Advice Column: Applied Humanities: Understanding and Overcoming the “Imposter Syndrome”

Rachel Munger, University of New Mexico

At some point, many of us in academia experience imposter syndrome, a phenomenon identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes who at that time particularly explored the syndrome’s prevalence among “high-achieving women.” Continual scholarly and popular attention regarding the subject indicates that it is an ever-present problem caused by cyclical social norms and expectations. If cycles are left uninterrupted, imposter syndrome will surely remain a problem, continuing to cause people unnecessary distress.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

The basic definition of imposter syndrome is a kind of social anxiety fueled by distorted beliefs about one’s abilities, intelligence, and worth. The high-achieving academic women Clance and Imes worked with in their study all somehow believed that they were actually frauds, not truly capable or smart at all, and that they had somehow fooled everyone around them into believing otherwise. The imposter syndrome goes beyond self-doubt. It is pathological; paranoid fears and distorted views fuel maladaptive behavior manifesting in a number of ways from perfectionism to self-sabotaging.

Feeling like a Phony in Graduate School

If you have internalized the belief that you are an imposter or fraud, you don’t believe you’ve truly earned your accomplishments or positions. You worry because you feel as if your intellectual contributions are worthless or at best not up-to-par in spite of positive feedback. Perhaps you simply feel as if you don’t fit into the culture of the academy and that reason enough is cause for your fraudulence. Maybe you think you’ve gotten where you are out of sheer luck, or maybe you think success has come your way just because you’re a likable person. You might even believe you somehow work harder than everyone else, and that’s why you’ve just barely made it. Whatever the reason for your success, it’s certainly not because of you and your unique talents, gifts, and contributions.

If you suffer from imposter syndrome, at your core, you feel like a phony, and the compulsive fear of being exposed as such motivates the ways you behave in addition to the feelings and thoughts you have about yourself and others. Sound familiar? If it does, you’re not alone. More people than not have experienced feelings of being an imposter or fraud at work, school, or even life in general (this last instance being the most extreme kind of case, rooted in “toxic shame.”)

Imposters Everywhere

Since its initial identification, the imposter phenomenon has been examined in different professional settings as well as through the lenses of marginalized demographics such as people of color, young people, and poor and working class people—pretty much anyone who doesn’t by default fit into the dominant culture; however, it is important to consider that while marginalized groups can be expected to struggle with imposter syndrome at higher rates and perhaps more intensely than those from the “dominant culture,” the experience of feeling fraudulent in one’s work is a problem more people deal with than not, regardless of their race, gender, or socioeconomic background, etc., indicating a deeper, more fundamental cultural reason for its omnipresence. Joyce Roché has written on her experiences with imposter syndrome as a black woman climbing the corporate ladder through the 80s and 90s and reflects that “recognizing yourself as part of an underclass in the context of a dominant culture is what, I think, sets off the imposter syndrome”; however, she admits that “cultural dominance can take on many forms and can assert itself in a variety of ways” (Roché ch. 6). That is to say, there are many reasons an individual may feel like they pathologically don’t belong.

Approaches to and Causes of Imposter Syndrome

In order to understand imposter syndrome, it is helpful to speculate on its primordial origins and causes. Like many other psychological problems people face, imposter syndrome is no different in that its origins typically lie in experiences had in youth when most impressionable i.e. our experiences as young people may predispose us for developing imposter syndrome later in life. As children, the ways in which we encounter systemic, cyclical patterns within families and societies at large play significant roles in our psychological development. The original study by Clance and Imes suggests that out of the 150 women they worked with, “family situation and upbringing [had] a lot to do with how [they felt] about themselves and their abilities.” Often times, people who experience feelings of fraudulence have deeply internalized the influences and expectations of social climates that reflect distorted views of reality already which are compounded by cultural obsessions with not wanting to seem weak or show emotion. It is worthwhile to ponder how “in Western conversation about human expression, spoken or written, the great villain has always been self-consciousness” (Lanham 142) since self-consciousness is actually a necessary component in the process of coming to terms with feelings of being an imposter and relieving the distress caused by it. It cannot be emphasized enough that this strong reluctance to engage in self-conscious expression and reflection greatly impedes peoples’ abilities to cope and come to terms with their experiences of feeling like an imposter.

Imposter syndrome expert Valerie Young explains that “for kids, approval is like oxygen” (Secret Thoughts 28), but as adults, we need to be able to give that approval to ourselves. We need to be able to make—in almost a paradoxical kind of way—non-judgmental judgments about ourselves insofar as the judgments we make about ourselves should never be so extreme as to be all good or all bad. The environment a person is raised in can largely determine how they judge or view themselves professionally and academically. For instance, some people receive too much praise or attention as children for what could be considered mediocrity while others never receive praise or approval at all for outstanding work and achievements. Parents and teachers have all kinds of reasons for their rearing and instructing of children when giving or withholding praise and approval, and usually they are motivated with the best intentions ranging from not wishing an arrogant personality upon a child to sheltering young people from criticism in order to protect them from the negative emotions associated with it. Neither extreme allows a path to psychological health and both can lead to future adults who may feel—consciously or not—like phonies: frauds and imposters who must endlessly prove their worth or feel they never will be able to do so.

