“Girl! They’re going to find out you don’t know what you’re doing and they’re going to fire you!!”
It was my internship year. I was lucky enough to get a dream internship at a psychiatric hospital I had aspired to work at. I began seeing a patient who was admitted due to a psychiatric diagnosis that included ongoing psychosis. I sat across from this patient who was actively hallucinating and I thought to myself, “THATO! What are you doing here?” The internal dialogue continued, “girl! They’re going to find out you don’t know what you’re doing and they’re going to fire you!”
This was not the first time I had had similar thoughts and most certainly was not the last. These thoughts were fueled by a fear of inadequacy and the fear of being a fraud in a profession where it seemed like everyone knew exactly what they were doing at all times. A fear that despite my ongoing education, training, guidance and resources at the time, that I was incapable.
I was struggling with imposter syndrome.
What is imposter syndrome?
Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes are the psychologists who developed the term “imposter phenomenon” in the 1970s. Dr. Clance and Dr. Imes’s 1978 research studied the phenomenon in high-achieving women.
Now more commonly known as imposter syndrome, imposter syndrome is loosely defined as
A persistent doubting of ones abilities despite ones education, experience and accomplishments.
Imposter syndrome elicits feelings of fraudulence and not belonging, particularly in academia and/or professional spaces. It involves feelings of inadequacy, self doubt and a consistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.
Imposter syndrome is NOT a psychiatric disorder, meaning it is not recognized as a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders (DSM). However, the feelings and behaviours that develop in response to feeling like an imposter can result in real and significant clinical distress.
Potential consequences of feeling like an imposter:
Like most other psychological phenomena, the feelings related to imposter syndrome can exist on a spectrum. On the less extreme end of the spectrum, a healthy nervousness about ones performance and competence can be a motivation. It can help you challenge yourself, work hard and grow your knowledge and skills. However, when it reaches the more extreme end of the spectrum it can cause real distress and have significant consequences.
These consequences may include the following.
· Procrastinate: A person who feels like an impostor may procrastinate, putting off tasks and work, out of fear that he or she won't be able to meet the necessary high standards. Imposter syndrome can create or feed performance anxiety.
· Overpreparing: A person who feels like an imposter may overprepare, spending much more time on a task than is necessary. Therefore, impacting how much work they can get done. Imposter syndrome can lead to perfectionism and cause burnout.
· Avoid responsibility: Lastly, a person who feels like an imposter may avoid responsibility. A person may avoid putting their hand up for work, speaking up in meetings or asking questions, because of the fear that they’ll be found out as a fraud. In any career or academia this is likely to impact or impede their progress.
Who imposter syndrome is most likely to impact?
· High achieving people who find it difficult to accept their accomplishments.
· Imposter syndrome also impacts people who belong to groups that are underrepresented in a field, discipline or sector.
Imposter syndrome and systemic issues:
I would be doing a disservice to the topic if I did not acknowledge that there are larger forces at play here beyond your personal anxieties or being too hard on yourself. It is not coincidental that the initial study conducted by Dr. Clance and Dr. Imes was focused on the imposter phenomenon within groups of high achieving women. In the 1970s (and still) women in positions of leadership in certain fields and professions were the exception to the rule. These spaces were not initially created for women and through intrinsic biases, overt sexisms and micro-aggressions they were most likely reminded daily that ‘they did not belong’. This is still true in many professional and academic spaces. Micro-aggressions such as colleagues or seniors second guessing decisions, constantly double checking your work, sexist ‘jokes’ and excluding women from after work social events is likely to chip away at ones confidence about ones ability, competence and belonging. Likewise, this same thinking applies to other marginalised groups such as black people (defined broadly here), people who belong to LGBTIQ groups, and people living with disabilities, amongst other groups.
We can recognize, acknowledge and demand that changes need to happen on a systemic level, and it may offer language for your experience, however, it’s unlikely to help you cope with feeling like an imposter on a day-to-day basis. Therefore, below are some practical tips to hopefully empower you to tackle imposter syndrome.
Tips to tackling imposter syndrome:
1. Form a relationship with a trusted mentor in your field.
Once you have formed a trusting relationship with someone you respect in your field, it may be helpful to share your thoughts and feelings about your performance. Someone you respect can help you separate the reality of your performance from your anxieties and fears about your performance.
2. Be prepared to suck a little
Whether it’s starting at university, a new job, moving into a new position, or taking on new responsibilities you’ll need to develop your competencies. This means you’ll be stretching yourself in new and different ways.
There is an impression in this society that no one successful ever struggled or botched things. Everyone was the most talented and awe-inspiring student, writer, lawyer, therapist or mother from the word go. When you start something new you’re likely to struggle and get some things wrong. That is not necessarily an indication that you have chosen the wrong profession or that you’re incompetent. It is more likely an indication that you are doing something new, learning, stretching and growing.
Although others may not, give yourself the grace to suck a little.
3. Ask questions and seek advice
Once you can acknowledge that sometimes you will suck and it is not a reflection of your entire professional or personal identity, you can then be courageous enough to ask for help and advice when you need it. There is power in acknowledging and being honest about what you don’t know. You are likely to gain respect when you admit that “this is new for me and I’m learning”, rather than pretending you have it all figured out.
4. Acknowledge your strengths
Making a realistic assessment of your abilities means acknowledging what you do well. Make a list of your strengths and ask others for input (your mentor or people you trust). Keep this list nearby and visit it as frequently as you need. Remember you were chosen for the position for a reason.
5. Tackle your thinking patterns
Cognitive behavioural theory asserts that the thoughts we have about the world and ourselves impact our emotions and behaviours. So your thoughts are very powerful and the internal scripts you have can dictate your emotional life. Sustained thoughts like “I only got this job because I was in the right place at the right time- I was just lucky”, “I am just an affirmative action hire” or “what gives me the right to…” are thoughts that can cripple you and inevitably may result in a self fulfilling prophecy. Therefore, addressing these internal scripts through cognitive restructuring is an important tool in tackling imposter syndrome. Cognitive restructuring can be done with a trained counselor or therapist.
Imposter syndrome can impact a range of people and can impact you at various stages in your life. It shows up at the most inconvenient times and knows exactly where your vulnerabilities are. Therefore, simply trying to ignore it may not be the best option. It may be more constructive to challenge it and reconstruct and reframe these thoughts and beliefs.
As for myself, I will never be able to calculate how much luck was involved with my positioning at my dream internship site or any position I have held since then. However, through consistent work on myself, I have learnt and continue to learn to trust my abilities, trust that I was chosen from a range of brilliant and smart psychologists and that was not a mistake. I have learnt to trust that my education, training, experience, continued accumulation of knowledge and skills, and support has prepared me for the roles I occupy. It is my hope for you that you will get there as well.