Last week I attended a talk organized by the university within the framework of the Vereinbarkeitswoche (2023). The theme was related to the bridges between gender and internationalization in the academy. Something special caught my attention: most of the talk attendees reported having impostor feelings on more than one occasion, either during their time at the university or when they began their scientific careers.
The topic is doubly interesting since we are in the European Mental Health Awareness month (small commercial: if you are interested in this topic, do not miss our following articles)…but also because these feelings have crossed my mind several times. For instance, when I started my first job in Germany I felt that getting my position was more a stroke of luck than a logical consequence of my preparation and my effort. Like some of the conference attendees, I felt that I wasn’t good or capable enough, that someone had taken pity on me and ignored my language deficiencies. I doubted myself so much that I didn’t believe what was happening to me was true.
After the experiences related in this conference I realized that I was not the only one with those thoughts. A colleague recalled that someone even dared to tell her once that she had gotten her job only because she was “pretty” and the professor in charge probably liked that, so the impostor feelings came. Here I would like to highlight two points:
- The impostor is more common than we think: it has been studied that 70-82% of people face this phenomenon (Bravata, D.M. et al., Journal of General Internal Medicine, vol. 35, no. 4 , 2020). However, most of those who experience it prefer not to talk about it, which is why it has not yet been given the importance it deserves in many academic spaces.
- The blame of impostor feelings (and the responsibility to do something about it) is not on individuals only, but on the historical and cultural contexts that propel its existence on the first place. The impostor phenomenon is especially prominent among people with underrepresented identities.
The concept (“impostor syndrome”) was originally developed by the psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in a 1978 study, which focused on high-achieving women. It was defined as doubting ones abilities and feeling like a fraud. However, impostor “phenomenon” or “experience” are more adequate terms for it, since the word “syndrome” normally refers to a clinical diagnosis. The most common feelings related to the impostor include a degree of anxiety, second-guessing, struggling with the sense that one hasn’t earned what is achieved, and the sense that one doesn’t belong.
10 WAYS TO DEAL WITH THOSE IMPOSTOR FEELINGS
At the personal level:
- Let go of perfection. Acknowledge that you don’t know everything (no one does) and instead be open to new learning opportunities. Focus on progress.
- Recognize and celebrate your abilities and achievements. If possible, write them down…own them. Go to that list whenever you start doubting yourself, use it as evidence.
- Pay attention when someone congratulates you and reflect on even your small successes. For example, print an email with positive feedback and have it near your desk for when you need an external reminder.
- Also welcome your mistakes (everyone has them). They don’t stop you nor define you.
- Never take yourself prematurely out of an opportunity because of fear to failure. You’ll never know what could have been if you don’t try. Remember you’re not judging.
At the collective level:
- Make sure that everyone is represented: hire and promote people with underrepresented identities too. Only white or male leadership can leave marginalized individuals feeling like they don’t deserve their place.
- Talk supportively to a friend or colleague that minimizes their accomplishments. Apply the same supportive language to your own narration. We’re stronger together.
- When working in teams, credit everyone for their own work, express thanks, and highlight what others contributed as well.
- Open spaces to share impostor feelings and experiences. Connect in empowering communities that can provide validation and empathy. That may be easier with people from similar backgrounds. Hear the impostor stories of respected mentors and role models…they have them too (Leaders who have struggled with impostor syndrome).
- Be compassionate. Our procedures should pursue community over competition.
This project in the university is trying to address the struggles of impostor and related feelings in the academic environment, and also connect women of color in science: Training und Beratung/BIG.
Before ending this article here’s an important reminder: