Picture this: you’re about to graduate. Dressed in your cap and gown, you wait to cross the stage to shake President Eric Kaler’s hand. Suddenly, you’re struck by a wave of anxiety. What are you doing? You don’t belong here. As soon as you step onto that stage, everyone is going to know that you’re a fraud. This, my friends, is a prime example of imposter syndrome.
First, know that imposter syndrome is real. Though it’s not a recognized disorder in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition,” which psychologists use to diagnose different disorders, around 70% of people will experience this sense of pervasive self-doubt in their lifetime. While occasional self-doubt is common, the frequency and intensity with which we experience this self-doubt is the key to identifying and defining imposter syndrome.
While being unsure of ourselves is a typical feeling, a chronic inability to accept our successes and accomplishments, a constant perception of ourselves as unworthy of praise and a genuine belief that we are not competent in the things we do—all of which preclude us from reaping the benefits of our hard work—are not normal.
Imposter syndrome affects everyone, from a first-year student who has gotten an A on Dr. Drew Meyer’s first chemistry exam to CEOs of “Fortune” 500 companies. Yet, despite this ubiquity, little is known about this phenomenon.
Imposter syndrome, as we know it, is typically associated with anxiety disorders and centers around a fear of being “found out,” which culminates in attributing our successes to mere luck rather than to our abilities and effort. Success leads to distress rather than joy. Rather than defining success for ourselves, we look to others, particularly those in positions of power, to determine whether we are successful.
While the exact cause of imposter syndrome is unknown, those who score high on personality tests for perfectionism or come from families that value achievement above all else are particularly susceptible to this pervasive self-doubt. A perceived lack of support is another risk factor for the development of imposter syndrome; when nobody is there to remind us that we are on the right track, we begin to question our mental roadmaps.
Well, great. Are we just bound to all feel like failures? Of course not! Let’s discuss how we can combat imposter syndrome.
As with any intrusive thought, many strategies for managing imposter syndrome revolve around cognitive behavioral therapeutic techniques and mindfulness to amend our thought processes when we experience success.
Let’s begin with cognitive restructuring, or the act of restructuring the negative thoughts we experience in a certain habitual context (such as whenever we experience success or receive praise). This technique focuses on highlighting the inaccuracies of our intrusive thoughts. When you feel like an imposter, question yourself. Evaluate the legitimacy of your thinking. Every time you begin to doubt your abilities, think about why you might feel that way, i.e., what are the reasons that you might actually be a fraud? Perhaps you were not the lucky student who got an A in Dr. Meyer’s class, and—much to the chagrin of your family—you ultimately dropped the pre-medical track in favor of pursuing a different career path. Now you’ve identified the root of your anxiety: you’ve internalized a failure to meet familial expectations as a moral failing that you’ve deemed indicative of your entire self-worth. Is that really fair? Now, list all the reasons why this intrusive thought is untrue. Since switching majors, you’ve met the people who have become your closest friends and have provided you with unconditional support. Had you not switched majors, you might never have crossed paths with these people. In your new major, you’ve been able to conduct research, go to conferences and publish papers—all opportunities that helped you get into graduate school as a competitive applicant. Finally, whereas learning about hydrogen bonds was a soul-sucking endeavor, your new major intrigues you, and you’re excited for a career in this field. This excitement has pushed you to learn as much as you can, and you’ve formed meaningful connections with your professors. Clearly, you are not a fraud, and even though you are not on the path your family had intended, you’re on a track that has brought you personal fulfillment and will continue to do so.
Next time you start to doubt your abilities, remind yourself of these reasons that your achievements are valid until you no longer feel anxious.
As always, you can never go wrong by talking about your feelings with someone who supports you. Reaching out to a friend you trust, a professor or a licensed mental health professional can help you put our worries into perspective, allowing you to ground yourself within your successes rather than pushing them away.
Furthermore, performing certain mindfulness exercises can help engage your mind and body in ways that alleviate the mental and physiological effects of imposter syndrome. To reduce stress levels and combat other symptoms of anxiety, try diaphragmatic breathing: Close your eyes, release your shoulders, put one hand on your stomach, breathe in for five seconds, and as you do so, feel your breath fill up your entire chest. Make sure you inhale toward your lower stomach so that the hand on your stomach rises while your chest remains still. Hold that breath for two seconds, and then exhale for another five seconds. Repeat this at least five times, though you can do it as many times as you wish. Remember to breathe slowly and focus on each breath as it moves from your stomach, through your chest, up your body and out of your mouth.
Secondly, practice gratitude. This is a mindfulness exercise in which you make a list of all the things you’re thankful for, both big and small. Describe a happy childhood memory or an outfit you like. Anything that brings you joy can be used in this exercise. Focus on these moments, and remember to breathe until you no longer feel anxious.
Finally, practice self-compassion. One self-compassion exercise revolves around reframing your thoughts as if a friend were struggling with them rather than yourself. What would you say to that friend to support them? What would you say to counteract their negative thoughts? Now think about the way you’ve been treating yourself in your current situation. How are you speaking to yourself? Are you as supportive as you were in the imaginary scenario with your friend? If you notice a difference, identify why you treat yourself so much more harshly than your friend. Then, remind yourself that you shouldn’t berate yourself if you wouldn’t do the same to a friend for feeling the way you do.
All of these exercises are meant to ground us back in reality. They poke holes in the logic behind our intrusive thoughts, reminding us that we are good enough. Mindfulness is our brain’s air traffic control tower guiding us through the storm of negativity.
Now, picture this: you’re about to graduate. Dressed in your cap and gown, you wait to cross the stage to shake President Eric Kaler’s hand. Suddenly, you’re struck by a wave of anxiety. What are you doing? You don’t belong here. As soon as you step onto that stage, everyone is going to know that you’re a fraud. You look in front of you and see your academic adviser; she’s smiling at you, a big, toothy grin. You look behind you and see your best friend crying as she watches you begin to ascend to the stage. You’re reminded of all you’ve done in the past four years as you shake President Kaler’s hand. As you walk away, you think about how these experiences have prepared you to conquer all that you will face.
I’m proud of you.