The Impostrous Imposter Syndrome
By Daniel Lau
Photo by Rene Böhmer on Unsplash
Situation: Impostor syndrome can be best described as a constant feeling of inadequacy and self-doubt towards oneself despite having legitimate proof of skill and merit. Having experienced this myself along with many of my fellow Posse members, I am giving them a speech so that they can better understand how impostor syndrome affects them and what they can do to combat this syndrome. Due to their gender, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds, they have a predisposition for the syndrome and have already shown the negative effects of their self-doubt. Ultimately, I hope to educate them on what exactly impostor syndrome is and why they should take the right steps towards coping with the syndrome.
Hey, guys! I hope you're all doing fine this evening. Can you all believe that this is our last Writing and Rhetoric class together? It's crazy how fast time flies when you're having fun! Anyways, I just wanted to say how proud I am of each and every one of you for surviving the first semester of classes. We've endured so much this semester, from our first all-nighters to our last presentations; we really have seen it all. You too should be proud of yourselves! Just the fact that we're here at Notre Dame is something to be proud of, especially when there's a long line of people waiting to be in our spots someday. However, at our last Posse meeting, none of you were able to say that you would consider yourself successful at this point in time. Most of you said that you don't even know how you got into Notre Dame and that you don't belong at Notre Dame. Initially, I was shocked when I heard you all say these things, but then I realized that I also felt this way initially. However, after learning about the impostor syndrome, these feelings of unworthiness are something that I've learned to deal with in a healthy and productive manner. I believe that you all too could learn to cope with your feelings of self-doubt and would benefit immensely from learning about impostor syndrome. While changing the way you see yourself may not be the easiest thing in the world, the benefits of having an increased self-esteem and sense of belonging make the effort more than well spent.
What is the Impostor Syndrome?
Even though everybody experiences the impostor syndrome in their own way, most scholars define the syndrome as a fear of being seen as a fraud after having attained professional and academic success, despite there being no evidence of such fraudulence (Cokley et al., "Roles of Gender"). This fear can manifest in several ways. Sufferers of impostor syndrome, also known as impostors, have a greater chance of developing depression, generalized anxiety, and low self-esteem (Cockley et al., "Roles of Gender"). According to Sakulku and Alexander, there are six dimensions to the impostor syndrome, and some people may only show one while others may show all of them. These six dimensions are "(1) The Impostor Cycle, (2) The need to be special or to be the very best, (3) Superman/Superwoman aspects, (4) Fear of failure, (5) Denial of competence and Discounting praise, and (6) Fear and guilt about success" (75). While many people can relate to having a fear of failure, other dimensions such as "The Impostor Cycle" may be obscure to most. The Impostor Cycle is actually one of the most important factors of impostor syndrome, as well as one of the most detrimental (76). The cycle begins when someone is assigned an achievement-related task, like an essay or a lab report. Due to the anxiety that comes with impostor syndrome, one may either respond to the task with over-preparation or with initial procrastination followed by intense preparation (76). Essentially, one may feel the need to over-achieve in order to prevent the possibility of being seen as a fraud, or one may procrastinate at first because they feel inadequate to complete the task but will eventually try to get as much done in an attempt to similarly prevent being seen as a fraud. The cycle continues even after task-completion; upon receiving praise and other forms of positive feedback, impostors refuse to believe this feedback and instead attribute their success to anything except their ability (76). Those who over-prepare tend to attribute their success to their hard work but not their true skill or talent, and those who procrastinate usually attribute their success to pure luck. This self-doubt in one's ability grows with every denial of success, and the cycle repeats with each new task (76). While it's helpful to know all these signs of impostor syndrome, it can still be difficult to see this in one's own day-to-day life.
The signs of impostor syndrome don't always hit you right in the face. For example, I myself have been a victim of impostor syndrome, and I still am in some ways. In class discussions, I'm often paralyzed whenever the professor calls on me because of the possibility of making a complete fool of myself in front of all my peers, including you guys who I know wouldn't feel that way about me. However, the fear is still there regardless. Then, while everyone else seems to be getting insights into the text out of thin air, I feel like a waste of space in a room full of geniuses who couldn't possibly think of me belonging in the same room with them. I'm an utter fraud. Better yet, I'm an impostor. Furthermore, some see my strict work ethic as something to cherish. However, there have been days where I avoid other priorities like eating, drinking, and sleeping just so that I can continue to work on an assignment that I know doesn't require so much time to complete. For instance, if it's an essay, it usually takes me about two hours just to get anything on the paper out of fear of possibly getting a bad grade. I then overanalyze every single little aspect like word choice and reread certain parts over twenty times so that I prevent sounding like I'm uneducated or unscholarly among my peers. The constant need to prove to myself that I am not a fraud and that I do belong here at Notre Dame is a real struggle that I know most of you face, too, along with the rest of the nation. According to Danielle Page, it's estimated that over 70% of Americans have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. Even worse, many who have similar backgrounds as all of you have a greater chance of developing impostor syndrome.
