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Thank you so much for taking the time to read this post. I’ve got a lot of info for you all and some personal stories of dealing with imposter syndrome, something even the most brilliant, talented, skillful people I know feel at times. It honestly amazes me how often the most BADASS women around me deal with the emotional turmoil that surrounds feeling like a fraud or an imposter. If you haven't yet read the first part of this series check it out.
If this is something you can relate to, please KEEP READING. This post will analyze what imposter syndrome is individually, where it comes from on a societal level, and will also give some useful cognitive psychology tools to build yourself up to overcoming these thoughts or at least utilizing them in a healthy way, which we will get into later.
So, what is imposter syndrome?
On a cognitive level imposter syndrome manifests as feelings of anxiety, stress, and insecurity that are associated with the fear that the people around you will somehow discover that you are unqualified or that you are a fake or an imposter. These feelings can have a wide range of effects on those dealing with imposter syndrome, but ultimately the impending dread of being discovered as a fraud is often crippling, leading to feelings of apathy, self-doubt, and other negative emotions that may prevent sufferers from completing the tasks they plan to and want to achieve or accomplish.
What Causes Imposter Syndrome?
It is helpful to look at imposter syndrome as a layered experience, with negative self-talk, societal expectations, and social conditioning being layered on top of one another to ultimately create these negative emotions. Imposter syndrome is fueled by but also fuels negative self-talk. Put differently, feeling like a fraud or a fake is often a cyclical process in which negative self- talk acts as a catalyst for and a result of imposter syndrome.
These feelings are compounded by our perceptions of what society expects us to do as women, as mothers, as professionals, as students, as partners… the list goes on. The areas in which societal expectations dictate our actions is so expansive I could never cover them all in one blog post, but the main premise of them all is that we act according to how we perceive others will expect us to act, and that causes us a lot of stress, and ultimately leads to us feeling like imposters.
On top of the societal expectations and the negative talks we are having with ourselves, many of us come from families where high achievement was important and thus we have internalized this to the point of it manifesting in the form of an extreme fear of failure and an unhealthy perfectionism. This feeling leads us to doubt our skills and abilities at the very first sign that me may not be a perfect leader or mom or student or whatever we are attempting to be.
This trifecta creates a perfect storm of negativity that allows us to doubt our abilities and feel like imposters.
I’m Not Good Enough
In essence, the Qualifying Exam serves as the gatekeeper to the dissertation phase of my doctoral program (referred to in the academic community as advancement to candidacy) and most doctoral programs have their own variations. Although the format may vary their function is to test a doctoral student’s knowledge of the core principles of their coursework to determine if they have retained the information necessary to be a contributing individual in their field. In my program we were required to take a seven hour exam in which we constructed a case-study analysis of a pre-selected journal article.
I spent the entirety of the program taking good notes in preparation for the exam, which we had been warned about by the previous cohorts in excruciating detail which, most likely to our professors’ pleasure, had struck a fear in us so deep that by the time we entered the computer lab we had become obsessed. I took four mock exams, my husband took days off of work and by the day of the exam I felt as prepared as I thought I could be, despite the reservations of self-doubt that inevitably crept through my mind. I powered through the exam and when I left I didn’t feel too bad. We waited 14 long, painful, anxiety filled days to receive our results. Due to the structure of the system, you could receive one of three grades: Pass, Revise, or Fail. The whole process is rather bureaucratic in nature and definitely feels elitist at best, but it’s one of those things that the academy requires students to do to prove their educational prowess. Now, I’ve never really failed anything major in my life aside from the occasional test that my procrastinating brain couldn’t make up for. I opened my results and the first sheet contained 7 Full Passes, I was ecstatic. So when I opened up the second of the two score sheets and saw 5 fails and 2 revises, I was beyond mortified. I honestly wanted to quit the entire program and never show my face again.
I began to doubt myself, my credentials, my experience, my drive. I began to believe that I didn’t belong, and that I wasn’t good enough to be standing amongst my colleagues in this program. But y’all those were just the lies that I was telling myself. The lies that were holding me back from moving past this “failure”. So I took the opportunity to revise and wrote nearly double my original exam content. I cited and cited and cited and I turned in a much better exam than I originally had. I learned the subject in greater depth and I also learned that I can pick myself up, despite not meeting my perfectionist expectations.
Despite the self-awareness I’ve been trying to cultivate, the fear and shame I feel over my career are sometimes crippling. I am constantly doubting myself, my worth, my intelligence, my credentials… the list of my self-doubts is infinite. This feeling resonates so deeply within me that I keep pushing this post off and coming back to it, because who cares what I have to say, right? My self-defeating attitude has always been the number one thing holding me back and even though I’m honestly trying my hardest to change the way I think about myself, my ability and my reactions to triggering situations, it’s constant WORK.
