‘To Stop Feeling Like an Impostor, You Have to Stop Thinking Like an Impostor’

Posted on: September 12, 2018 Topics: Diversity and Inclusion Seminar, education, mental health, signature events, Signature Programs, student

Do you often experience feelings of inadequacy or become overly concerned with making mistakes? Do you sometimes find it difficult to take credit for your accomplishments? If so, says Valerie Young, breathe a little easier: You are not alone.

Author and speaker Young is an internationally recognized expert on “impostor syndrome”—the “secret belief,” as she describes it, “that you’re really not as bright, capable, competent, or talented as other people think you are.” 

“People who feel like impostors tend to dismiss their accomplishments to factors outside themselves, such as luck or timing or connections, and they don’t think they can repeat that success again,” Young says. “This is despite evidence of one’s accomplishments or abilities, whether that is getting into a good school like BU, or getting good grades, degrees, promotions, recognitions, and awards. [People think], ‘Sure I’m successful, but I can explain all of that.'”

On Tuesday, September 18, Young will visit the School of Public Health for the Diversity and Inclusion Seminar “Impostor Syndrome: Why Capable People Suffer and How to Overcome It.”  Ahead of the seminar, Young discussed the prevalence of the syndrome, why both social media and academic culture can fuel feelings of inadequacy, and how those suffering from self-doubt can “talk themselves down faster.”

For more than 30 years, you’ve spoken to thousands of students and working professionals about impostor syndrome. Why did you decide to travel around the country to talk about this?

When I first heard about impostor syndrome, I was a doctoral student at UMass Amherst. Someone brought in a paper by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, and it was describing all of these competent people who felt like they were fooling folks. And I sat there nodding my head saying, “Oh my gosh, that’s me,” and all of the other graduate students were also nodding their heads. I changed the topic of my dissertation based on hearing about this—I wanted to understand women’s self-limiting attitudes and behaviors that would lead to impostor feelings.

I received my EdD in education at UMass Amherst and became the founding coordinator of the social justice education program there. We looked at intergroup and intragroup dynamics and racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, classism—various paradigms and models around social group identity. This is still very much part of my work—I look at the social realities that would lead certain folks to have impostor feelings. I see a strong intersection between diversity and inclusion and impostor syndrome. And it’s not just around gender and race. For example, international students and professionals are also more susceptible to impostor syndrome.

What are the primary reasons why people experience impostor feelings?

It’s a combination of internal and external factors. We tend to focus way too much on internal factors—by which I mean messages growing up, whether it’s from parents, or from teachers who might lead us to underestimate our abilities or become perfectionists, and then have this profound fear of failure or falling short.

But there are also situational factors. Just being a student makes you more susceptible to impostor feelings. Students are in this environment where their knowledge and intellect are literally being tested over and over again, which is different than in the working world. On top of the factors of uncertainty of the future, there is a culture of comparison—comparing yourself with other students.

It has been well documented that social media usage can negatively impact people’s self-esteem by amplifying false images of perfection. Do you think these altered perceptions of peers, colleagues, and celebrities can lead a person to develop impostor feelings?

Absolutely. That’s really contributed to it. It seems like everyone is fine and thriving and you’re struggling.

And academic culture plays a role as well. Academic culture broadly fosters self-doubt, not only in students, but also in faculty. The only study I’m aware of where a slightly higher percentage of men identify with impostor feelings—and there are a lot of men who feel like impostors—was a study conducted with college professors. I think this speaks directly to the culture of academia. So when I do sessions with faculty, I focus more time on what the aspects of the academy are that fuel this self-doubt.

The title of your book is The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. Outside of academia, do women uniquely suffer from impostor feelings, or do you think more women voice their struggles and seek advice, while others suffer silently?

Actually, I hate the title of my book! I didn’t pick it. The problem is two-fold: One, impostor syndrome is not unique to women. Two, even women who are successful often don’t register with that term; we think of [successful] women as heads of state, senior executives, and celebrities. We don’t put ourselves into that category. But it’s really for anyone who is in an achieving situation.

There are a lot of men who identify with impostor feelings. One positive trend that I’m seeing is that millennial men are much more likely to be talking about impostor feelings. In previous generations, even if they felt them, the cultural norm was for men to not talk about insecurities or self-doubt. Now, when I speak at universities, 30 percent to 50 percent of the audience are men. So it’s definitely not only a female issue.

So impostor syndrome affects many students, but is it just as prevalent among older adults and working professionals?

Absolutely. [This is reflected in] the diversity of organizations that ask me to speak—anywhere from the Space Telescope Science Institute, to Romance Writers of America, to Women in Trucking, as well as engineers, accountants, people in commercial real estate, people who manage large civic centers and sports stadiums, tech companies, medical schools, economists, nurses, physicians, and administrative assistants. I’m in Houston right now and am scheduled to talk to employees at a gas company soon.

You wrote in a blog post that most people who experience impostor syndrome “don’t give up or give in.” It’s not always as if impostor feelings prevent them from being successful; they just doubt themselves along the way. Can you explain this dichotomy?

There are some people who fly under the radar and who don’t challenge themselves. They don’t go on to get an advanced degree; they might start their business, but they don’t grow their business. They never write their book. There certainly are people for whom the impostor syndrome completely holds them back.

The majority of people, however, keep going. But they’re not able to fully enjoy their success because it’s as if they’re always looking over their shoulder and waiting to be found out. They’re thinking, “Ooh, fooled them again, but the next time, I won’t be so lucky.” So, success becomes an empty experience. 

What is one of the most rewarding aspects of speaking to and connecting with so many people across the country?

This sense that I’m not alone. It’s a huge, collective sigh of relief. Being in an auditorium with 300 people and they’re all looking around, thinking they are the only impostors—I know that feeling. People contact me [after hearing me talk] and say, “I read your book,” or “I went to a talk, and I decided to run for lieutenant governor,” or, “I didn’t win, but I threw my hat into the ring.” It’s very gratifying to help alleviate some of that unnecessary self-doubt.

The point isn’t to never feel like an impostor again. What I’m doing is giving people information, insight, and tools so that they can talk themselves down faster.

What is one thing that you want people to learn from your talk?

I want them to understand that if you want to stop feeling like an impostor, you have to stop thinking like an impostor.

Jillian McKoy

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