Self-doubt? You are not alone
By: Nicole Liscio
It must be pure luck that I got that award. I do not have enough data to be able to produce a good lecture. I am just not cut out for this type of work. I will never be as successful as my colleagues. Am I really qualified for this?
If you have ever found yourself with an eerily similar internal dialogue, do not worry; you are not the only one. I have come to understand, both through personal reflection and discussions with others, that this style of thinking is more prevalent than I had previously realized. It became amusingly clear when colleagues asked about my recent Master’s defense. My response? “It was okay. I felt like I could have answered the questions better. I just don’t do well in oral exams.” There was confusion written all over their faces, and who could blame them? I had swiftly and single-handedly just transformed one of my most proud accomplishments—the successful defense of a Master’s thesis—into something resembling an apology. Apart from showcasing my Canadiana, it got me thinking: why do so many perfectly capable and intelligent people feel like they just do not measure up?
In 1978, psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes first documented what they coined the Impostor Phenomenon (IP), an effect that occurs when high achievers chronically doubt their own abilities and fear that others will discover that they are intellectual frauds1.Those that experience IP often attribute their successes to external factors, like luck or circumstance, and have trouble truly believing that their own acumen and competence are behind such accomplishments. What is so curious is that the stark reality is often far from it. Take, for example, Dr. Cherry Murray, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated Professor of Physics, and the current Dean of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. In addition to having published over 75 papers, she holds two patents, has served on over 80 national and international scientific committees, and has garnered numerous accolades over the course of her academic and professional career. In spite of this impressive list of accomplishments, she still admits to feeling overcome with the sense of being a fraud or a phony. “Do I ever think I’m not qualified?” she says, “All the time.”2
This skewed self-perception is usually observed in those who have no obvious reason to feel this way. These people often share common characteristics: they are highly educated, hold positions of power, have been awarded for their intellect, and have been given the “smart and successful” stamp of approval by society’s standards. Why, then, is this self-imposed feeling of inadequacy and fear of failure so persistent and pervasive in some of us, when all evidence points to the likelihood of our future success? Why can we not look at our track record and foreshadow a positive outcome? Why do we give ourselves a hard time emotionally, when really, it would be easier, less anxiety-provoking, and more effective to simply pat ourselves on the back and be our own cheering squad?
One possible explanation stems from the value we place on intelligence, competence, and ability. Many of us who feel like intellectual impostors—especially graduate students and postdoctoral fellows—have extensive educational and life experiences behind us. We thrive on being highly skilled, acquiring knowledge, and thinking critically, and we place these attributes in high esteem. As children, it is likely that our parents instilled in us that above all else, a good education was the foundation for our future success. Maybe we performed well in school and were rewarded and valued for being bright. This reinforcement may have unwittingly given rise to overwhelming feelings of self-doubt and phoniness when the pattern of good grades did not follow in graduate school, and when—bewilderingly—it was not effortless to excel at a new job.
It could help shed light on why so many post-secondary students suffer from perfectionism, especially in the physical and life sciences3. Conscientiousness and attention to detail that served us so well in elementary and high school suddenly seems like a great weight on our shoulders, slowing us down and impeding the completion of the simplest of tasks. The need to meet and surpass our own outlandishly high standards can be all-consuming, not to mention that the tedious nature of producing flawless work, ironically, makes efficiency a non-option. Inefficient work is unacceptable work, we say to ourselves. We proceed to delve deeper into perfecting our work output. It becomes a bleak, bleak cycle that is difficult to break out of without changing that internal dialogue.
It is clear that the impostor effect occurs at least in part to fulfill the basic social needs we have of being accepted and feeling valued. Enhancing our social support network and sense of belonging are factors such as emotional support, affirmation, informational assistance, intimacy, comfort, and affection. In one study of 247 volunteer undergraduates (134 women, 113 men), Hale et al. showed that a sense of belonging was the only variable that could directly predict physical health outcomes, indicating that our social support can actually affect our well-being3.
Although the imposter phenomenon may ply a person with extra stress, for the most part, goals are achieved in the end. This begs the question: If these feelings do not affect actual success, why should we care? As was alluded to earlier, it is not so much that success is fully halted; rather, it is stunted. Those that are too preoccupied with self-doubt have less time to focus on reaching lofty goals, and may instead settle for achievements that are low-risk4.
What fuels these chronic thought patterns? Realistically, there are not nearly enough situations in the academic life of a student where making one mistake (or even a few of them!) will lead to catastrophic results and life-changing outcomes. Consider that it is not the fear of being wrong so much as it is the utter terror at the thought of being ostracized from a community. For example, if we were to answer a question incorrectly in front of a group of our colleagues, peers, and revered faculty, we would look foolish and feel humiliated. “They will form an opinion about our aptitude that will depreciate our feelings of self-worth! They will have finally realized we do not belong!” So, before an answer is even attempted, we have: weighed the pros and cons; decidedly erred on the side of caution; and quashed all potential for a fruitful exchange.
Research suggests that people experiencing IP may even exhibit symptoms that are similar to those suffering from a mild depressive disorder. However, because impostors are constantly such harsh self-critics, they may not realize that their symptoms may be depressive5. Such severe perfectionism is a trait that has been shown to be associated with increased anxiety and distress amongst individuals. Results of a study of 477 medical, dental, nursing and pharmacy students (224 men, 253 women) showed that a higher than expected percentage of students (27.5%) were experiencing psychiatric levels of distress6. Within the sample population, these feelings of distress, perfectionism, and IP were shown to have strong associations, and that they were better than other variables at predicting mental well-being and adjustment.
The researchers also noted that women typically reported greater impostor-like feelings than men. This is not that surprising, especially since women are more likely to value “social belonging.”4 In fields like science, that have been historically male-dominated, it is also understandable that women may experience more feelings of inadequacy, even though there are now more women in science and engineering than ever before.
A little self-doubt can often be a good thing; it can keep your ego in check and help you produce quality work with care and attention to detail. However, when negative feelings begin to overstay and take up permanent residency, the long-term results can be debilitating. Instead of focusing on weaknesses, it might be good practice to highlight strengths and review the evidence that proves your potential for future success. The comfort of a strong social support network can also help alleviate any impostor feelings, but ultimately, changing these perceptions needs to come from within. As difficult as it may be, sometimes you just need to give yourself a break. After all, you do deserve it.
Clance PR, Imes SA. The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice 1978;15(3):241-247.
Kaplan K. Unmasking the impostor. Nature 2009;459:468-469.
Hale CJ, Hannum JW, Espelage DL. Social support and physical health: The importance of belonging. Journal of American College Health 2005;53(6):276-284.
Clance PR, O’Toole MA. The impostor phenomenon: An internal barrier to empowerment and achievement. Women & Therapy 1987;6(3):51-64.
McGregor LN, Gee DE, Posey KE. I feel like a fraud and it depresses me: The relation between the impostor phenomenon and depression. Social Behavior and Personality 2008;36(1):43-48.
Henning K, Sydney E, Shaw D. Perfectionism, the impostor phenomenon and psychological adjustment in medical, dental, nursing and pharmacy students. Medical Education 1998;32(5):456-464.