are stressed from finals and do not think they belong here, do not respond by listing off your many tasks you have to do, or the fact that you only got a B on your last test in the class you take with her (and are concerned about your grade). Instead, think about first pausing, and then respond in a validating, not dismissive or competitive way. You can do this simply by acknowledging that you, too, feel that way, and offer support (or even study break distraction). Or, if you don’t feel you agree or don’t want to self-disclose, try simply acknowledging their emotions in general: “I can tell this is really making you anxious.” Think of this as a way of paying it forward and not exponentially domino-ing the stress around campus this week. Pause.

Beyond helping friends, you can also combat the thoughts within yourself. Being aware that when the thoughts pop up “that is just my Impostor Syndrome talking” is a great first step. Naming it allows you to not blame yourself, yet again, but this time for your thoughts.

Another way to fight the thoughts, might be to write down the distressing thought and the evidence for or against it. You then would want to try to come up with a less “distorted” “more balanced” thought.

For example, you might have the thought after a conversation with him, that your thesis supervisor does not like your work, you will never finish, and you will never have a good career.

Evidence for: The comments that my supervisor made were valid. I haven’t done my best work. My experiments have been delayed and some of them have failed

Evidence against: My supervisor has always been supportive. I have succeeded in all my work in the past, surely this won’t be the first time I fail. The University and my supervisor don’t want me to fail and want to support me and help me finish/get a job. I have received comments on my work in the past and have used critiques to improve it.

More balanced thought: The comments that my supervisor made will help to make my research better.  Both she and the university want me to succeed.

After writing this down, typically you can notice your feelings go from anger and anxiety to more hope and encouraged. Of course, this is just one suggestion of what to do, but it is a simple thing, that does not take a lot of time, and that you could consider doing to help in the next few weeks.

It is not a cure, but it is definitely a way to minimize unhelpful thoughts and give them less salience. Starting to learn to do so now, will only make it easier when the thoughts come up in the future. And, speaking from my own experience, they will.

Got a question you want to ask Dr. Gold? Submit your question to [email protected]