The UCAT workshop From Competence to Confidence: Teaching Through Impostor Syndrome (October 4) was one of the most well-attended events of the year. And lately there have been a number of articles in both academic and general audience publications on this syndrome. I spoke with Lindsay Bernhagen, UCAT instructional consultant and the facilitator of this workshop, about Impostor Syndrome and what interesting or surprising things she learned from the workshop participants.
Q: Why do you think I.S. is such a popular topic lately?
L.B. A lot of it has to do with the academic job market. It’s extremely competitive and getting worse. This has raised the stakes. Many people are operating in a state of permanent, low-level paranoia, that they aren’t going to be doing enough to get the job. And once they get the job, they may feel like they can’t slip up because that job could have gone to someone else who is more qualified or smarter.
Q: Can you give us a very brief definition of I.S.?
L.B. I.S. generally means that someone has difficulty internalizing their success—believing any achievements to be the result of luck, and any setbacks to be a result of their personal failure. Despite objective evidence of competence, a person believes that they aren’t good enough to be doing what they are doing. And they live in constant fear of being exposed as a fraud. Seventy percent of people have experienced “impostor syndrome” at some point in their lives. [By the way, I.S. is not a medical diagnosis. It’s just a name for a certain set of characteristics of a person’s self-perception.]
Q: Is I.S. particularly prevalent among academics?
L.B. It seems that the answer is, yes. When you are an academic, your personal identity and your subject matter become very intertwined. You are your work, or at least you are often judged that way. Likewise, teaching is about helping another person take a risk to change something about what they do in order to learn something new. Their success is tangled up with your success, in a sense
Q: You talked about how I.S. can be spread. Can you explain that?
L.B. A natural but destructive strategy for mitigating your own sense of being an impostor is to constantly try to drag other people down. People who themselves are insecure will attack others. The attacker puts others on his level by making them insecure, so he feels like he gains a little bit of ground. But as an impostor, he never feels like he holds that ground, so he has to keep doing it, has to keep attacking others. And so the insecure person can spread insecurity to others. Or, sometimes it’s not that someone is trying to hurt someone else; it’s just people over-performing confidence, presenting themselves as unquestionable to shutdown conversation before they are discovered as “fraudulent.” It’s cockiness. Students can have I.S., too. Students who are afraid they don’t know anything can talk loudly and often in a way that belies insecurity, rather than a more open and secure curiosity.
Q: What are some positive ways to deal with I.S.?
L.B. One constructive strategy is simply to talk about I.S. There is some secrecy around it, so naming it is really important. If you are telling yourself negative things, you can pause and say, “Oh, that might be my I.S.” and kind of put it in a container. Plus, if we talk about it, we realize that lots of people have these thoughts and feelings. We discover: “Wait, you feel that way, too?” If we can see that other people whom we believe to be competent have the same feelings we do, then maybe we can start to believe in our own competence despite our inclinations toward I.S. One of my mini-missions is to pull back the curtain on I.S., name it, and destigmatize it. I’ve experienced it myself, and at first didn’t know others did, too. I’m glad that this is becoming a bit more of a household phrase. It’s getting in the way of having better relationships and more productive conversations.
Q: In this workshop, did the participants see in themselves some of the thoughts and feelings that characterize I.S.?
L.B. Yes, and they were relieved to be able to talk about it. They also added an important dimension to our understanding of I.S. One participant pointed out that, for him, one of the contributing factors is the pressure you get when you return from the university to your home community to not have too high a regard for yourself.–not to be too high on your horse. If you are perceived as being too competent as a scholar or a teacher, you are seen as overly prideful, and thus disconnected from your home. This can be particularly difficult for those who are first-generation, working-class, and gender and ethnic or racial minorities who may also be getting some subtle signals that they don’t necessarily “belong” in academia either.
Q: What strategies did the workshop participants come up with to deal with I.S.?
L.B. A lot of people talked about the importance of having an identity that is not just as an academic or a teacher–having a hobby, having other relationships outside of one’s department, being a whole person. Then these setbacks that we all have don’t undermine our sense of self to such a severe degree.
Take a brief assessment to see whether you have some attributes of I.S.
To find out more about Impostor Syndrome, please see:
Kasper, J. (2013). “An Academic with Impostor Syndrome.” http://chronicle.com/article/An-Academic-With-Impostor/138231/
Kreuter, N. (2012). “Walk Like a Duck.” http://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2012/08/20/essay-how-new-faculty-members-can-deal-impostor-syndrome
Rippeyoung, P. (2012). “The Imposter Syndrome, or, as my Mother told me: ‘Just Because Everyone Else is an Asshole, it Doesn’t Make You a Fraud.’” http://theprofessorisin.com/2012/12/11/the-imposter-syndrome-or-as-my-mother-told-me-just-because-everyone-else-is-an-asshole-it-doesnt-make-you-a-fraud-a-guest-post/
–Michael Murphy, UCAT Graduate Teaching Consultant