I use the term psychological health here in the most pragmatic of senses: peoples’ abilities to channel their cognitive behavior and emotions into positive outcomes in their lives, both external and internal. The problem is that people who suffer from imposter syndrome often have external lives that appear perfectly successful. They are typically fake-it-til-you-make-it experts, but their feelings of being phony undermine senses of being truly whole and happy. It’s the difference between thriving and merely surviving.

Toxic Shame vs. Healthy Shame

I mentioned the term “toxic shame” earlier, and I believe it is an important psychological concept to break down in order to begin to think about ways of overcoming imposter syndrome. Professional counselor and author John Bradshaw has spent his career studying human affect, and toxic shame is a specialty of his. It struck me that toxic shame may have a significant connection to the imposter syndrome since, as Bradshaw observes, “many highly gifted, super achieving and successful people are driven by a deep-seated chronic depression, resulting from their true and authentic selves being shamed” (Bradshaw ch. 3). This concept pairs quite naturally with cultures—whether academic or corporate—that are “so focused on assigning blame” (Roché ch. 7).

Bradshaw’s focus on experiences in childhood compliments Young’s emphasis on how kids need approval. He takes this sense of general approval a step further, nuancing the idea by suggesting that specifically what many of us need but never received as children is the approval to be human. If that’s not a direct problem for the humanities to work on, I don’t know what is. If we don’t receive this kind of approval in childhood, we will forever be searching for it in adulthood. While this concept may sound a bit dramatic, we don’t have to look far to see that our culture does have a historically chronic problem with our “being human.” Think back to how repressed the Victorians or Puritans were, for example. Religion has historically instructed culture again and again that simply being human is a sin in itself, but even a secularized notion of this idea sneaks into our contemporary society insofar as in school, work, and even our private lives, the unspoken rule is often that we are expected to be perfect in terms of being “on it” all the time. Some might mistakenly call this “professionalism.”

Healthy shame, as opposed to toxic shame, is a normal emotion with a purposeful function. It is meant to remind us of our humanity—to protect against neither becoming arrogant and exaggerating our abilities or intelligence nor undermining our individual, unique gifts and talents that each and every one of us has the opportunity to cultivate. Healthy shame functions to calibrate confidence and safe-guard against not only over-confidence, but also feelings of worthlessness. It’s an emotional signal that helps direct the right amount of compassion and love for ourselves, which ultimately allows us to love others fully and have healthy boundaries.

Toxic shame does not allow us to accept our true existence as flawed human beings who can’t know everything, who need to ask questions, and who have weaknesses and vulnerabilities. How many times have you heard someone say “there’s no such this as a dumb question?” Maybe in an ideal world, but that’s terrible advice for many of the professional, corporate, and academic environments we inhabit. This is because we live in a toxic shame-based society. We all “know” that there is such a thing as a “dumb question” if only because we so often treat ourselves and each other like there is.

The school system certainly teaches on a shame-based model (does an F not immediately have us thinking in terms of “failure?”), and after primary and secondary school, things often only get worse in rigorous academic and corporate environments. These environments may not overtly tell you to feel bad about yourself for being a mere human, but they certainly don’t go out of their way to remind everyone that we’re all human and “that’s okay.” It’s a kind of tragedy since “after shame is internalized, the fear of exposure is magnified intensely” and “exposure now [means] having one’s essential defectiveness as a human being seen” (Bradshaw ch. 3).

The Nature of The Game

People who suffer from imposter syndrome need to come to terms with the “game” aspect of their discipline, field, or even life in general. As we’ve seen, these people have unrealistic expectations for themselves and others. People who don’t deal with imposter syndrome naturally don’t run up against these problems. They acknowledge their flawed nature as a human being even subconsciously and try to play-up their positive qualities and gifts while continuing to chip away, working on their weaknesses and learning from their mistakes at their own pace on their own terms.

We talk about taking charge, taking advantage, taking risks, and taking the lead. We encourage each other to seize opportunities. When feeling like an imposter, people may not believe they are deserving of things in life enough just to take them. People who feel like imposters lack an understanding that most successful people are not those who “objectively” are better than others but are simply the ones who have decided they are deserving of opportunity. Such people give themselves approval to take on risks and challenges, knowing that the only way to find out is to try.

As Richard Lanham puts it, “ambition [has the ability to denature] experience, the day to day living of life, [making] life so transparent that we no longer see it. We look through it to the vital scoring of points that lie beneath [and] we are held prisoner by our hierarchical hungers” (168). The so-called “imposter” finds herself imprisoned by her own hierarchical hungers. Even as she fears and resents hierarchy for “leaving her out,” she reinforces a sense of us vs. them in manifesting a kind of indisputable transparency. Non-imposters know that life is murky if not downright opaque. These “successful people” understand that because they will never be truly certain, the rules of the game are necessarily flexible and bound to interpretation and that the way to succeed sometimes is to bend them, even subconsciously. Valerie Young speaks about the unwritten rules of professional and academic worlds, claiming that successful people see “problems as opportunities,” knowing they must “occasionally [fly] by the seat of [their] pants, [ultimately] being willing to fall flat on [their] face[s], [knowing they] will survive” (Secret Thoughts 234).

