The imposter syndrom – The monster on my back!

Stop! Dont Move…

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“It’s right behind me, isn’t it?”

I felt a cold shiver run down my spine. The monster was back. My throat felt like a prison, my words wrapped and trapped in fear and inadequacy. You see, I know this feeling because it has happened many times before. Each time, I feel debilitated. Alone. Succumbed. I feel like a fraud, an imposter, a gate-crusher. I warn myself; I am not supposed to be here, and any time now, I am going to be unraveled. Also, I have noticed that such episodes proceed a success of some sort or a milestone; won a prize, a successful research grant, acclaimed publication, a Conference presentation spot and the like.

This time round, I just recieved the good news about a hefty and prestigious research grant, actually, the 6th in a row, and four months into my new job as an academic. The project is ambitious and impactful and it brings together a team of highly skilled experts with me as it’s team leader. At our usual staff lunches, my boss announces the good news, and she asks me to say something. Only, I can’t move, nor can I speak. Ladies and gentlemen, I am having an accute episode of the Imposter syndrom (IS).

Michelle Obama breaks the taboo around IS in her revealing 2018 bestseller.

Langford and Clance (1993) suggest that IS is the “psychological experience of believing that one’s accomplishments came about not through genuine ability, but as a result of having been lucky, having worked harder than others…”.
I first learnt of the phenomenon about one year ago during an academic women’s network meeting. In this Meeting, a female professor shared her experiences of the leaking pipeline and the awkward and sometimes unpleasant reality of being a sole female professional in a male dominated field. IS was a common occurance in her worklife but she had devised a defence mechanism, which I shared in an earlier blog. Since then, I have learnt, to my astonishment, that over 70% of the population experience IS (including pretty known names such as Emma Watson, Michelle Obama, Tom Hanks, etc). It happens to men, women, young and old and in all professions. It does not matters, that one is high perfomance, highly skilled and accomplished.

Anxiety, self-doubt, depression, unachieved dreams/potential and ultimately ‘leaking through the pipeline’ are some of the cited effects of IS. High expectations of oneself and grave made-up repurcussions of not meeting these expectations is key to understanding this phenomenon. IS can strike seldom or frequently: in new settings or new environment, particlualry academia; at the workplace but also in social interactions – romantic or social relationships, etc. The diagnosis in key studies on IS suggests 3 interrelated culprits for this insidious phenomenon: Upbringing, Personality and Culture:

Upbringing and family dynamics: IS studies in Psychology lay heavy significance on the family dynamics particluarly what happened along the way that makes someone susceptible to IS. Such studies and ‘treatment’ attempt to unveil the source and layers of self-doubt leading to the need to prove to others that they are bright. The advice here: is in self love and the ability to generate self-esteem from within oneself. Its really a shift to self rather than others as a responce to ones own learning needs. Recognize IS and call the imposter out. You are enough – says Lous Solomon in her TEDtalk on ‘The Surprising solution to the Imposter syndrom’.

Personality and perfectionism: It is also called the superwoman or superman mentality in which sufferers push themselves pretty hard in a bead to measure up to others’ approval and achnowledgement. Often such people are workaholics to the detriment of their sidelined passions or hobbies. For these soloists, intelligence is viewed as a stable trait and mistakes are believed to indicate personal failure and inadequacy. The advice here: Lower performance goals as the locus of self evaluation and reprogram the mind to the believe that it is okey to fail. Infact it is from failure that success sometimes emerges.

Socio-cultural baggage: Sexism, racism and classism have been implicated in IS cases. In fact, intersecting identities especially in academia and STEM fields are particularly incriminated especially if the identity is visible. (Some examples on race and gender in Tech). The keywords here are marginality, minority, isolation. It often is in untrodden paths with a shortage of role models to pave the way and shin a torch. So then the combination of isolation, persistent (hegemonic feminist) stereotypes, culture of silence and shame, lack of role models coupled with IS’ insidious nature makes women more susceptible than men. The comparative studies behind these asssertions suggest that men suffering from IS cope better because they are backed by hegemonic patriarchal cultures and the subsequent comfort in numbers. The advise here would be the slogan ‘I am enough’. It will be okey. Speak up! This, in addition to (in the longer term anyway) finding peers, associations, mentors to help navigate the less or uncharted path.

So, yes, I am enough. Failure is good (sometimes). I am smart and it is okey to NOT know everthing. So, get off my back monster!

Some interesting materials

Harvey, J. C. (1981). The impostor phenomenon and achievement: A failure to internalize success. (Doctoral dissertation, Temple University, 1981). Dissertation Abstracts International, 42, 4969B

Langford, Joe; Clance, Pauline Rose (1993). “The impostor phenomenon: recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment” (PDF). Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training. 30 (3): 495–501

Clance, Pauline R.; Imes, Suzanne A. (1978). The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” (PDF). Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice. 15 (3).

Cokley, K; McClain, S; Enciso, A and Martinez, M. (2013) An Examination if the Impact of Minority Status Stress and Impostor Feelings on the Mental Health of Diverse Ethnic Minority College Students. Journal of Multicultural Counselling and Development. 41, 82-95.

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