Impostor Syndrome in Women
A heavily studied topic within impostor syndrome is how it affects women, specifically in relation to gender biases. Before diving into this topic, one must go over the definition of "gender stigma consciousness." Gender stigma consciousness, or GSC, refers to how much one is aware of his/her/their stigmatized status (Cokley et al., "Roles of Gender"). This can be seen as an increased awareness of how one's gender is seen among the majority of people. Those with high GSC believe that their gender will be judged as opposed to their performance alone (Cockley et al., "Roles of Gender"). According to Cockley and others, having a high GSC is a strong predictor of also suffering from impostor syndrome among both men and women, but the correlation is stronger in women. This makes sense given that women have historically been seen as inferior to men and have also been underrepresented in leadership roles. Additionally, when women are in leadership roles, they tend to be some of the most severe sufferers of impostor syndrome. Take Former First Lady Michelle Obama as an example; she recently stated that she still suffers from impostor syndrome despite having been in such a powerful position during her time in the White House ("Michelle"). She says that impostor syndrome never goes away, and that feelings of inadequacy haunts young women, especially those of color ("Michelle"). As an African American woman herself, Michelle Obama can certainly see the intersectionality between gender and race when it comes to those who experience impostor syndrome. As many of you are also people of color, it's important to further understand how that affects your relationship with impostor syndrome.
Impostor Syndrome in Racial/Ethnic Minorities
Racial minorities have faced disparities in nearly all aspects of life for centuries. While all college students endure the stress of doing homework, writing papers, and taking exams, students of color face additional stressors of traumatic racial experiences, insensitive comments, and questions of belonging at a college campus (Cockley et al., "An Examination," 83). These race-related stressors can also be referred to as minority status stress, according to Cockley and others. Some of you may have already experienced these stressors yourself, and questions of belonging can certainly be provoked when one is in an environment that is not really racially diverse like Notre Dame. The study conducted by Cockley and others found that African American students had higher minority status stress than those of other ethnic backgrounds. This is most likely due to the fact that African Americans face the most negative racial stereotypes and tend to come from communities that are more racially segregated in comparison to other minorities (90). While African Americans face the most minority status stress, Asian Americans actually face significantly higher feelings of impostor syndrome than students of other ethnic backgrounds (90). This may come as a surprise to some because of all the positive academic stereotypes associated with Asian Americans, but it is those same model-minority stereotypes that pressure Asian Americans to develop perfectionistic tendencies also seen in impostors (91). As a Latino-Asian American myself, I have dealt with the pressure to have impeccable grades and be the "smart one" in all of my social groups. Most people think that these stereotypes are beneficial for Asian Americans, but these stereotypes are what catalyze the impostor syndrome in so many people. When there's such a strong pressure to always be perfect, it makes it hard when there are times that we can't be perfect; it drives the fear of failure and fear that we will no longer live up to those expectations and consequently be a fraud in the eyes of others. Even though impostor syndrome may be more prevalent in Asian Americans, that's not to say that other ethnic minorities don't deal with the syndrome, and that's also not to say that people of low-income status don't deal with the syndrome.
