A Few Lessons Learned on Imposter Syndrome from Dr. Valerie Young

Nervous looking woman biting her fingernails

Have you ever felt like you are the least qualified person in the room who somehow managed to fool everyone into thinking you belong there?

If so, you’re not alone, and this feeling is actually a well-known psychological phenomenon called imposter syndrome.

About 70% of people report having feelings of imposter syndrome and it is most common in competitive fields and environments like medicine, business, tech and academia, which is why researchers at the Martinos Center recently invited imposter syndrome expert Valerie Young, EdD, to give a talk for their Women in Science seminar series.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

The term “imposter syndrome” was first coined by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 in their paper titled The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.

They define imposter syndrome as, despite having achieved numerous degrees, accolades and various honors, feeling perpetually incapable, unqualified or unsuccessful.

For example, a student with imposter syndrome may have good grades, plenty of extra curriculars, great test scores and a wonderful personal essay and still feel like they didn’t deserve to get into the school of their dreams. In their eyes, they must have gotten lucky, or someone on the admissions board must have made a mistake.

While Clance and Imes’ paper was primarily about imposter syndrome in women, these feelings are not exclusive to women. A person’s upbringing, environment and even organizational culture can all contribute to feelings of imposter syndrome, says Young.

But it is how we recognize and deal with those feelings that can make or break us.

Types of Competence

Recognizing imposter feelings are normal and accepting the type of person you are can help with overcoming imposter syndrome.

Below are the five types of competence Young created based on the different personalities that can experience imposter syndrome. Can you relate to any of them?

The Perfectionist

Perfectionists tend to set very high goals for themselves, so much so that if they fail to meet those goals it can spawn a wave of self-doubt and imposter feelings.

It is ok to set high goals for yourself, but it is also important to celebrate even the smallest of achievements along the way and accept that mistakes will be made.  

The Expert

People who see themselves as the expert are constantly trying to learn and be the most educated on a particular subject.

While it’s true a person could always learn more, endlessly seeking knowledge and over-preparing can become a form of procrastination. Try practicing just-in-time learning rather than hoarding knowledge to provide comfort.

The Natural Genius

They tend to equate success with how quickly and easily something can be done. If it’s too hard, takes multiple attempts or takes too long, it is considered a failure.

Natural geniuses are generally used to doing well, but it is normal to struggle, and just because something is difficult at the start does not mean it will always be difficult. Skill building is a natural part of life, and everyone is a work in progress. 

The soloist

Soloists believe they can do anything on their own, and that asking for help implies weakness and incompetence.

Being independent can be good in certain scenarios, but once it starts to impact your wellbeing and performance it can become a problem. Remember that accepting help is ok, and that it is often better than burning yourself out and floundering.

The super-person

Super people are individuals that tend to work overly hard to prove their worth. They tend to be hyper focused on validation and feel guilty when they are not working and being productive.

Being a hard worker is something that is generally valued, but it isn’t healthy when it stems from a need for validation. Try to take a step back to reflect on all the work you have done to slow your roll. Be kind to yourself!

It is normal to feel like an imposter, just don’t let it consume you

The biggest takeaway from Dr. Young’s seminar at the Martinos Center was that imposter syndrome is completely normal. Chances are, most of the people around you feel the same way you do, so don’t be ashamed.

Working in a competitive environment can be exhausting and challenging, but it is not impossible. Difficult situations become easier when you reframe your thinking, says Young. Change your mindset from “I have no idea what I am doing,” to “I can figure it out,” and keep going.

“Everyone loses when bright people play small.”

Valerie Young, EdD

More advice from Dr. Young’s Ted Talk:

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