By Marianna Evola
A few weeks ago, a colleague provided me with an interesting editorial, "Found Out", from Nature (2016). In the editorial, the author does a great job of depicting the self-doubt that can plague professionals. As I thought about how I could utilize the topic of self-doubt in in my column on Responsible Research, I predictably perused Facebook. One of the first status updates that I encountered was from a friend that I have known since junior high. In her update, she posted a photograph of herself with flawless hair and make-up but commented on how she was not at all photogenic. I immediately rolled my eyes and thought, after all these years she still feels the need to troll for compliments. You see, all through junior high and high school, she was unquestionably accepted as one of the most beautiful girls in the school. Her mom worked in a high end salon, so she always had impeccable hair, nails and make-up and was dressed in the most fashionable attire but more so, she was just naturally beautiful. Yet, she would always assert that she was unattractive and everyone would immediately praise her beauty, as they again did after her Facebook post. After years of witnessing this routine, I would just roll my eyes and shake my head. However, this time after reading the above editorial on self-doubt or the Imposter Syndrome, I wondered, does she just troll for compliments or does she actually question her beauty even after a lifetime of compliments and admiration?
I've known about Imposter Syndrome since early graduate school, even though I probably did not know it had a name or was a real condition. In fact, the Fraud or Imposter Syndrome was joked about by my fellow graduate students because the evidence of it was apparent in the population. First year graduate students are known to follow the suggestion made by Mark Twain, that it is "Better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool, than speak and remove all doubt." Trying to get first year graduate students to participate in discussion is very difficult and any question directed to the classroom is more likely to be met with the sound of crickets than for a student to raise their hand and volunteer a response. The irony is that many of these same students actively participated in classroom discussions when they were senior honors undergrads.
I remember witnessing and participating in the reluctant discussion of my first class in graduate school. The class consisted of only 8 students, some were fellow first years in my discipline, Biopsychology, and the rest of the class were second year Clinical Psychology students. I had never been in such a small class and was immediately intimidated by the lack of anonymity that large undergrad classes had always provided. As first year students, we would not participate for fear of looking foolish to the professor and the more senior students. As for the Clinical Psychology students, they would not participate for fear of looking foolish to those of us that had a strong academic background in Biology because most of the clinical students had never taken Biology or Chemistry as undergrads. We all had one thing in common, we all felt insecure in the class. Thus, we all followed the recommendation made by Mark Twain as our very patient professor worked hard to try and get us to participate in discussion. Weeks later, when I complained about the uncomfortable classroom silence to a more senior colleague in our lab, he laughed and told me about fraud or imposter syndrome. He also told me that his first classes in grad school had been much the same and that it would get better.
So, what is Imposter Syndrome? It is a persistent feeling by accomplished professionals that they are a fraud, a fake, or an imposter and that a horrible mistake or oversight contributed to their current status as a professional, their promotion or in the case of students, their acceptance to graduate or professional school. The "Imposter" believes that they do not have the intelligence, ability or talent to succeed in their current position and the next time they do something, say something or write something, the horrible mistake will be realized and they will be asked to leave their job or their graduate training program. Even with an abundance of evidence to the contrary, high grades, accolades, awards, publications and a well-funded research program, the Imposter continues to feel that they are one error away from discovery.
Although remembering the discomfort of my first year of graduate school is amusing and although it was funny to laugh with my fellow graduate students about our insecurities, Imposter syndrome is not restricted to academic immaturity. In fact, it can haunt academics throughout their careers (Clance & Imes, 1978; Huchins, 2015). Clance & Imes (1978), who defined Imposter Syndrome, first assessed the prevalence of self-doubt in accomplished professional women. Many of the women that were included in this first study held advanced academic degrees and were well-published academic successes, yet contrary to all of their accomplishments, they doubted their abilities and reported that they awaited discovery of their fraudulent status. Future work revealed that Imposter Syndrome was not restricted to female professionals and that males suffered at comparable rates (Clance, 1985).