Impostor Syndrome in Those with Low-Income Status
Students who come from a low-income background can suffer tremendously from impostor syndrome. As Smith states, low-income students are always getting reminders that they do not belong at their university. One way the college campuses breed this unbelonging is through policies of "structural exclusion" (Smith). An example of these policies is when some campuses close their dining halls over spring break. This may seem relatively harmless to many, but for those of low-income who have to stay on campus, this presents a problem of being forced to ration or skip meals over break while classmates get to go back home or on expensive vacations (Smith). This dramatic difference in college experiences perpetuates impostor syndrome in low-income students. Low-income students are also not usually equipped with the sociocultural tools needed to understand nuances and social cues of elite universities, and Smith refers to these nuances as the "hidden curriculum." Simple things like not knowing what office hours are or what the "TR" on schedules stands for can make low-income students feel inadequate and unintelligent when in reality these simple mistakes have nothing to do with how intelligent a person is. Another way that low-income students experience impostor syndrome is through the materialistic nature of certain campuses. For example, as a student who has been given a secondhand laptop and winter coat to take to college, it came as a surprise to me when the majority of my classmates pulled out brand new MacBooks while wearing their thousand-dollar Canada Goose jackets. While they probably didn't mean to make me feel unwelcome, their overt flash of wealth is the very thing that pushes me and other low-income students into thinking that they don't belong at Notre Dame. It forces us to evaluate our own economic situations and question whether it's possible to be both a person with low-income status and a student at an elite university. Additionally, I know for a fact that some of you felt this way during our spring trip earlier this year when we first saw the glittering lights and silverware of the Dahnke Ballroom. For most of us, it was the first time we had been exposed to such an environment of wealth and status. While we may be more accustomed to it now, there are still times where I question if I really belong in this environment, and I'm sure some of you feel the same.
How to Cope with Impostor Syndrome
After going over all the negative effects and outcomes of impostor syndrome, it may seem impossible to find a way of dealing with the syndrome. However, there are known methods for coping with impostor syndrome that are effective and proven to work. According to Bennett, there are four exercises that have been scientifically proven to help with impostor syndrome: making a list, saying your name out loud, owning your accomplishments, and visualizing success. Bennett suggests making a list of ten reasons why you are just as qualified as anybody else for the position you are looking for or for the current position you are in. This will probably be hard if you are suffering severely from impostor syndrome, but in that case, you can first ask yourself what evidence is there to say that you are less qualified for the position you are in (Bennett). As for saying your name out loud, it may seem awkward at first, but research has shown that saying something as simple as "I'm awesome" and adding your name to it can have a dramatic effect on the way you perceive yourself (Bennett). Even Lebron James does it, so it has to work (Bennett). One major component of impostor syndrome is the placement of credit on other things besides your own ability, so being able to own your accomplishments is a huge step for learning how to cope with the syndrome (Bennett). Furthermore, visualizing success can push you into the right mindset and encourage you to take on challenges that you otherwise would not normally take (Bennett). I've seen this particular method be helpful in my own life whenever I'm in a class discussion; I visualize myself raising my hand and speaking in front of the class while also mentally rehearsing what I can say to add on to previous points made in the discussion. If all of these methods still fail, one of the most effective ways of coping with not only impostor syndrome but really any problem is to talk about it with someone else. As impostors, we tend to feel like we're the only ones dealing with these thoughts of unbelonging and fraudulence when really there's a whole community of people just like us who deal with these same thoughts. Getting to know some of these people would undoubtedly build a sense of belonging in those of us who have none. It's this sense of community that might just be the cure for impostor syndrome.
Recommendations for Impostor Syndrome
With so much of the impostor syndrome being rooted in a lack of belonging and community, it's important that we find ways of amplifying community building on our campus. Educators can get in on this community building by creating what's known as "transgressive learning communities" (Drane et al. 107). These transgressive learning communities aim to break down oppressive structures in higher education, one being the impostor syndrome, and these learning spaces do so by fostering face-to-face discussion, self-reflection, and community engagement (113-16). The learning spaces would also consist of several new components, but the main three would be discussion, self-reflection, and transgressive practice. These improved learning structures would enable students to build a more intimate peer network, which would give them a better sense of belonging while also allowing them to share their stories with those who may not be familiar with the experiences of marginalized students at their university (113). Hopefully, more educators will begin to implement these transgressive learning communities to alleviate the effects of impostor syndrome.
Now that you know more about the impostor syndrome and how to cope with it, I hope that you all will take this new information and apply it to your own lives how you see fit. Still, I can see why some of you may be hesitant to take on the task of changing the way you view yourself when your surroundings keep telling you to doubt yourself and your worth. However, doing nothing to curb the effects of impostor syndrome and allowing it to fester would make your lives even harder in the long run, so if there's any time to start making a change, now is the time. I hope you all one day find your own sense of belonging here at Notre Dame, and I wish you all the very best in your future endeavors because each and everyone one of you deserves it!