You’ve got this! Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Have you ever felt like you’re not “good enough” to follow the path you’ve set out on? You’re not alone! Today, we have a guest post from Dr. Maureen Gannon, Professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt. Dr. Gannon writes about a common experience for young and experienced successful scientists alike, “Imposter Syndrome”. Read on to learn more about this often-felt but rarely-discussed impression and how to have the confidence to succeed through it.

-by Dr. Maureen Gannon

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Individuals who experience “Imposter Syndrome” or “Imposter Phenomenon” (IP) believe themselves to be less intelligent or less competent than others perceive them to be, despite objective external evidence of their abilities and successes. The syndrome was originally thought to be more prevalent in women and minorities, but further research showed that these feelings are just as prevalent in men in the population.

The term was first coined by Drs. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. Importantly, IP is not classified as a psychiatric disorder, but rather a reaction to certain situations. Individuals may experience these feelings at different frequencies and at different intensities. Dr. Clance has developed a questionnaire and a scale to determine how frequently and intensely an individual has IP feelings. This is publicly available and can be found at:

Individuals most susceptible to IP feelings are those whose career path greatly differs from their family or origin. Typically, these will be first generation college students or the first in their family to complete graduate or professional school. They often come from a lower socioeconomic background and are entering careers with higher earning potential or requiring higher academic achievement. Thus, they find themselves in an environment very different from the family and friends they grew up with and with whom they have felt comfortable. This can lead to a feeling of “not belonging” and thus the feeling that one is a “fake” in the new environment. The best predictors that one will experience IP episodes at some point in life are: 1. Being highly successful in academics and one’s career; 2. Lack of role models in the chosen career path; 3. Career path differing from parents’ expectations and career. IP feelings can increase as one rises up the career ladder.

The Imposter Syndrome paradox

The feelings associated with IP are paradoxical. Individuals who experience feelings of IP usually have a healthy self esteem and present themselves as confident, capable people. However, they also tend to attribute much of their career success or appointments to positions of responsibility to luck, “being in the right place at the right time”, or quota-filling, rather than to their own capabilities and talents. IP individuals tend to be perfectionists, have a fear of letting people down or disappointing others, and thus have a fear of failing. They worry that they will be “found out” or “discovered” and that others will recognize their mistake in giving them a position of responsibility. In addition, there is a fear of success. Individuals experiencing IP feel that somehow they do not deserve the success they have achieved or the leadership role they have been given. Succeeding as a project leader or in a position of responsibility may be a “fluke” (in the mind of someone with IP feelings), but will undoubtedly lead to additional positions of responsibility. The person who suffers from IP becomes even more anxious about being discovered that they do not really belong in that role and that they come from a background “unsuitable” to the task at hand. They have strong feelings that brightness equals perfection and that any error equals incompetence. Such IP feelings can lead one to set lower expectations for oneself in one’s career. By avoiding failure, one also avoids success. IP feelings may also limit one’s ability to advocate and negotiate for oneself, hindering career advancement.

How to combat these feelings

How can one overcome these feelings and prevent them from intruding into a successful life and career? The saying “fake it ‘til you make it” can apply here. Continuing to put oneself in challenging situations that make use of one’s talents and abilities, despite feelings of IP is important. The more you do this, and succeed, the less you can say “it was luck”. When success is achieved, a goal is reached, or a project you lead is a success, internalize compliments, honors, and accolades as being deserved for a job well done. Look to people whose feedback you trust (mentors, career peers, colleagues) to provide you with honest assessment and validation. Finally, visualize in your mind the successful, confident person you want to be. For each project you undertake imagine how it will go, what your role in the project is and how you will successfully complete that project. Here are some recommended readings to help with this:

1. The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention.
Clance, Pauline R.; Imes, Suzanne A.
Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, Vol 15(3), 1978, 241-247

2. The Imposter Phenomenon: When Success Makes You Fell Like a Fake
Dr. Pauline Rose Clance
1985 New York, Bantam Books

3. Creative Visualization
Shakti Gawain
1978 and 2002 New World Library, Nararaj

4. 21 Proven Ways to Overcome Imposter Syndrome
Kyle Eschenroeder

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