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So you’ve got impostor syndrome. What should you do?

Psychology professor Michael Southam-Gerow, Ph.D., offers tips to those who doubt their accomplishments and feel afraid they will be exposed as a ‘fraud.’

Three images of a woman looking through glass. At left, concerned, at center smiling, at right he...
First identified in the 1970s, impostor syndrome is often described as intense feelings that one's achievements are undeserved and that fact will be exposed.

Impostor syndrome — or the psychological phenomenon in which a person doubts their accomplishments, feels inadequate and worries they will be exposed as a “fraud” — is a common struggle, particularly in higher education, the workplace and other stressful environments.

First identified in professional women, recent research is focusing on how the phenomenon also has a big impact on students and professionals of color.

Michael Southam-Gerow, Ph.D., professor and chair in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and co-director of VCU’s Anxiety Clinic, gave a recent talk on the MCV Campus on how to combat impostor syndrome.

“We’re not trying to make you like Narcissus. We’re not trying to make you so in love with yourself that you starve yourself to death staring at yourself in a stream,” Southam-Gerow said at the talk, part of the VCU BEST (Broadening Experiences for Scientific Training) workshop series. “What we're trying to do, if you have impostor syndrome, is push you into the zone of possibly partially appreciating what you've accomplished. It’s OK to free pride.”

What is impostor syndrome?

Impostor syndrome was first identified in the 1970s by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, who noticed the phenomenon occurring among high-achieving professional women. While the definition has evolved, impostor syndrome is often described as intense feelings that one’s achievements are undeserved and that fact will be exposed.

Since the initial “discovery,” studies suggest the phenomenon is common across many fields. Recent research has demonstrated that impostor syndrome is particularly problematic for students of color who must grapple with the typical stress that affects all students along with minority status stress, including racism or discrimination. Being a minority in an academic setting has been shown to magnify the experience of impostor syndrome for some students.

Michael A. Southam-Gerow, Ph.D.
Michael A. Southam-Gerow, Ph.D.

“[Those who experience impostor syndrome] … question the validity of their own intellectual ability and they attribute their success to external factors, or fear that their intellectual accomplishments will be exposed as false or fraudulent,” Southam-Gerow said. “This feeling that ‘I don't belong here and people are going to find me out’ is a really bad feeling to be having when you're in an environment where you're learning a lot of stuff [like a university].”

People with impostor syndrome, he said, have an internal experience of intellectual phoniness, achieve a high level of success, commonly overwork and over prepare, feel a desire — sometimes secret — to be the best, deny their competence and discount praise, feel fear and guilt about success, and often find that success enhances their feelings of fraudulence.

“The more you succeed, the more you feel like there is fraud going on somehow. It’s like, ‘Well, now I'm really in deep. The deeper you get into your success, the more you're like, ‘Uh oh. It’s going to be really hard to get myself out of this,’” he said. “Every success not only reinforces your feeling of being a fraud, but you start feeling bad about it. Like, ‘I don't deserve this.’”

Tips to overcome it

People experiencing impostor syndrome should talk about it with trusted allies, Southam-Gerow said.

“Talk to people,” he said. “Talk to your advisers and mentors. Academia is one of those rare places where there's all these nice people who want to help you. And you’re not alone. Your advisers and mentors might have impostor syndrome too.”

Also, focus on avoiding perfectionism. Sometimes  “good enough” is perfectly fine.

“How many faculty are here in the audience? How many of you, when you submit a paper for the first time, they were like, ‘Immediate accept! Put it on the front page. It's the best paper I've ever seen!’ No, [the comments come back] and it’s like, ‘Oh, I feel just awful about myself.’ But you get back up off the floor and you keep trying. Persistence is really important.”

Another important idea, he said, is to “sharpen up the self-talk.” People with impostor syndrome might tell themselves negative messages on a loop for years, Southam-Gerow said.

“We have a lot of thoughts that we keep coming back to again and again,” he said. “It could be self-doubting. It says, ‘You can't do this.’ ‘You're not good enough.’ ‘You’re a loser.’ Loser is a big one. Unlovable is a big one. ‘I’m not going to be a success.’”

The first thing to do with self-talk is to notice it and acknowledge it. Then, he said, try to get yourself to prove it.

“When you say, ‘I’m a loser,’ you need to ask, ‘What proof do I have?’ And, by the way, if you think that you’re a loser, you need lots of proof,” he said. “It’s OK to think you're a loser. Go ahead and think that. But then you should ask yourself, ‘How do I know that I'm a loser?’ How would I prove that? Say that I'm a scientist, what evidence do I have?”

The idea is not to try to convince yourself that you’re not a loser, he said, as someone who believes they are a loser likely has a deep emotional attachment to that feeling.

“It’s not going to go away just by telling yourself, ‘I'm not a loser.’ It's going to maybe go underground but it's not going to go away,” he said. “But if you keep proving [to yourself] that you're not a loser, it's going to be drowned out. It’s not going to be as noisy.”

Also important is to add in positive self-talk that focuses on accomplishments.

“It may never go away, this thought that you’re a loser,” he said. “But you can also add new thoughts.”

Southam-Gerow then asked the audience to think of a recent success, something of which they were especially proud.

“Think of it. Spread it in your mind. Something that you’re like, ‘Yeah, that was really good,’” he said. “Are you giving yourself full credit for it? Is there something else sneaking in there, like you remember what someone else did? Or you feel like you could have tried a little harder, maybe? Are you discounting your role? If you are, just say, ‘That's interesting. I'm not really giving myself full credit. What's that all about?’”

Try to appreciate the fullness of the success, he said, and focus less on the parts that you wish had gone better.

Be like Dory

A final piece of advice offered was to keep working. To push forward with whatever projects you have, even when you feel like an impostor or fraud. He reminded the group that when they learned to walk, it took a year to be able to do it and another year or two to get good at it. They fell down, like 30 times an hour, for a long time. The advice, then, is to approach learning new things like learning to walk. Be ready to fall, get back up and keep going.

“At the bottom of it all, we have to do the work,” he said. “The work has to happen. If you have impostor syndrome, just do it. Think about Dory [from ‘Finding Nemo’]. She just kept swimming. She persisted, even though she had a cognitive problem. She kept going. She was an amazing example of coping. And it turned out pretty well for her. She got a second movie. So just keep going.”

Think about Dory [from ‘Finding Nemo’]. She just kept swimming.

It’s OK to feel doubts, he added, but “just keep going.”

“I know for a fact that I'm not smarter than anybody. In fact, I think I'm probably dumber than a lot of people,” he said. “But one of the things that I know is that I keep trying no matter what. I will keep getting up and keep going.”