The first time I heard the term “Impostor Syndrome” was when one of my professors used it while describing me during an Honors Awards ceremony before I graduated college. My first assumption was that it meant that I pretended to know more than I actually did, which I later found out to be exactly the kind of thought that is prevalent in people with the syndrome.
According to Dr. Suzanne Imes and Dr. Pauline Clance, the psychologists who first wrote about Impostor Syndrome in the 1970s, people with Impostor Syndrome are typically high-achievers who have a difficult time accepting credit for their own successes. They will instead claim their success was a result of luck, faking their way through the task, or just being in the right place at the right time. Originally Dr. Clance thought Impostor Syndrome was something more frequently experienced by women, but later in 1993 revised that hypothesis and realized the common factor for people with Impostor Syndrome isn’t gender, but that they are high-achievers.
When I read about the syndrome (I recommend these articles), it felt like a light bulb had gone off over my head. These feelings of doubt and questioning my abilities that I’ve had for years were something that other people were experiencing too! I looked back over my academic career and more recent professional career and was able to pinpoint exact moments of Impostor Syndrome flares:
Writing a paper for a Theology class in college and accidently leaving out the conclusion because do I really have my own thoughts on this or am I just echoing back what I’ve been told?
Working at a women’s shelter and diffusing a situation only to find myself wondering later if the issue would come back up because the women probably know I don’t know what I’m doing. They only listened because a senior staff member was there too.
Any time I’ve gotten an “A” in a difficult class and have thought oh, I just BS-ed my way through the tests. Guess the professor bought it!
When I was promoted at my current job, I thought oh god, I made them think I can do this and now I have to pretend I know what I’m doing.
My boss compliments me and She thinks I’m doing well but really I’m just making lucky calls.
Writing this article and wondering Am I even qualified to tell other people about impostor syndrome? I’m just a normal person, not a PhD level psychologist.
Since so much of Impostor Syndrome relates to our inner narrative and how we talk to ourselves, it can be really difficult to separate the syndrome and what we honestly believe of ourselves. For example, my Impostor Syndrome tells me that I’ve gotten where I am because I’m good at pretending to know what I’m doing and what’s going on. However, when I stop and really look at everything I’ve put into getting here I know that I have earned every good grade, promotion, and raise that I have received as a result of my skills and knowledge. There may be a little luck mixed in there, but the majority of the credit is mine to claim.
There are dozens of articles out there on Impostor Syndrome and how to get over it, but something a lot of them seem to miss is that Impostor Syndrome isn’t something that you will necessarily ever get over. There will always be things that you think you got through purely by luck or because no one else knew better. I think of Impostor Syndrome as one of those awful kids in middle school whose main insult is that a person is dumb or doesn’t know anything- you can ignore it, but after a while you start to question if they’re right. To be clear, they are not right but their voice is pretty difficult to tune out sometimes.
So here is my recommendation on slowly getting over that nagging voice in your head telling you that you’re just an impostor: next time you’re doubting whether you deserve the credit for something, look at each bit of work that went into the project. Did you put in the time? Did something you know about or how to do help to complete the project? Did you make decisions relating to it? If you hadn’t worked on the project, would it have been completed? If you answer yes to any of those questions, guess what? You deserve credit. Tell that pesky voice in your head to go bother someone else.
I still find myself doubting whether I’ve actually known what I’m doing at my job or if I’m just fooling everyone around me. I probably always will have those moments. However, I also know there’s a reason people choose me for certain jobs or projects. They believe that I am the best person for the job, and if they believe that then I should be able to believe it, too.
Colleen is a proud Ravenclaw, tattoo enthusiast, and Jane Austen fan. Her dreams for the future include learning to make homemade ice cream and getting a full night of sleep without her cats waking her up. She can be found on tumblr as RavenclawPianist.