More recent work has revealed a correlation between Imposter Syndrome and Perfectionism (Dudau, 2014). Specifically, the article asserted that Self-Evaluative Perfectionism is linked to Imposter Syndrome. This was an education to me because it was the first time that I had read about the different types of perfectionism. Dudau (2014) described self-evaluative perfectionists to be persons that "seek validation from others, are sensitive to criticism, ruminate about less than perfect performance are concerned over mistakes and resent pressure to achieve excellence". The link to perfectionism easily led me to contemplate a link between Imposter Syndrome and procrastination. I often present on how perfectionism contributes to procrastination (Ellis and Knaus, 1977). It is hard to ever consider your work finished, when you consistently strive for perfection. Furthermore, it is difficult to even begin tasks when you expect perfection from yourself but are intimately aware of your flaws. And a convenient excuse for imperfection is time constraints associated with deadlines. Procrastinating allows you to delude yourself into believing that "My project would have been perfect if I had not run short of time and had to rush." However, if seeking perfection makes it impossible to finish a project, feeling like an Imposter probably impairs one's ability to even begin the work in the first place. Especially if you believe that this time, your work will surely reveal your long-standing fraud. As such, when you consider the potential impact that Imposter Syndrome could have on career productivity, it makes you wonder how often the research world loses talented critical minds because they are all too able to direct their critical focus onto their own talents, and find that they fall short of their expectation of perfection.
So, if we are potentially losing talented scholars due to their own self-doubt, what can we do to help our students and our own professional development? To answer that, first let me disclose that I am not a clinical psychologist or counsellor and the suggestions below are predominantly taken from two sources, first, a publication by a Chemical Engineer (Felder, 1988) that observed the syndrome in many of his graduate students and published his thoughts on how to help students and second, the CalTech Counselling Center website. These are great starting points, however it should be pointed out that most of the work that I have read on Imposter Syndrome has proposed psychological strategies for addressing challenges associated with self-doubt.
- Talk about your insecurities with trusted colleagues and/or mentors. This can be difficult for many students in different disciplines. Above, I discuss laughing about Imposter Syndrome with fellow students. However, I was trained in a Psychology Department, and in that environment everyone engages in even casual conversations about behavioral, cognitive and emotional struggles. In contrast, students from other disciplines may not be aware that others experience self-doubt and as such, they may feel isolated in their insecurity. If you think that your students or colleagues are struggling with self-doubt, engage them in a discussion regarding the struggle. Or, if you are uncomfortable engaging them in conversation about the problem, provide them with the very concise thoughts published by Richard Felder (1988) and encourage them to educate themselves on Imposter Syndrome and/or address their self-doubt.
- Find a good source for objective assessment of your abilities, a source that you trust. When you find yourself having a crisis of confidence, utilize that source for an honest assessment of your abilities. For many students, a mentor is an excellent source of honest input and may be able to assist students in analyzing the accuracy of self-criticism. A good mentor is responsible for raising student awareness to their strengths and weaknesses and providing guidance on how to address weaknesses. Thus, a mentor is a good source of candid professional evaluation. That being said, if the student lives in fear of disappointing their mentor, they may not be able to reach out to the mentor for assistance. As I tell students when I present on procrastination and perfectionism, trust your mentor when you feel professionally vulnerable. They recruited you to their research team because they saw your talent and potential. As such, they are a good source of objective input on your professional development and talent. However, if you cannot talk to a mentor or a colleague, or you have spoken to both and cannot overcome feelings of self-doubt and feel that it is impacting your professional productivity, seek professional counselling.
- Identify and monitor automatic negative thoughts regarding your talents. When you find yourself thinking, "I'm not very talented", "I'm not intelligent", "I'm a terrible writer, teacher or communicator" or other similar thoughts, assess your accomplishments for evidence of the contrary. Negative thoughts contribute to the feelings of being an imposter and cause you to self-sabotage. If you get high grades, are well published, and have received teaching awards there is plenty of evidence that lack of talent is not a problem. Rather, negative thoughts may be causing your insecurity. Now the tricky thing about monitoring these thoughts is that they are often automatic, meaning these thoughts may occur very fast and historically, they have not been questioned. Thus, you need to catch yourself engaging in negative thinking to question the accuracy of these thoughts.
- Realize that feelings and reality are two different things. Just because you feel like an imposter it does not mean that you lack talent or intelligence in reality. Nor does it mean that you were promoted or accepted into your current position because of some enormous mistake.
Academic careers are highly competitive and critical. Everyone needs to learn how to incorporate critical feedback into their research endeavors and publications without internalizing the critical input and permitting it to damage one's self-perception. According to the literature, this challenge persists even as one's professional status continues to advance. Watch your students for signs of self-doubt and help them to address their insecurities. If you are a student, realize that you are not the first student to feel like they are an imposter, you were not mistakenly accepted to graduate school and no one is watching for you to out yourself as an imposter.
Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.