Fake it til’ You Make It

I’m less than 5 days away from graduating at UGA. The culmination of the last four years of my life is an exciting, bittersweet moment: a time of congratulatory messages followed by the dreaded question, “what are you going to do next?”. Like many of my peers in the STEM disciplines, I am preparing to start graduate school next fall to continue my education. I have been admitted to some of the best public health schools in the nation, and on one hand, I couldn’t be more excited! But on the other hand, I feel as though I don’t belong. I worry about being good enough. I worry whether or not the admissions departments somehow made a mistake. I worry about being exposed as a fraud.

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Graduation is almost here! Image Credit: Kalsom cheman via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

These feelings of inadequacy are actually quite common amongst high achievers. In fact, clinical psychologists, Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, coined the term impostor syndrome in 1978 to describe this phenomenon. While it was originally attributed to only high achieving women, recent studies show that impostor syndrome has been shown to affect both men and women equally. It is estimated that two out of five successful people (i.e. respected professionals or high-achieving students) consider themselves frauds, and that 70% of people will experience at least one episode of impostor syndrome during their lifetime.

Those of us who struggle with impostor syndrome often fail to internalize our accomplishments. We live in a state of fear that we are somehow going to be exposed as a fraud. Even if we have external recognition of our success — good grades, admission to grad schools, awards, scholarships, a high paying job — those who struggle with this feeling will often dismiss it all as luck. Or, even more commonly, we might feel as though we have somehow tricked others into thinking we are more intelligent than we actually are. I’ve been known to say, “I’m really not that smart. I’m just a good student”. But deep down this is just a defense mechanism to keep people from setting the expectations too high. I worry that if I just slip up once, then I’ll be exposed for the fraud I think I am.

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Anxiety is a common symptom of impostor syndrome. Image credit: RUANSHUNYI via Pixabay. Licensed under CC0 1.0.

One important thing to realize about this “syndrome” is that it’s neither a mental disorder nor an ingrained personality trait. It’s really more of an experience; in psychological studies, it is researched as as a reaction to certain events. In the words of Dr. Clance, a co-author of the original paper on impostor syndrome, “If I could do it all over again, I would call it the impostor experience, because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness, it’s something almost everyone experiences”.  

While there isn’t any one real “cause” of impostor syndrome, societal and parental expectations play a role. Dr. Imes, co-developer of the impostor syndrome phenomenon, states that “In our society, there’s a huge pressure to achieve. There can be a lot of confusion between approval and love and worthiness. Self-worth becomes contingent on achieving.” In a society where we are praised for our accomplishment and reprimanded for failures, it is really no wonder why so many people struggle with these feelings of self-doubt.

If you have ever struggled with self-confidence, know that you are not alone. If at any point in your professional or academic career you accredited your accomplishments to chance, charm, or some other factor, I am inviting you today to let that go. It is unfair to you. I know this can be a lot easier said than done, and that we all experience impostor syndrome in different ways. Dr. Valerie Young, a world expert on impostor syndrome, recognizes this and has categorized the syndrome into five different subgroups. Since there’s no one size fits all solution to the problem, learning more about what subgroup you may fall into and how to best deal with it could be a good place to start. Make today an opportunity to start embracing your strengths and capabilities!

About the Author

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Jonathan Waring is an Athens native and an undergraduate student studying Computer Science at the University of Georgia. When he’s not watching Netflix in his room, he can be found watching Netflix in his friends’ rooms. He recently accepted his admission to Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, where he will be getting his Master’s degree in Health Data Science. As a reminder he is just one person: not statistically significant nor representative. You can email him at jwaring8@uga.edu or follow him on Twitter @waringclothes.