What is Imposter Syndrome?

“I don’t belong here.”
“I shouldn’t have gotten an A in that class.”
“They made a mistake accepting me to this program.”
“I didn’t deserve a good grade on that project.”
“Everyone else is so much smarter than me.”
“I’m a fraud.”
“I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“I’m not smart enough to finish my degree.”
“I suck at research.”
“I don’t know how to write.”
“I’m not intellectual enough to be an academic.”

Have you ever had any of these or similar thoughts?  I have. I’ve had them all. And so many more. If you’re one of the few students or academics who hasn’t been crippled by self-doubt, congratulations. Go get yourself a cookie. The rest of us are suffering from Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome is a well-researched phenomenon that was first termed by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. Since then, their research terminology has become fairly commonplace among senior students and faculty. But for those of you who are just starting out, you may have these feelings but not know that it’s a real affliction.  

Your (lack of) self-confidence in academic settings is tied to the dialogue you hold in your mind. But those thoughts of self-doubt are usually tied to external factors: you may look different or sound different from others in your department, you may not have a prestigious/elite background, or you may have experienced discrimination or abuse that feeds your negative self-narrative. Imposter Syndrome can be as simple and inane as your feelings toward a 2-page course paper, or it can be as big and life-affecting as thinking your presence and existence in certain spaces is wrong.    

Let me be clear, though: Imposter Syndrome should not be confused with depression, anxiety, or stress. Sure, those aspects of your life can be exacerbated, but Imposter Syndrome an active and conscious experience; one where your internal dialogue talks you out of feeling like you belong, talks you out of being proud of your accomplishments, or talks you out of thinking you’re not as skilled as you truly are.

Take me, for example:  I have a PhD. I am a Historian. I have studied and speak multiple languages. I know how to conduct research. I have a set of skills that are useful privately and professionally. And yet, I have doubted myself academically since I started college 15 years ago. All of those negative self-doubting thoughts got progressively worse as I started graduate school.  Even now, with my degree prominently hanging in an overpriced frame in my home office, I still feel like an imposter sometimes. That feeling has never gone away. Sure, it has transformed, but it hasn’t gone away.

When I was an undergraduate, there was always that nagging voice: “You didn’t even finish high school. Why are pretending like you can finish college?” It was true; I dropped out of high school, but I took community college classes to make up the credits. I started my 4-year (5 in my case) Bachelor’s on the same footing as everyone else. But I hadn’t taken the “normal” path that my peers had.  

My Imposter Syndrome only worsened when I started receiving acceptance letters to graduate school. “Good Lord, UChicago accepted me. They must have been scraping the bottom of the barrel when they sent me that letter.” Gurl, I was so scurred when I attended perspective students’ day in April 2011.  Nobody looked like me. Nobody acted like me. And my peers were from elite undergraduate programs. I was convinced for the entirety of my time as a Master’s student that I had been accepted because I was the “diversity candidate” (non-elite school background, brown, queer). I’d get an A in a class and think I didn’t deserve it because I had to learn the difference between al-Mustansir and al-Mustasim when others already knew who they were. My peers would spout off phrases in French like it was nothing and I would wonder why I had studied Russian instead of something useful (Trust, that changed in 2016!).  They would write their course papers in one night and I’d flounder around for a week trying to construct a single paragraph.

I put in the work to get accepted to a PhD program, so I didn’t doubt myself when I was applying. I knew I could do it. And I thought the Imposter Syndrome would subside because I had managed to get my MA and prove to myself (and to all the naysayers [there were none except for the ones in my head]) that I could be an academic. But child, once I started the PhD program in 2013, that damned Imposter Syndrome reared its ugly head donning a new wig and make-up. It was a completely different level of I-can’t-do-this-itude. It changed from silly things like wondering if my language skills were up to par to grander issues of existing within the university space. “I don’t have a topic. I don’t know how to research. Why is this so hard for me?”  The thoughts just wouldn’t stop. And as I progressed year after year, department review after department review, the Imposter Syndrome never subsided. I’d get a research grant and think, “This should have gone to Sharon because her research is more important than mine.”  And while I recognized that a lot of my struggle bussing through grad school was Imposter Syndrome, much of it was worsened by academic abuse perpetrated by [insert your own adjective] professors.  

Now that I’m Docteur Auggie, you would think that the Imposter Syndrome would just retire and move on to afflicting someone else, but no. The bitch is persistent and is now promoting these lovely ideas: “You just got lucky,” “Your 250-page dissertation sucks,” and “You’ve wasted your life.” 

The Cure:

If you suffer from Imposter Syndrome, get used to it. It probably won’t go away. And it will transform as you hit different stages in your life, at times more prominently than others. I’ve been researching and trying to figure out how to rid myself of this damned affliction, but all of the advice that I come across is really hokey: “Stand in front of a mirror and tell yourself that you’re worth it. Meditate with a self-empowering mantra. Seek internal peace by Mortal Kombatting your demons.” Nah. I already feel like an idiot. I’m sure it works for some people, but there’s only one way that I’ve found relief: TALKING. Pluralistic ignorance is real, and you’d be surprised at how many people around you have the same exact thoughts you’re having without verbalizing them. All you have to do is ask a friend or peer: “Do you ever feel like you just can’t do this?” You might just feel a little better after that conversation.

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