Thought work and attempting to retrain my thoughts and reactions have been the hardest things I’ve ever done and my brain is CONSTANTLY trying to talk myself out of it, because let’s be honest, it’s easier to be at the whim of my thoughts than to take control of them, right? But I’ve never been one to back away from a challenge. As I sit and analyze the things in my life that I’ve done, I’ve never thought that anything was too difficult, and I’ve continued to push myself beyond what I or anyone else thought I was capable of. This evidenced in my education, my drive to push through school while getting a master’s and now a doctorate.
“So, you think you’re just going to have a baby in the middle of the semester?”
Funny story, when I was pregnant with Henley a classmate in my master’s program asked me condescendingly when I no longer could hide my pregnancy with baggy clothes and my tardiness due to constant morning sickness had become very noticeable, “So, you think you’re just going to have a baby in the middle of the semester?”. Y’all, that stung, in a way I’d never felt before. I am very fortunate to have very supportive parents (at times my mom may have not always been the best at expressing this and my extreme perfectionism is definitely rooted in my need for positive feedback but that’s a topic for another post) so I’d honestly never had someone insinuate in such an outright way that I would be unable to do something that I was one hundred percent committed to.
So what did I do? At first I was super pissed and then I started to wonder if he was right. I started to question my ability to raise a child and be a good mother while also trying to build a career and write a thesis and I wondered how I could ever pull it off. I felt out of place in lectures and in my Gender and Society class, my imposter syndrome kicked-in in a way I had never felt before. I started to feel like the embodiment of the gendered societal roles that I was learning about in my classes.
Fueling My Fire
But eventually those words became a fuel to a fire that still is burning inside of me today. That comment became part of my “why?”. Not only did I go on to finish the semester with a 3.9 GPA, I finished my thesis on-time with my original plan to graduate before getting pregnant. I then went on to apply to and get into the Educational Leadership Doctorate program at Sac State, while pregnant again! Was it easy? Hell no. But like I said before I kind of like a challenge.
Every time I write a paper about gender equity or Title IX, I think about that comment, every time I think about how far I’ve come in my research and my skills as a sociologist and a leader, I think about that comment. I let the imposter syndrome I was feeling be a driving force in my success and my determination to do what I set out to.
Part of the thought work I’m doing now involves getting to know myself in ways that I didn’t allow myself to or wasn’t equipped with the tools to deal with previously. This includes understanding my skills and abilities and overcoming the feelings of imposter syndrome that have been fueling my apathy. A friend and colleague in my doctorate program posted a quote from an academic article speaking to the relationship between imposter syndrome and both productivity and indifference, and it really resonated with me.
A Help and A Hindrance
The same imposter syndrome that once drove me to fight harder, was currently contributing to the apathy I was currently feeling about the uncertainty that comes from doing new things (this blog, my dissertation) and holding me back! When I started to analyze these feeling and understand where they were coming from I started to realize that the same societal expectations that had me questioning my ability 4 years ago, was again making me question myself and my credentials and qualifications. I was astounded by this revelation, and immediately sat down to finish this post; because what I have to say does matter and my goals of getting this information out to you all is too important to let the false feelings of self-doubt get in my way!
Managing Imposter Syndrome and The Associated Negative Emotions
What can I do to become aware of my imposter syndrome and the feelings that accompany it?
The first step is to recognize that you ARE having a bout of imposter syndrome. In that moment you can ask yourself a few questions:
- Do I feel like this accomplishment is due to luck or chance and not my hard work or perseverance?
- Is this task truly out of my skill set or ability range or am I just dealing with feelings of self-doubt?
- Do I feel like people will discover I’m a fraud or a fake if I make a mistake when completing this task?
Once we’ve recognized that imposter syndrome is in fact what we are feeling we can begin to deal with these feelings in a more positive way.
Retraining your Brain
What can I do to manage these feelings or use them in a positive way?
I may not be able to believe that I will have a successful blog yet, or that I can write publishable original research but I can scaffold my thoughts with ones that I do believe, like that I am a good writer or that I can do anything I set my mind to. These are things I’ve proven to myself already and they are things I wholeheartedly believe.
When learning to scaffold your thoughts you want to avoid the need to seek external validation and really try to look at how your success makes you feel as an individual, in the end you are living your life and achieving your goals for the person in the mirror and thus making yourself happy should be your number one priority.
The other thing you want to avoid is trying to think an overly positive thought. When we attempt to make ourselves believe something too grand, rather than starting with smaller more believable thoughts, this can have a negative effect on our emotions and can set us back in our thought work. Therefore, scaffolding our thoughts is extremely important!
Setting realistic-goal thoughts that are achievable within a few scaffolded thoughts, is critical to this element of thought work. Additionally, we must change the way that we engage with our feelings of imposter syndrome. Its more than just recognizing the feelings we are having, it is about recognizing the negative self-talk, societal expectations and social conditioning that we’ve been trained to let control our emotions. This isn’t easy and I suggest listening to some podcasts on the topic of thought work UNF*CK Your Brain is one of my favorites and she has an episode about this very subject!, but it is so rewarding to be able to understand your own emotions and begin to not feel so controlled by them!
Thank you for reading and please let's discuss this further below!