The impostor syndrome (IS) (also known as the impostor phenomenon) refers to successful people who have a persistent belief in their lack of intelligence, skills, or competence despite many worthy accomplishments (Young, 2011). Because these feelings of fraudulence are related to knowledge and skills they tend to occur in academic and professional settings. The impostor syndrome is a widely accepted phenomenon in academe and there is likelihood that, whether you experience it or not, there are a significant number of your colleagues and students who do.
Pauline Clance created The Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale (CIPS) in 1985 to measure impostor syndrome. In 1995, Chrisman, Pieper, Clance, Holland and Glickauf-Hughes established construct validity for the CIPS, distinguishing the impostor syndrome from depression, self-esteem, social anxiety, and self-monitoring. Although impostor phenomenon has correlative associations with these constructs, it is distinctive as well. They also determined an internal reliability value of 0.92 on the CIPS.
Find out how you rate: Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale (CIPS).
Although the impostor syndrome was originally identified by women who recognized it in other women, it should be noted that IS is experienced by men as well (Young, 2011). There are studies that have explored impostor syndrome among cultural and ethnic groups. It is clear that IS is a human experience and anyone can experience it. However, IS may have a different significance in different groups. For those from underrepresented and underserved groups in health professions IS often accompanies a sense of not belonging because of the lack of representation of their groups in the student body and faculty. Impostor syndrome combined with other phenomena such as stereotype threat and attributional ambiguity creates a psychological load for underrepresented students that becomes a serious competitor for their cognitive energy. Time spent on worry and vigilance is time not spent on learning and performing (Ackerman-Barger, Valderama-Wallace, Latimore & Drake). A study on impostor syndrome showed that many individuals of Asian descent are likely to experience it as well, but from a slightly different pathway. Cokely, McClain, Enciso, and Martinez (2013) pointed out that for many Asians, because of overly high expectations and “model minority” stereotypes, individual students and faculty are driven to maladaptive perfectionism and anxiety. This sets up very capable, if not exceptional individuals, to fall short of unreasonable expectations, thereby creating impostor feelings.
It is often assumed that faculty have learned the skills needed to overcome phenomena like IS and can therefore mentor and teach students these skills. Yet faculty often have not learned to overcome their own impostor syndrome; they have just become more adept at hiding it. How, then, can faculty support students who may be experiencing overwhelming impostor syndrome? First, faculty need to be aware of the degree to which impostor syndrome may impact students’ academic performance; they need to learn techniques for managing impostor syndrome; and they need to model impostor syndrome reducing behaviors for students.
Overcoming the Impostor Syndrome
- Recognize that impostor feelings are common and normal (You may be surprised to find out how many of your well-accomplished colleagues experience impostor syndrome).
- Acknowledge those times and situations where your impostor feelings tend to occur. People often experience a recurrence of impostor syndrome in unfamiliar settings or just after a major accomplishment (You may think, “Oh, this is really when they are going to find out that I am a fraud!).
- Seek external feedback and deeply reflect on it. People with impostor syndrome tend to dismiss positive feedback thinking, “They are just being nice” or “My success was due to luck”. Keep a file as evidence of your success. It is okay to open this up periodically to remind yourself that you are successful because of the accomplishments you have achieved.
- Avoid the trap of working harder. Because impostor syndrome causes doubt and discomfort in accomplished people, we tend to do what we know. Work harder. Working hard is a necessary and admirable aspect of success, working harder can undermine your efforts. There is a point at which we meet our optimum level of output, but when we exceed that point the quality and productivity of work decreases and then we begin to have data to confirm what we always expected- that we are not good enough. Remember Voltaire’s statement, “Perfection is the enemy of good.”
- Strategic yeses and nos. Once, in a conversation with my colleagues, I admitted that one of my areas of weakness was the ability to say no. A colleague saliently pointed out that whenever you say yes to one thing you say no to another whether explicitly or not. Without realizing it you may be saying no to the quality of work you would put into another project or effort, you may be saying no to time with your family, your self-care (you’re your health) and your happiness. Take full advantage of opportunities, but think carefully about whether that yes will take you where you want to go or will cause you to become mediocre and amplify your impostor syndrome.
In conclusion, impostor syndrome is a common experience for many very accomplished individuals. Even when (or because) faculty experience impostor syndrome, they may be positioned well to teach and model how students can navigate it so that they are optimizing their learning and performance in health professions schools. Several strategies for overcoming impostor syndrome are listed here. However, there are some more in depth resources worth exploring including: The Empress Has No Clothes by Joyce Roche; The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women by Valerie Young; and The Imposter Syndrome: Why Successful People Often Feel Like Frauds by Hugh Kearns.
Understanding Health Professions Students’ Self-Perceptions of Stereotype Threat,
Journal of Best Practices in Health Professions Diversity, 9(2)