The myth of “success” instructs us that there is an objective yardstick to measure our worth, intelligence, and abilities when really there’s often no such entity even capable of making those kinds of judgments. Standardized tests would have us believe otherwise, and the imposter embodies the idea of a standard by holding themselves to outrageously high ones. The problem with believing that there is an objective way to truly measure worth or what you deserve is that you also end up making assumptions about what other people deserve. Harsh self-judgment encourages harsh judgment of others. This is why the person who suffers from imposter syndrome is not only toxic to themselves but also to other people in their lives such as their families and colleagues.

Quieting Your Inner Imposter

Valerie Young admits that “truth be told, if more experts communicated with the goal of making their work accessible to a larger population, everyone, including you, would feel a lot smarter—and be more informed” (Secret Thoughts 35). In other words, the information asymmetry found in academia in addition to the corporate and professional worlds exacerbates the imposter phenomenon. Perhaps one of the problems with the silence of the experts is that so many of them feel as if they are imposters!

A good way to combat these problems that are more structural in nature is to read as much as you can about whatever you’re curious about. Don’t wait for the experts to necessarily serve you the truth on a silver platter since many of them are just scrapping for bits themselves. Tap into your inner autodidact. If so many people feel like they just don’t know what’s going on, none of us can afford to constantly pass the buck. If having a certain title or status or looking good on paper makes you feel like a phony while you know other people believe you to be credible, do what you know you need to do to feel credible. This is as simple as trying not to impress by-the-books, but taking charge of your own education and learning what you think you need to know to feel credible.

Another good resource is networking—not just for-the-sake of finding opportunities but also to simply bond with other graduate students and professors about these kinds of issues. Practice gratitude for even being privileged enough to seek a graduate education and practice taking joy in your scholarly work. Don’t just view it as a game. Indulge in pure play. Find a purpose. Know that knowledge is provisional; that the noise of academic conversations both within and across disciplines is not linear, not always rational, often political—a mixture of game as well as play and purpose.

At the end of the day, if you still feel like an imposter, perhaps you are on the wrong career trajectory. We often define success based on an ideal from society, but you also need to have a definition of success for yourself. People will often feel pressured to accept a promotion just because it fits into the standard definition of success. In a recent Huffington Post article, Valerie Young remarks that “for ‘keep-it-simple’ types, or for people who started out loving the fast track only to find themselves wistfully watching the gardener who cares for the company plants, then the more complicated things get, the more averse they’ll be to advancing.” The question becomes: do you really want “success” if it means going into administrative, managerial, or bureaucratic roles that so often accompany climbing career ladders? You need to ask yourself: do you believe that you can’t do it or do you just not want to?

Embracing the Realities of Yourself and the Academy

After this whole discussion, if you don’t buy the practical tips for overcoming imposter syndrome or are turned off by the prospect of being vulnerable to deal with toxic shame, let me break it down to you with some intellectual tough love.

Tell me: if you don’t belong, who does?

Though many people internalize feelings of being misplaced in an academic or professional setting, most would not admit to feeling like “imposters” per se; however, the fact that many do carry with them a sense of fundamental self-doubt, they must at the same time be dreaming up the kind of person who would be suited for their academic or professional work. Therein lies the inherent contradiction. Let’s be real: none of us can possibly understand our contemporary, globalized academic and professional institutions in totality—even so-called “experts.” The Academy is an institution with a rich, complicated history and more political baggage than any of us might want to admit. Information asymmetry runs rampant and the division of labor within the academy keeps many of us only knowledgeable about the tiny niche we inhabit. Many of us feel helpless like bugs looking up at only one tiny piece of the sky not because we are unintelligent but because that is the nature of the beast. Who are you to say you don’t belong?

I urge my fellow academics to seriously consider the issue of imposter syndrome and the toxic shame that causes it, for I and others have already grown tired of shallow power plays, petty turf wars, and destructive competitive energy within the contemporary Academy.

Works Cited

Bradshaw, John. Healing the Shame That Binds You. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1988. Kindle file.

Clance, Pauline R., and Suzanne A. Imes. “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice 15.3 (1978): 241-47. Web.

Harrin, Elizabeth. Overcoming Imposter Syndrome: Ten Strategies to Stop Feeling Like a Fraud at Work. N.p.: Octobos Group, 2011. Kindle file.

Kasper, Joseph. “An Academic with Imposter Syndrome.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. N.p., 2 Apr. 2013. Web. 30 July 2013.

Lanham, Richard A. The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2006. Print.

Roche, Joyce M. The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2013. Kindle file.

Young, Valerie. “Are There Downsides to Success? The Third Metric.” The Huffington Post., 01 June 2013. Web. 30 July 2013.

Young, Valerie. The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. New York: Crown Business, 2011. Kindle file.