Saturday, May 14, 2011

How I Learned to Stop Worrying about Being an Impostor

 This post is a continuation of the previous discussion of the "impostor phenomenon" and the "Dunning-Kruger effect". To review, people suffering from the former condition don't believe themselves to be qualified, despite ample evidence as to their skills and qualifications, and worry about being uncovered as an impostor.  The latter condition is characterized by over-confidence, completely out of proportion to actual skills (the greater the incompetence, the higher the confidence).  For more details, see the previous two posts. 
You can also test yourself as to your "impostor" tendency here.

In this post, I'd like to explore how someone with a tendency toward "impostor phenomenon" (IP) might learn to avoid such negative feelings and associated behavior.  The basic problem, according to psychologists, is that such people fail to internalize their accomplishments and skills, and so view themselves as less capable than others.  I can imagine that this condition might arise through various personality traits and environmental factors during childhood.  One particular interaction that occurs to me is how much a person depends on the approval and affirmation by others--too much reliance on accolades from others might predispose someone to the condition, for example. 

Even if you are thinking that you don't have this problem, consider this: our self-image changes over time and in response to our surroundings and how others treat us.  One thing is certain in life, and that is change.  I think most people can remember one time or another when they felt inadequate and were worried about being able to accomplish a task, do well on an exam, or live up to expectations (of parents, advisers, employers). I pointed out in the previous post that students are susceptible to IP upon being thrust from school into a job where they are expected to be fully competent (after years of being told they are not yet competent).  I experienced this feeling upon completing my Ph.D., but it faded with time.  I can imagine this could strike anyone at any point in their career--going from one job to a new job, for example.

There may be a couple of ways to deal with IP--both of which helped me.

I mentioned above the reliance on others for affirmation of one's skills.  Therein lies one possible source of help: surround yourself with people who are supportive, who reaffirm a positive image of yourself, and who encourage you to view yourself realistically (by pointing out your obvious skills and accomplishments when you express doubts, for example).

Obviously, it would be better if you were not reliant on others to avoid feeling like a fraud, but it's not likely to be easy for you to change this aspect of your personality without extensive therapy.  However, you can avoid people who make you feel worse and seek out people who are supportive.  However, that will likely get you only part-way to squashing any impostor feelings.

Another method that I found helpful was to remind myself often about my own accomplishments. I've read about accomplished scientists (with IP) who would frequently reread one of their best papers to remind themselves just how good it was (therefore, how good they are).  People with IP tend to be highly accomplished, so having such reminders is usually not a problem.  I've also done this on occasion when I was feeling wobbly about starting a new and challenging writing project. By reading something I had previously written, which was published in a good journal, helped me internalize the fact that if I was capable of doing it once, I could do it again--no sweat. Anyone can use this approach --with a paper they've written, an exam they aced, or a great blog post they wrote that got a lot of positive comments!

For more on stories of female scientists suffering from IP and strategies for overcoming IP, see this article at Naturejobs.

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