“Am I good enough?” “Do I belong here?”
Have these questions ever plagued your mind? Well, you are not alone. Undergraduate students, graduate students, post-docs, and even your professors (yes, they can feel this way too!) are haunted by feelings of inadequacy. However, how did this syndrome come to be?
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is a feeling of self-doubt or incompetence. Despite your accomplishments, imposter syndrome can be described as that little voice in your head that makes you question your self-worth. Imposter syndrome can be attributed to a pattern that causes academics to doubt their success, feel like a fraud, and perceive themselves as failures.
Academia and Imposter Syndrome
While academia may sound like a smooth road to success, it is paved with many obstacles that take a physical and mental toll and, sometimes, leads to burnout. The competitive atmosphere of academia precipitate judgements on your progression in post-secondary intuitions, your degree(s) of choice, your coursework, and your merits. The toxic environment of repeated rejection can be painful and feel personal. As a result, many academics reduce their identities to what should be perceived as mundane negative experiences.
Imposter syndrome can also be rooted in your lived experiences. Perhaps you had family who was hard on you to be the best in school or parents who would compare you to cousins who have won the top prestigious award in the western hemisphere. Such instances can come with a snooty gremlin that criticizes your mistakes, proficiency in writing and reading, or intelligence. Accordingly, you might strive to develop perfectionist tendencies and take up multiple responsibilities in addition to your coursework while navigating your low self-esteem and desire to be the very best. Notwithstanding, comparing and overworking yourself are toxic qualities that are not easy to forego.
So, if you doubt yourself, even when you are doing everything right, are you sentenced to feeling like an imposter forever? The short answer: No. The long answer: There are a few things you can do when you feel like imposter syndrome is creeping up behind you.
Tips to Overcome Imposter Syndrome
Have you ever gotten feedback that has made you want to crawl under Patrick Star’s coconut house? I have, and it is not fun. Writing would become a daunting experience. The accountability to my writing would often deteriorate when I would tune in to the "Negative Self-Talk TV.” Sarnecka (2019) describes Negative Self-Talk TV as "intrusive thoughts and images that make you feel bad and make it hard for you to work" (p. 95). Like most terrible TV shows, the more viewers it has, the longer the TV show will stay on the air. My favourite TV show is "So You Think You Can Grad School?" This show depicts convoluted and discouraging thoughts of not being good enough to get into grad school. Becoming worked up by this TV show, I forget that I could be spending my time writing. To keep myself accountable and dissociate from Negative Self-Talk TV, I relied on writing goals.
Setting writing goals has helped me to document what I hope to accomplish in my writing. Whether I document my progress to my peers or on my calendar, writing goals have helped me to support my writing practice better.
Part of being an academic is accepting constructive criticism as a mechanism to improve yourself. Although such criticism encourages you to look for positive feedback, critical thinking encourages academics to be objective. In other words, valuing feedback that is contrary to your expectations and biases. Your ability to dissect negative feedback may encourage you to disprove your imposter syndrome, thus becoming an improved academic.
Try reframing criticism as an opportunity to strengthen your assignment, article, grant, or coursework. For instance, it is empowering to learn how to lower your expectations and write something down—even if it is "bad" (Sarnecka, 2019, p. 90). Stop being afraid and accomplish your goals. If you are afraid of completing your assignments, remember that the first draft is never perfect, and that is why you edit. Indeed, persistence in the face of rejection is an academic's best friend.
Comparison is the biggest thief of your academic career. If I could describe comparison, I would compare it to junk food that sustains the appetite of your imposter syndrome. I get it: academia can be an intimidating environment. Being constantly surrounded by intelligent and accomplished scholars can make you feel demoralized. However, do not see your successes as your failures. While someone may excel in one area, you may excel in another. Remember that everyone has different strengths, goals, and paths in academia.
There was an article I read by Jaremka et al. (2020) titled, “Common academic experiences no one talks about: Repeated rejection, imposter syndrome, and burnout.” The authors begin the article by talking about a symposium session at the Society for Personality Social Psychology's annual conference. The authors shared their personal experiences with rejection, imposter syndrome, and burnout. Interestingly, the audience responded to the presentation with tears of joy. It appeared that the presentation was long overdue—the audience needed to know that they were not alone in their feelings of despair and inadequacy.
Public conversations about imposter syndrome, especially at a prestigious conference that garners overwhelming emotions from the audience are rare. However, it is a reminder that you are not alone. Imposter syndrome is a common experience in academic institutions that should not be stigmatized. It takes real courage to acknowledge your thoughts and to reach out to your peers who may be going through the same thing. Instead of isolating yourself, find comfort in talking to your peers about your experience and discussing the challenges you are facing. Finding a common ground with fellow academics not only contributes to a positive relationship in academia but welcomes suggestions to combat your imposter syndrome.
I have saved the best tip for last: be kind to yourself. If you are anything like me, being kind to yourself is a difficult task to accomplish. While I am still in the process of being kind to myself, I have learned what it means to be kind. For Sarnkecka (2019), being kind to yourself means observing your thoughts with kindness (p. 41). To be creative, you must prevent your judgemental self from impeding your scholarly work.
As much as you are unaware of your qualities and may care what others think of you, remember that you are unique. Refrain from minimizing your accomplishments, no matter how small they seem to you. Likewise, do not let your imposter syndrome minimize your hard-earned achievement. Maintain your integrity and stay honest. Give credit to where credit is due and know that you are amazing. Imposter syndrome is not facts, so learn to be kind to yourself and differentiate facts from feelings.
In case you forget these tips, I have created a mantra for you: I am brilliant, I am incredible, and I absolutely belong in academia.
Jaremka, L. M., Ackerman, J. M., Gawronski, B., Rule, N. O., Sweeny, K., Tropp, L. R., Metz, M. A., Molina, L., Ryan, W. S., & Vick, S. B. (2020). Common academic experiences no one talks about: Repeated rejection, impostor syndrome, and burnout. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(3), 519–543. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691619898848
Sarnecka, B. W. (2019). The writing workshop: Write more, write better, be happier in academia. Author.
This blog post was originally published on the SFU Learning Commons blog on February 7, 2022.