How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome

Full vitae impostor

Image: iStock

By Sindhumathi Revuluri

Pathologized for a reason, "impostor syndrome" runs thick in the veins of academics, from newly arrived graduate students to those nearing retirement (yes, really). It seems to be such a deep part of the ecosystem of the academy that it is hard to imagine faculty life without it. At the same time, it can be deeply painful and damaging, almost paralyzing.

So what is impostor syndrome and how do you get over it?

In 1978, two psychologists, Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes — first identified what they called the "impostor phenomenon." They described it as "an internal experience of intellectual phoniness." Their research was based on work with "high achieving women" in which they found this phenomenon to be particularly prevalent.

Two important stipulations to make before going any further:

  • Impostor syndrome arises in spaces of achievement where judgments are made about merit. You don’t feel like an impostor at the public library or on the subway. The hoops that you jumped through in graduate school and on the job market are real, and looking back on them, it may be tempting to think that you walked around them instead of through. But nobody actually does.
  • Second, the origin story of this research is often framed as a surprise: Despite all of their external achievement, these women still felt like they didn’t belong. Which just goes to show you: Feeling like an impostor doesn’t have much to do with what you have done. It has to do with how you feel.

The good news: You can find ways to feel better about who you are and what you have done, and as a result, maybe even achieve more. Here are a few suggestions (which you shouldn’t feel bad about not having already internalized):

Compare like to like. Are you an early career faculty member? You probably don’t know as much about navigating your institution, managing your time, or teaching new courses as a veteran. That makes sense. Don’t confuse capacity to learn and improve with pre-existing knowledge. Same for those who have been in the game for a while. When you see the young phenom using new slang and connecting with the pulse of the field, remember that that is their job now. Your experience is valuable in other ways.

Focus on what you have accomplished in and of itself, not as compared to what you had hoped to accomplish. Not a single one of us can say that we have crossed off everything on our list forever. Reframing your narrative as one of concrete accomplishments shifts your focus to the presence of labor and achievement, and away from the absence of "more." Once you do that, work on the story you tell others about yourself. Telling that story well will benefit you as much as it instructs others.

Ignore the problem of other minds. With apologies to philosophers, this boils down to: You don’t know what other people are thinking about you; they don’t know what you are thinking, either. Even their clear statements about your work do not reveal anyone’s disposition about your suitability for academic life. Academic work may feel more personal than other kinds, but it is important to remember that assessment of your scholarship is just that — it reflects your work, not you. For those of you whose scholarly work involves deconstructing words, this may be a difficult habit to break.

Avoid the Facebook (or other social media) trap. Not everyone is happy and successful even if their posts and tweets make it seem so. You are a smart person; you know this. Don’t be lured into doubting your own abilities by other people posting about their successes.

Think about how you cede authority. If you’re writing a paper and feel like you aren’t "allowed" to make a particular argument, force yourself to sit with that feeling and interrogate it. Who is allowed to make that argument? Why? And why haven’t they already made it? The answers to those questions may make their way into your work — for example, in the form of additional citations or a reflective lit review. Done smartly, this awareness can actually make your argument stronger and more compelling.

Don’t confuse genuine humility with feeling like an impostor. At the same time, don’t give away your hard-earned findings. Say you are delivering a conference talk and the pre-eminent scholar of your field is in the room. Acknowledge that person. The truth is — whether you are furthering the senior eminence’s work or digging a tunnel under it that will lead to its collapse — you couldn’t be doing what you are doing without that person. Maintain your integrity by being honest with yourself and others about where your work builds on that of others.

Learn how to take criticism. One of the best books on that subject is Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and, frankly, you’re not in the mood) by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. They encourage us to look for what might be true in feedback, no matter how viciously it was framed. What is someone actually saying about your work (not just what you think they are saying)? Are you translating a reader’s report comment from "The author should have included the following secondary sources," to "The author has no idea what he is talking about"? Maybe the latter is what the reviewer meant but that’s not what he or she said. The first you can do something about — go add those secondary sources and send the article back out. The latter interpretation probably isn’t true, and even if it were, there wouldn’t be much you could do about it in the context of revising your article.

Be realistic about the nature of academic work. Rejection is part of the game. You only need one job (at a time), one journal to accept a paper, one publisher to say yes to your book manuscript. By definition, that will mean a huge ratio of rejections to acceptances. No unicorn wishing here: You have to send things off, multiple times, to get published/funded/employed. Get used to the cycle of production, rejection, revision, acceptance. It’s totally normal.

Stay concrete. Impostor syndrome feeds off vagaries and generalities. "I’m not good/smart/charismatic/funny/self-assured enough." What’s enough? Who is all of those things? What is "good" anyway? Instead of wallowing in vague self-doubts, reframe them more specifically — as "I have something to learn about lecturing," or "My prose could be clearer." That way, you have something to work with and work on. Go to your institution’s teaching center or hire an editor to help you.

Learn to see yourself in context. If you feel like an impostor because you don’t know or can’t do a particular thing, think about that thing. Is that skill or content crucial? If so, can you acquire it? Not because you want to belong but because it may make you more effective or productive. And if it doesn’t actually matter, think about why it is that others have it and you don’t (assuming you really don’t and aren’t just being hard on yourself or inflating other people’s capabilities). Maybe there are real and good reasons why that wasn’t part of your background or education.

Think about the factors that could contribute to feeling like an impostor. What are the demographics of your discipline? The history of your field? Are you what people expect from a graduate student or faculty member? Our personal identities and life experiences are often major assets to us, and it is important to remember that other people’s first impressions are not the same as our self-worth.

Academics use the term impostor syndrome to talk about our feelings and perceptions. But you should be aware: There is also more recent research showing that the phenomenon hits especially hard among scholars who are members of minority groups and/or are studying topics that are marginalized in academic culture. In other words, some academics don’t just feel like impostors, they are made to feel like impostors, no matter how self-assured, smart, and confident they are. So while impostor syndrome may affect all academics, some are disproportionately unsupported in overcoming it.

If this aspect of impostor syndrome speaks to you, here are some additional steps to consider:

Create your own "board of advisers." These are people who really see you and can honestly tell you things about yourself and your environment. And in that spirit, trust others as much as you trust yourself — but not everyone. In other words, if someone you respect gives you a compliment, hear it without dismissing it. If you respect them, respect their opinion about you. At the same time, ignore the haters. (This is relevant advice for everyone.)

Take pride in, and learn to voice, the additional challenges that go with being a forerunner. I once heard a very eminent scholar say that for every marginalized identity you can claim, add one year onto the time it will take you to finish your dissertation. That was a powerful moment for me. It quantified the extra labor — emotional, physical, psychological, intellectual — that it takes to exist in a relatively homogenous field. The extra work you will face is because others see you as an impostor, but not because you actually are. In other words, you are trespassing on territory that implicitly belonged to others. You may find, as I did, that your own feelings of being an impostor are related to that implicit definition of who belongs in your field and on campus — and not to your scholarship, teaching, or citizenship.

Finally, remember this: You can change faster and more thoroughly than the institutions in which you work, or the environments you inhabit. Take the time to be real with yourself and those around you. Everyone will be better for it.

Sindhumathi Revuluri is an associate dean of undergraduate education and a former faculty member in the music department at Harvard University

Join the Conversation

4 Comments

Log In or Sign Up to leave a comment.