This afternoon, one of my best students came in to discuss her fieldwork. After we talked about her progress, she opened up about her feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, admitting that she had impostor syndrome.
“I’m on track to get a distinction, but I’m never happy with my writing. I get an essay back with a high mark and think ‘I don’t deserve that’. I feel like a fake.”
This is why she’s one of my best students: she really is excellent and doesn’t realise it. She compares herself to others, not acknowledging that her abilities are actually better than theirs. She works hard–she was narrowing down her dissertation topic and asking for reading recommendations months before her peers had even started thinking about it. Most brilliant people I’ve known don’t actually try that hard–they’re just brilliant. They often get distinctions and joke about how they wrote that essay in a few hours. It’s annoying. She doesn’t do that. Yet they don’t have impostor syndrome…
While it’s wonderful to see someone work hard and do well, it was hard for me to hear that even she doubts herself. It made me realise how universal imposter syndrome is–even somebody who clearly works hard to be successful doesn’t think they deserve their success.
And while I won’t use her name or identifying details, I will use ‘she’/’her’ pronouns, because gender is key to understanding and discussing this issue. The term “imposter phenomenon” (sic) was introduced by Clance and Imes in their 1978 study to describe the difficulties that high-achieving women have in internalising their success.
In recent years, impostor syndrome has become a widely acknowledged phenomenon, with scholars, activists and writers offering ways to fight it:
Social psychologist Amy Cuddy did a TED talk on body language that included another confidence-building trick: the power pose. Holding a confident pose was shown to actually boost testosterone and lower cortisol.
Before my next job interview, I’ll be hiding in the ladies’ room, posing like Wonder Woman for a few minutes…