Over recent months, the not-so-new, yet highly popular buzzword, “imposter syndrome” seemed to be popping up everywhere. A search on BuzzSumo revealed that 5041 articles related to this theme were posted to Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit from 1 April 2022 – 20 July 2022.  Via Brand24, a hashtag analysis indicated 34 billion hits on YouTube and 1.7 billion posts on Tiktok during the same period. These statistics don’t strike me as the least bit strange, especially considering the modern workplace with its intense competition and quest for excellence. In fact, as I reflect on my own academic career, I can pinpoint several of these experiences of feeling imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is a term used to describe a persistent internal feeling of personal incompetence regardless of your accomplishments, education, and experience. Despite not being a medical condition or an official diagnosis listed in the DSM, psychologists and others affirm it as an “experience” that causes individuals to doubt their achievements, to consider themselves as being underperformers, and to have unsettling fears of being revealed as a fraud. Do I truly have a purpose here? Am I deserving of this praise?  Do I really do good work? Will I get fired? These are only a few examples of the thoughts that individuals with imposter syndrome frequently deal with.

As you can imagine, the dilemma with imposter syndrome is that it can quickly develop into a vicious cycle with detrimental effects. One is inclined to continuously work harder and have higher expectations of oneself to combat these thoughts and feelings. Although this could appear to be a positive initially, the increasing strain will undoubtedly have an impact on your emotional health. The worst aspect of this cycle is that your thoughts and emotions don’t shift when you do accomplish more.

Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes developed this concept in 1978, stating that it often affects high achievers who believe they are less competent than others perceive them to be.  These feelings are highly prevalent and experienced by up to 82% of individuals in any profession, at all career phases, from graduate students to tenured professors. It presents in many forms, a graduate student may believe their marks are not high enough, while a post-doctoral researcher may conclude that the findings of their research do not justify their funding. 

I love the way that Charlesworth Author Services describe this as having a complex relationship with success: you want success, but are terrified of achieving it. When you finally achieve success, you experience shame and guilt and attempt to conceal it by downplaying your accomplishments. This seems spot on, and has been true since the earliest of times –  Charles Darwin reportedly admitted the same: “But I am very poorly today & very stupid & I hate everybody & everything. One lives only to make blunders”.

Imposter syndrome is frequently discussed in relation to perceptions of personal deficiency. However, I think it is crucial to consider the origins of these experiences as well as the forces that uphold them. One hypothesis holds that it is rooted in biological and developmental aspects during childhood experiences with families that prioritized achievement above all, while another contends that families with high levels of conflict and inadequate support may be the root. Imposter syndrome has also been connected to internal elements including personality traits, particularly perfectionistic impulses, low self-confidence, and fear of taking on new responsibilities. Furthermore, underlying mental health challenges, such as social anxiety or depression, have been known to exacerbate perceptions of imposter syndrome. Another link that we are all too familiar with, is when imposter syndrome appears in times of transitions. Think about the COVID-19 pandemic which brought significant changes in teaching and learning.  Or, when we start a new role, new course, embrace a new technology, these are the times when imposterism may rear its ugly head. 

Then, of course the external forces that cannot be disregarded. Studies have shown impostor experiences to be linked to societal factors; it is generally known that women and racialized groups have a greater likelihood of imposter feelings due to the widespread use of stereotypes and the resulting prejudice they encounter. In this sense, the unpleasant feeling of inadequacy originates from macro-level circumstances and is sustained by institutional policies and workplace norms.

There isn’t a simple, universal strategy to overcome imposter syndrome. Like the millions of searches, there are also millions of recommendations, which range from attending conferences to practicing in front of a mirror. It will probably need consistent mindfulness practice and cognitive behaviour techniques to get past such pervasive emotions of inadequacy.

For me, it would make sense to start by becoming conscious of one’s own self-imposed accomplishment criteria and being more aware of what success means to you.  Whenever these feelings do pop up, carefully analyse them in terms of facts to back them up. In recent years I’ve learned that it can be beneficial to stop exaggerating isolated events and inflating the number of perceived mistakes you believe you have made. Instead, learn to celebrate all opportunities for growth and learning (not just those that resulted in flawless execution). Finally, finding meaning outside of work to avoid turning professional challenges into personal failures, is a good way to build confidence that will withstand the relentless pressures of academia. It also helps develop compassionate, positive ways of relating to yourself.

Everyone wants to feel validated when they succeed but imposter syndrome can make this feel impossible. While we continue fighting these uncertainties and fail to acknowledge our accomplishments, we are sacrificing potentially fulfilling moments of your lives. In the end, the only person we are truly fooling, is ourselves.

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