Imposter syndrome – the intellectual phoney in the room? Tackling fraudulent thoughts & academic self-esteem.

We’ve all been there; that overwhelming feeling of dread that you are not quite good enough for the job role you are in, that your employer has simply made a mistake and selected the wrong person and you are scared you will be exposed as a phoney? These feelings tend to occur at the start of a new job, where apprehension to the role is expected or if you have had a particularly bad day and often these feelings lift and ebb away after you have settled into your role – but imagine feeling like this 24/7, regardless of how long you have been in your role and regardless of how well bosses/supervisors say you are doing. In the age of modern technology, we can see the success of our fellow colleagues/old school friends/family plastered across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn (and the list goes on), which can create the illusion that everyone around you has their lives together apart from you; however, all the smiles are not always so sincere.

Essentially, imposter syndrome is defined as “an internal experience of intellectual inadequacy with persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’” and despite this syndrome occurring most often in high-achieving women, 70% of millennials will experience at least one episode of this syndrome in their lifetimes (1). The inability to internalise your own successes can create the ‘Impostor Cycle’, by which success and positive feedback from completing a task are discounted, leading to feelings of fraudulence, self-doubt, depression & anxiety, which then lead back to anxiety and doubt before undertaking another achievement-related task (click link to PDF below; 1).

Imposter Cycle PDF

Most reports have found that correlational patterns and regression analysis support the idea that imposter syndrome involves a combination of fraudulent ideation, depressive tendencies, self-criticism, social anxiety and achievement pressures (2). Societal pressure has created a career arms race, in which you always have to be that little bit better than someone else to gain that job or PhD or position, which is perfectly normal, but where is the tipping point which turns healthy pressure into an overwhelming need to perform highly, with chronic anxiety, self-doubt and self-sabotage?

In my own experience, I have suffered with imposter syndrome since studying my A-levels in school; I always aspired to undertake a career in biology and despite my grades being above average and getting accepted into my first university of choice, I thought I had gotten there by luck and luck entirely. The syndrome was often there throughout my undergraduate degree, and often took on the role as the negative voice in my head anytime I ever had positive feedback; I felt I had to bring myself back down because I quite simply felt like a fraud. Currently, as a PhD student within the College of Science here at Swansea University, I feel the crushing pressure to perform at my best 24/7, to reel off academic papers for publishing on a monthly basis, to train up new students as they arrive, to try and bulk up my CV with extra activities so that I have more to give rather than just the shell of a fully exhausted former PhD student, all whilst trying to maintain a healthy relationship with myself. As PhD students we are expected to be stressed, to feel this pressure, to perform and to essentially give our lives to our work – and yes we did apply and yes they hired us after all right? But what if you think it is all just by chance? How are you supposed to perform in this position when you feel like a fraud?

The good news is this is a recognised syndrome and there are people to talk to and things you can do to tackle these thoughts head-on and make your life easier for yourself. I find these five simple points help me when I am anxious, stressed and a little overwhelmed:

1 – Internalise your achievements: Stop rejecting the positive feedback, stop passing off your achievements as luck or chance and accept them in the moment. Take on board the information and let yourself enjoy it momentarily.

2 – To compare or not to compare?: Simply stop this. As mentioned earlier, social media isn’t the best representation of your friends’ true lives and 9 times out of 10 if you were to sit and compare your successes and ‘failures’ against your Facebook or LinkedIn buddies is it highly likely to make you feel down as opposed to reassured. Social media is after all how you want the world to perceive you and as Mark Twain once said, “Comparison is the death of joy”.

3 – Take a step back: You are here in this job/position for a reason, right? You went through the interview process, trained got your degrees/qualifications and legitimately you are here because you are good enough. When feeling like a fraud or feeling overwhelmed, make a list of all of your skills, achievements, positive aspects of your life and take it in. In this competitive world we live in, people rarely ‘fall’ into such highly skilled positions such as a PhD.

4 – Channel your inner negativity: Find your crux. Find that ‘thing’ that shuts your brain down and allows you to relax or get rid of any positive energy you are carrying around. Find something that gives you endorphins or that generates inner peace to give you some escapism.

5 – Talk, talk and don’t stop talking: Speaking to a boss/supervisor about how you feel is an important step in being able to overcome such strong emotions associated with this syndrome. Understandably there is fear there, fear that your boss/supervisor will confirm that yes indeed you are a fraud, but that is simply a manifestation in our minds. The reality is speaking about your concerns as a ‘fraud’ help extinguish the initial doubt you have about yourself and often bosses/supervisors can aid and support you through this mental process. If you don’t feel able to talk to your boss/supervisor, university Wellbeing Services /doctors can provide fantastic support and often run a multitude of workshops for a range of issues including anxiety, self-esteem and coping with academic life.

For more information on stress and Imposter Syndrome, there is an interesting article on the NHS’ website, which focusses on ‘Quietening the voice’: https://www.england.nhs.uk/2014/01/kirstie-stott-2/ and I would like to finish with this quote:

“Build your self-esteem by recalling all the ways you have succeeded, and your brain will be filled with images of you making your achievements happen again and again. Give yourself permission to toot your own horn, and don’t wait for anyone to praise you”. J. Canfield.

References:

(1) Sakulku, J. & Alexander, J. (2011). The Imposter Phenonmenon. International Journal of Behavioural Science, 6, 33-92.

(2) Kolligian, J. & Sternberg, R.J. (2010). Perceived Fraudulence in Young Adults: Is There an ‘Imposter Syndrome’? Journal of Personality Assessment, 56.

Written by Chloe Robinson, PhD Student, Biosciences.

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