Imposter Syndrome: we’ve all felt it at some point in our lives. It starts with a creeping feeling of self-doubt. Then the questions start. How did I fool everyone for this long? Will everyone realize I don’t belong here? How much longer can I keep up this façade? Sometimes nerve-racking situations like giving a presentation to peers will bring the onslaught of questions, while other times all it takes is a bad day at work. It is a phenomenon that is experienced by most but discussed by few as if repeating the questions out loud will somehow make them a reality.
Imposter syndrome was first defined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imesas as: “high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud.“
Sheryl Sandberg, the author of Lean In :Women, Work and the Will to Lead, also shares a description of this phenomenon:“Many people, but especially women, feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments. Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made. Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are- impostors with limited skills or abilities.”
Even wildly successful people such as Tina Fey, Neil Gaiman, and Maya Angelou have admitted to feeling this way at times.
If you Google imposter syndrome you will find numerous lists and articles about how to combat it, and I think many of those suggestions are valid. I particularly liked “21 ways to overcome imposter syndrome” by Kyle Eschenroeder. However, most are suggestions that involve intentionally changing your thinking, which is often easier said than done. Instead, I will offer something that has worked for me. It may sound simple, but I’ve found that the best way to combat imposter syndrome is to have a hobby. By hobby, I mean something that you love and know that you are good at. For me, that hobby is photography. When I’m having a bad day, week, or month of experiments in the lab, or when I’m nervous about a presentation, I find that photo shoots and capturing images that I am proud of help to remind me that it’s all in my head. It reminds me that I’m talented and that I got to where I am with hard work, not by misleading a bunch of people about my skills. This suggestion probably sounds weird, because my ability to take a photo and the skills that make me a successful graduate student are seemingly unrelated, but I’ve found that it works. I think it works because it breaks the cycle of self-doubt, even just for a few moments, which is all it takes to fight back against imposter syndrome. It’s like a reset button that gives you a chance to start again and focus on the good things instead of the doubts. Unfortunately, this isn’t a permanent solution, and the next presentation or stressful day to come along brings back those same questions. But so far, doing something that I love has worked every time to stop that inner voice from asking how much longer I have until someone sees right through my façade.
Katie Stember is a Northeastern Alumnae (Class of ’13) who was very involved with Husky Ambassadors as a student. She is currently a Ph.D. student in Biomedical Sciences at UNC Chapel Hill studying an autoimmune disease called ANCA Vasculitis. She’s a proud cat mom and in her free time does volunteer photography for a local animal shelter. Feel free to contact her at email@example.com.