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Woman Standing on Dock
Woman Standing on Docks

The impostor's lament

“I don’t deserve to be here,” Sarah said, fidgeting with the corner of her blouse. 
 
A talented student with numerous academic accolades under her belt, Sarah had recently interviewed with a successful advertising firm. Though she still had two more classes to complete, the firm was eager to take her on as a paid intern to prepare her for a job upon her graduation the following semester. 
 
You might expect that Sarah would be brimming over with joy at the prospect, but instead, she felt that she had somehow conned the firm into offering her the position. This, in turn, caused her to doubt her ability to perform the responsibilities that came with her new role. Rather than experiencing the pride of accomplishment, Sarah was experiencing anxiety.
 
More specifically, she was feeling the pain of a very common phenomenon known as impostor syndrome. Though impostor syndrome isn’t listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as an official diagnosis, its effects are felt by most people at some point in their lives. 
 
Think about a time when you experienced success. Now consider the following thoughts. 
  • I just got lucky.
  • I don’t belong here.
  • Once they realize I don’t know what I’m doing, they’ll get rid of me.
  • I’m not as smart/talented/skilled as they think I am.
  • It won’t be long before they figure out I’m a fraud.
Do any look familiar to you? If so, you’ve felt the painful doubts created by the impostor phenomenon.
 
The irony of impostor syndrome is that high achievers tend to be the most susceptible to it. I see it often in students who have worked diligently, spending hours in studious labor, and in adults who have excelled at their chosen profession through hard work and high expectations. As we transition into new careers or life experiences, we're particularly vulnerable to these feelings of not belonging, of fraudulence. 
 
While research has shown women and minorities top the charts for these feelings of “passing themselves off” rather than authentically achieving, the phenomenon can be said to be a natural by-product of a society that puts perhaps too much pressure on its individuals to succeed at all costs. 
 
In schools and homes, we stress to our children the need to achieve, and it may be that the message is received and processed in ways that we don’t anticipate. It may be that we’re sending our children the message that the love, attention, and respect that they crave must be won through constant showmanship. What a heart-breaking idea.
 
During the next few weeks, I’d like to talk with you about overcoming some of the habits and mindsets that lead to this sense of being an impostor because I suspect that both you and Sarah have something to offer the world that is not only good enough but is much needed.
 
Dr. Eileen Wynne
 

References:
 

Alexander, J., & Sakulku, J. (2011). The Impostor Phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioral Science, 6, 73-92.
 
Cokley, K., McClain, S., Enciso, A. and Martinez, M. (2013), An Examination of the Impact of Minority Status Stress and Impostor Feelings on the Mental Health of Diverse Ethnic Minority College Students. Jnl Multicult Counseling & Dev, 41: 82–95. doi: 10.1002/j.2161-1912.2013.00029.x
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