Impostor Syndrome Event Draws Large Audience
For Dr. Valerie Young, her own manifestations of the impostor syndrome began as a 21-year-old Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts; she just didn’t have a name for it yet. It wasn’t until listening to research from fellow graduate students that she realized she wasn’t all alone in feeling like an impostor in the world of graduate academia and terrified of being “found out.”
Today, a leading expert and best-selling author on the impostor syndrome, Young has traveled internationally, conducting workshops at major corporations and universities across the world. On March 5, 2014, she visited the NC State campus to speak about the impostor syndrome to over 250 graduate students, postdocs, faculty, and staff at the Talley Student Center who widely admitted to feeling these same inadequacies or doubts.
Similar to Linus, the gifted character from Peanuts, those experiencing impostor syndrome are “burdened by a great potential.” Rather than celebrate or take pride in their accomplishments, impostors trivialize their successes and attribute them to luck or good timing, telling themselves phrases such as “I only got in because they needed some diversity,” “I just look good on paper,” or “if I can do it, anyone can.” “The impostor syndrome,” Young clarifies, “is not a fancy name for low self-esteem. Impostor feelings are very specific to achievements in the work, school, academia, or career arenas.”
Though prominent among graduate students, impostor feelings are not limited to those in academia. Even acclaimed and widely popular talent, including Mike Meyers, Jody Foster, and Meryl Streep, have reported feeling like impostors in their crafts with Meyers expressing fear that the “no-talent police” would find him. Pulitzer Prize nominee, author, and poet Maya Angelou echoed these doubts saying, “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”
A concentration of impostor feelings in academia and the arts can be explained by the nature of work in these fields. Creative fields, Young explains, make individuals more vulnerable because they are judged by subjective standards. Likewise those in academia are susceptible as being a student requires daily test of your intelligence. “It is rare to meet a graduate student who hasn’t had impostor feelings,” she says.
Though the reason behind impostor feelings is unique and individual, according to Young there are some perfectly good (and common) reasons they occur. First and foremost, Young says, we are all raised by humans and therefore have “all gotten messages growing up from well-intentioned people that might affect us.” A lack of praise or either exceeding or falling short of your family’s definition of success can be problematic. However, Young points out, the impostor syndrome cannot be entirely attributed to family dynamics considering that those dealing with these issues come from all varieties of families.
Impostor feelings also often arise from sensing a lack of belonging. “A sense of belonging,” Young explains, “fosters confidence.” Conversely, the less you feel like you belong, the more susceptible you are to a lack of confidence and impostor feelings. A lack of “belonging” can stem from being non-native, first generation, or one of the first or few in a certain pursuit.
Though the impostor syndrome is common, it is not without negative impact. “If we are constantly negating our abilities,” Young explains, “then the next time we achieve something, it is emotionally unclear how we got there.”
Additionally, afraid of being discovered as impostors, those with impostor feelings use a number of damaging and unconscious coping and protecting strategies to avoid being detected. Among them, they fly under the radar, never start or never finish projects, procrastinate, over-work, and self-sabotage. Unfortunately though, as workshop participants came to realize through small group discussions, they all work at a price. Using these mechanisms can result in missed opportunities, final products that are not equal to one’s capability, and a lower quality of life, among other unintended consequences.
So how does an impostor “cure” their fears? First, Young believes these feelings need to be normalized, rather than perpetuating the shame and stigma in the erroneous belief that “I am the only one.” To keep feelings in perspective, it is valuable to remember that “70 percent of the population experiences impostor feelings at one time or another.” Rather than feeling shame, Young suggests discussing and labeling them and realizing they are normal and especially likely to occur during transitions. Furthermore, for those in academics, it is important to realize these feelings can be brought upon by a culture fuels self-doubt due to being surrounded by brilliant people who are always documenting their brilliance, rather than attributing them to a personal shortfall.
Secondly, Young believes impostors must “reframe what it means to be competent.” Trying to conform to our own definition of competence, she says, is what can fuel impostor feelings and cause shame. Young has classified impostors based upon unique four definitions of competence to which they might subscribe in part or in whole.
The first is the perfectionist who believes that competence means a flawless performance each and every time; for a perfectionist, failure could be 99 percent. The second, the expert, is the “knowledge version of the perfectionist” who believes it is not the quality of the work that is important, but rather how much you know. An expert is fixated on knowing 150 percent before feeling remotely qualified and can easily fall into the trap of “one more book to read, one more class to take, one more degree to get.” Next is the natural genius who buys into the fallacy that for the truly intelligent, everything is effortless and quick. Those who subscribe to the natural genius definition of competence believe if they were smart, they wouldn’t have to apply themselves or work hard and thus give up quickly in their pursuits. Finally is the soloist or rugged individualist who believes their work only counts if it is done by themselves; any tutoring, mentoring, or group-effort negates their competence.
To really make any headway in eliminating impostor feelings, Young says that individuals must change their thoughts and behaviors in regards to these unattainable definitions of competence with the understanding that their feelings will be the last to catch up. This change can begin by reframing a skewed concept of competence into a more productive one. For example, perfectionists might reframe their negative mindset to instead tell themselves “I’ve done my best” whereas a rugged individualist might repeat “Asking for help won’t hurt me.” Though these reframes may initially seem phony or awkward, Young advises that they will become beliefs over time.
When asked her own secret to success after struggling with impostor feelings, Young says, “I don’t spend a lot of time in the real world.” Quoting Will Smith she maintains, “Being realistic is the most common road to mediocrity.”
To learn more about the impostor syndrome or Dr. Young, visit her website, follow @valerieyoung, or check out what attendees were saying about the workshop. Want to attend similar events in the future? Visit go.ncsu.edu/pflevents to view and register for upcoming events, seminars, and workshops and follow @ncsupfl for updates.
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