Impostor syndrome is a phenomenon in which people believe that they are frauds because they did not truly earn their success or accomplishments. Traditionally, it’s accompanied with fear of others realizing the impostor is incompetent and “doesn’t actually know anything.” This insecurity ends up preventing people from promoting themselves and reaching their full potential in their professional and/or academic careers.
The problem is that, in discussing impostor syndrome, we make it about recognizing how great we really are. Think about the “She was beautiful all along!” trope, in which a Hollywood actress is considered ugly until her makeover montage — then suddenly, everyone loves her because underneath the braces and glasses and frizzy hair was a pretty girl. Never mind the fact that she was also nice all along, or smart all along, or funny all along, she’s actually pretty and now we can respect her! Rather than celebrating valuable character traits or exploring the root of this problem, we’re just going to reinforce the idea that being beautiful makes you a good person. You go, Hollywood.
Similarly, I would argue that making impostor syndrome advice all about the idea that “You were brilliant all along” isn’t all that effective. When we respond to someone’s insecurity — whether it’s about their beauty, intelligence, or competence (which are all separate things!) — by rejecting their perceived negative trait, we’re really saying “Yes, this trait is undesirable, but it’s okay because you’re better than that!” — and that makes it difficult for that person to move on. Their reassurance is based off the idea that they are not what they fear, so that fear never fully leaves.
That brings me to my true topic. I’ve noticed that when I receive (well-intentioned) advice about dealing with impostor syndrome, I rarely internalize it. I don’t think many people do, based on my conversations with classmates. Most people receive this advice and respond with some form of “Yeah, but…” because they don’t really believe that they were “brilliant all along.” Rather than trying (and failing) to convince people of their secret brilliance, I think it would be healthier to just reject the idea that brilliance is necessary for success at all.
Advice: Even if you don’t think so, you’re totally qualified for the job you have or are interested in applying for.
Response: People think I’m qualified because I kind of know some stuff about X, but I really don’t know as much as I would need to know for this. The job will be too hard, I won’t know enough to be effective, and I’ll end up getting nothing done.
First of all, is there that much value in taking on a job that you feel completely prepared for? If you take on a job that you already know you’d do well at, you’re simply not going to learn as much as you could. Admittedly, it’s great to refine the skills that you have — but why not take this as a growing opportunity? Think carefully about what you’re looking for in a position. If your goal is to learn (which should always be a goal!), don’t just look at the jobs that feel “safe.”
Second, I’m assuming most people reading this are in the internship / beginner phase of their careers. The point of an internship is to gain experience and training. Companies know this — that’s why you (hopefully) have a mentor to guide you. They don’t expect you to come in knowing everything. It’s fine to not know what you’re doing and ask questions. Think about it as an apprenticeship. Does a trained blacksmith become an apprentice? No! People who don’t know what they’re doing become apprentices so that they can become what they want to be.
Maybe you don’t know enough. Maybe that job will be too challenging. Maybe you’ll be completely out of your depth. You’re supposed to be.
Advice: Recognize that everyone suffers from impostor syndrome, even people you admire.
Response: No no no, other people suffer from impostor syndrome. My incompetence is real, but people think I’m at the same “level” as my amazing peers.
People, especially those who get into competitive schools like Stanford, tend to be excellent self-promoters. Incidentally, this is a part of the reason why so many people suffer from impostor syndrome — we do so well at making ourselves seem amazing, and then fear being seen as less than that.
I recently had to undergo the unpleasant experience of updating my resume and LinkedIn profile. Here’s what I wrote about my biology research internship last summer:
You want to know the truth about what I did last summer? I spent hours in the biology basement caring for butterflies and trying not to get caterpillar vomit on me. I mindlessly pipetted tiny amounts of clear liquid into other tubes of clear liquid and prayed I hadn’t forgotten one of the other clear liquids. I desperately wanted to do something computational, so my PI let me paste our old data, which was kept in Word tables, into Microsoft Access. Also, I broke a sheet of glass that cost nearly two thousand dollars after being told multiple times to handle it carefully. (Employers, come at me.)
