While my colleague and I prepared to facilitate a workshop on Impostor Syndrome for other graduate students, I couldn’t help but feel like a bit of an impostor myself. Thoughts began creeping in like, “But I don’t know the research as well as I should,” or, “Everyone will be able to tell this is my first time presenting these materials.” I especially found myself thinking, “How can I present on impostor syndrome when I feel like one myself at times?”

The more I read about impostor syndrome, however, the more I realized that I need to confront these thoughts head-on and re-script my inner narratives. For example, instead of thinking “everyone will know this is my first time presenting the materials,” I could affirm, “It is normal to be nervous when presenting something for the first time and it is OK to make a mistake.”

In fact, it is completely normal to have these feelings, especially when working in a new environment or confronting new expectations. Research indicates that over 70% of people experience impostor phenomenon, particularly high-achievers or those in high-pressure environments, like the academy. Pauline Rose Clance, a clinical psychologist who has conducted decades of research on impostor syndrome, points out that it is so common she wishes she had called it “impostor experience,” rather than the more clinical “impostor syndrome.”

“If I could do it all over again, I would call it the impostor experience, because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness, it’s something almost everyone experiences.” Pauline Rose Clance

Defining Impostor Syndrome

So what exactly is impostor syndrome? The following definitions are useful in thinking through how this phenomenon operates:

  • Impostor Syndrome is an “individual’s feelings of not being as capable or adequate as others perceive or evaluate them to be” (Brems et al 1994: 183-4)
  • “[It is] rooted in a constant fear of being discovered to be a fraud and a charlatan” (Kasper 2013)

Pauline Rose Clance also developed the Clance IP Scale for people to determine if the feelings they have are related to impostor syndrome. Some of the indicators are as follows:

  • Sometimes I’m afraid others will discover how much knowledge or ability I really lack.
  • I avoid evaluations if possible and have a dread of others evaluating me.
  • When people praise me for something I’ve accomplished, I’m afraid I won’t be able to live up to their expectations of me in the future.
  • I often compare my ability to those around me and think they may be more intelligent than I am.
  • I often worry about not succeeding with a project or examination, even though others around me have considerable confidence that I will do well.

It is important to remember that often these feelings surface due to contextual factors, rather than ones intrinsic to our own abilities. Numerous articles published, for example, detail how being a minority in a setting can lead to experiencing impostor phenomenon. The following essay from Inside Higher Ed provides helpful insight into considering the experiences of minorities in the academy:

For a variety of reasons, academe can be a particularly difficult place for racial and ethnic minorities, for those from the LGBTQ community, for the economically disadvantaged, for women and for members of other groups that have been oppressed or have not typically enjoyed enhanced privilege in Western society.

Imagine being the only one in a faculty meeting with dark skin or apparently Asian features — or being the only woman or only non-cisgender person. In such a circumstance, it might be especially difficult not only to feel comfortable and accepted but even to anticipate ever feeling that way in the future.

Given the prominence of impostor phenomenon in university settings, it is important to understand the mechanics of impostor phenomenon and research-based methods for confronting these feelings.

Confronting Impostor Syndrome

Valerie Young, Ed.D. recently gave a TEDtalk highlighting her research in confronting and mitigating impostor syndrome. Some of these techniques include the following:

  • Tell a trusted friend how you are feeling.
  • Separate your feelings from fact.
  • Accentuate the positive.
  • Develop a new response to failure and mistake making.
    • Instead of beating yourself up for making a mistake, aim to glean the learning value from the mistake and move on. 
  • Develop a new script.
    • For example: When you start a new job or project instead of thinking, “Wait till they find out I have no idea what I’m doing,” try thinking, “Everyone who starts something new feels off-base in the beginning. I may not know all the answers but I’m smart enough to find them out.” 
  • Visualize success.
  • Reward yourself for your successes, no matter how small.

In fact, Dean Valerie Sheares Ashby said using these ten steps helped her overcome impostor syndrome and thrive in her various positions. Notably, she says she forces herself to tell someone about mistakes she makes in order to counteract feelings of perfectionism and inadequacy.

The more I read about impostor syndrome, I find myself thinking about my students and also my fellow graduate student cohort. I plan to address this topic in my classroom and encourage students to read more about impostor syndrome. Hopefully, by speaking openly and honestly about these struggles, we can grow together and overcome feelings of inadequacy in the classroom and the university at large.

Kelly Jo Fulkerson-Dikuua is a Graduate Consultant at the University Center for the Advancement of Teaching and a PhD candidate in the Department of African American and African Studies at Ohio State.