IMPOSTER SYNDROME

Imposter Syndrome/Phenomenon/Experience(n) Imposter syndrome (also known as imposter phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the imposter experience) is a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”, despite how many accomplishments they might achieve.

It affects people of all walks of life – though it can disproportionately affect underrepresented minorities. I’ve linked a short Ted Ed video below that nicely sums up the issue and how we can battle it. We talk about this feeling increasingly in my field and as I’ve progressed in my own career, I’ve realized that I am not alone! Even some of the most influential scientists, engineers, lawyers, doctors, philosophers and more still suffer from imposter syndrome.

Newsflash: It has nothing to do with your competency and everything to do with your own worst critic: you!

As this video mentions, Maya Angelou and Albert Einstein suffered from imposter syndrome. Just recently, I was able to listen to Jocelyn Bell Burnell (nbd but she discovered pulsars) , who bravely and openly speaks about her own wars with imposter syndrome. Even though she discovered an astrophysical phenomenon that supported evidence for the evolution of stars, and despite the fact that she was the one to dig deeper while her graduate school supervisor was convinced it was little green menshe still felt as though she could be kicked out from graduate school at any minute for her incompetency. 

It’s like the extreme opposite of the Dunning Kruger effect which is almost cruel that this exists because then people suffering from imposter syndrome will quietly question themselves: how do they know they don’t have the Dunning Kruger effect and actually are an imposter in their field?!  (Welcome to Jordan’s thoughts). 

I’m not biased towards Ted Ed usually but these are some nice and short videos that do a good job at describing these psychological phenomena. The part of this video I’d like to highlight is their discussion on experts and why experts will usually “grade” their skills as more inadequate than they really are. While those with the least ability in the topic might think they know more about it than they really do. A great example is how people judge their own driving skills: most of us will swear we have above average driving skills but, I mean, the math just doesn’t work out!

It seems there’s a connection between 1) the number of failures or learning lessons you experience in a field and 2) how you evaluate your own skills. Those who have more experience in a particular topic (and hence have likely faced several obstacles that may resonate as “failure” or learning lessons, whatever you want to call it) typically grade themselves poorer. However, those with the least experience (and hence have faced little to no failure or learning lessons, which may resonate as a feeling of knowledge or talent on said topic) will think higher of their skills than they really should. 

So, it makes sense that the more you grow in your field the more you might doubt yourself, especially after realizing you either have imposter or Dunning Kruger syndrome or BOTH, in which case one validates the other and vice versa and you’ll need to quit your job, move, and start a new life under a different name.

I really like how Einstein put it: “As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.”  Basically, the more you know about a topic, the more aware you are that there is so much to learn about the topic. Therefore, you tend to believe you know less about this topic than there could be to know about it, and you rate yourself at a lower comprehension because of it. That’s kinda a cool thing – it exposes how easily humans can feel insignificant and aware that there is much, much more to the world than what we have been able to make of it – that’s humbling. Humans are inherently humble creatures and that’s kind of beautiful

Well ok, we tend to be either humble or incredibly self-absorbed (see e.g., Dunning Kruger effect lol). Is there an in between? 

​The videos mention a few ways we can help battle imposter syndrome and I think some of these points can also keep Dunning Krugers at bay:

  1. Open discussions about your feelings of inferiority. You’ll be surprised how many around you feel the exact same way.
  2. Open discussions about your expertise. Share what you do and become comfortable talking about it with anyone. 
  3. Ask about your performance. Don’t freak out if you get some criticism but instead use it to improve. If it concerns you, just say so. Example questions to ask in response of criticism: How can I improve my performance? Is there anything I can do to correct this mistake? Does this setback the timeframe for the project? Example responses to receiving negative feedback: This is good information to know and I will certainly work on this. I will make a point to improve on this subject. Thank you for pointing that out, I will look into this. I didn’t know that and thank you for teaching me this. 
  4. Let yourself be proud when receiving praise or credit. 
  5. Be comfortable learning something no matter how expert you feel about a topic. There is always something to learn!

The tips definitely rise in “severity” or unease (well, #3 and #4) so just start with the first two and then work your way to those two points if need be. On the other hand, some people tend to handle imposter syndrome poorly by overworking.  It’s the classic overcompensation mechanism: never feeling good enough so you work hard until you feel like you have met expectation which, depending on how bad of imposter syndrome you have, could be never, lol. It’s important to be able to reflect when you start doing this and always remember to rest! Find a hobby that brings you peace and try to do it regularly. 

Take it from me, a fellow imposter syndrome sufferer. 

You are talented. You are capable. And you belong. 

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