You know your life story, but you don’t know anyone else’s. You’re probably critical of your accomplishments because, having lived through them, you think they were easy. Then you look at your classmate, who “researched butterfly genetics” or “wrote an automated testing framework that totally changed X company’s productivity workflow,” and you think those things just sound a lot more challenging than anything you’ve done.
The solution isn’t to try to convince yourself that what you’ve done is actually impressive, if you think it isn’t. It’s to just keep going and going and going until you do something that is so undeniably incredible that even you have to admit that you did something impressive. Being unsatisfied with your accomplishments isn’t a sign of weakness. You don’t have to believe that you’re amazing, you just have to realize that A. not everyone is as impressive as they seem and B. the only way to get rid of these feelings is to keep working anyway.
Advice: You were chosen for this role. Presumably, you respect and trust the opinions of the people who selected you, so you should acknowledge that they wouldn’t have chosen you if they didn’t think you could do this job.
Response: Well, yeah, I was chosen, but for the wrong reasons! My resume was embellished (see above), or this was really “an affirmative action thing,” or I just somehow convinced them that I’m more competent than I am.
This is textbook impostor syndrome. You know that you were chosen for whatever role you’re in, but you convince yourself that you didn’t deserve it for whatever reason. Honestly, there’s no way out of this one. If you question yourself, there’s really not much that anyone can say to convince you that you do deserve what you have and that people intentionally chose you.
From personal experience, I know this. I came from a pretty low-performing high school and attributed my college acceptance to that fact. From friends, family, teachers, and even my own admissions officer, I’ve heard all the reasons why I “belong” at Stanford: the fact that I was motivated in such an environment is impressive in itself, Stanford doesn’t lower its admissions standards for minority students, and I had to overcome significant and relevant barriers to get here. None of that matters, even if it’s all true. All I hear is that there may be reasons I got into Stanford that weren’t related to my academic ability. And that hurts. It’s always going to hurt, but I’ve stopped trying to deny it.
Everyone has their own reasons for feeling insecure. Sometimes, it’s not as overt as insecurity regarding affirmative action, but it’s just so easy for us to doubt ourselves and to use any excuse at all to say that we don’t deserve what we have. But does it really matter? If you knew, without a doubt, that you didn’t “deserve” your job (for some poor definition of deserving), would you quit? And would I drop out of Stanford? Absolutely not. I’d be upset, yes, but university officials would have to drag me out of this school Azia Kim style before I’d leave, because I’m here now and I’m not leaving without a degree or two in hand. Feeling like a mistake, or even being one, doesn’t decide anything. The absence of an affirmation is not a denial of your abilities. It doesn’t decide whether you’ll do well or whether you’ll fail spectacularly. It just means that nobody knows what you’re capable of yet. But if you decided that you were truly not meant for whatever you’re doing, and then you gave up? Then maybe your doubts were accurate, because you’re the one responsible for that attitude. And if you’re willing to put aside your ego (I know I had to) and say “Maybe I am out of my league and I really don’t belong here, but I’m going to try anyway,” you’re taking control of your situation and that’s what’s truly valuable.
This attitude might not work for everyone. In fact, a lot of people do benefit from hearing the initial advice. If that works for them, that’s wonderful. It really is thoughtful and well-intentioned advice and I appreciated receiving it, even if it didn’t really make me feel better. But for the rest of us, maybe trying to believe that we really are great isn’t the most effective approach.
Impostor syndrome is different for everyone, but the one thing we all have in common is ambition. We wouldn’t be so concerned about our intelligence or our competence if we were complacent. It happens because we want to achieve and we want to get to these higher places, but we don’t think we can make it. But recognizing your insecurity and dissatisfaction can be so much more powerful than thinking you’re hot stuff. People who think they’re accomplished don’t feel the need to strive for more than that. Turn your impostor syndrome into a source of motivation and use it to work towards all the great things you wish you could be. Maybe you really aren’t that great and maybe you aren’t ready for all the big things that are going to happen to you. You can fix that. You might suck, and that’s okay.
Geek Feminism Wiki: Impostor Syndrome (definitions, effects, general information)
Tess Rinearson: How to Reinforce Impostor Syndrome
Inri137′s response to “I’m not as smart as I thought I was.”
Michael Ellis: Superman, You Are Not