All About Imposter Syndrome

Written by Erin Michel, Graduate Assistant for the Graduate College

Imposter syndrome: what is it, really? You’ve likely heard the term before, as it's become somewhat of a buzzword within academic and professional circles in recent years. You might have a vague understanding of the concept, thinking to yourself on occasion, “Sure, sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve to be where I’ve gotten,” and then continuing on with your busy grad student life. It makes sense: you’ve got a lot going on, and taking an honest, hard look at the ways in which you undermine your own success might sound positively overwhelming. Well, no more! Now is as good a time as any to begin the process of personal growth and development. By truly understanding the ways that imposter syndrome impacts your academic, professional, and social success, and putting in the work to silence that inner critic and become more of a cheerleader for yourself, you can achieve things you never thought possible. And the good news? You don’t have to do it alone.

A woman stands in front of a podium, her shadow is grabbing it's head in exasperation.

Image from Banner Health.

Imposter syndrome: What is it? 

The American Psychological Association states that people with imposter syndrome experience an “ongoing fear that they’re going to be ‘found out’ or unmasked as being incompetent or unable to replicate past successes.” These fears lead to feelings of anxiety and depression, lessened professional confidence and risk-taking, and career burnout. Experts recognize five main subtypes of imposter syndrome: the perfectionist, the superhero, the expert, the natural genius, and the soloist (more information in the infographic below or on MindHelp’s imposter syndrome article). Imposter syndrome varies in duration, as well; it can manifest as a low-level almost constant inner criticism, or a more acute and overwhelming panic-like response to a specific professional stressor. Across all types and presentations of imposter syndrome, however, are the common threads of negative evaluation, negative self-talk, and distorted perceptions of reality.  Because the thoughts feel very real to us, they dictate our actions and the ways we relate to other people and approach challenges. People with imposter syndrome might be more closed off at work because they feel certain that people’s attempts to include them are derived from pity; they might overperform and lack work/life boundaries because they feel that they need to do more to get on everyone else’s level. Whatever the impact in day-to-day functioning, the root cause is the same, and it can be distilled down to four words: “I’m not good enough.” 

An infographic depicting the five types of imposter syndrome.

Infographic from MindHelp.

What is it not?

Imposter syndrome is an evidence-based behavioral pattern and psychological phenomenon, not a diagnosable mental disorder. It cannot be found in the DSM-V, which is the manual that medical and mental health professionals use to guide diagnosis and treatment. However, imposter syndrome is often accompanied by depression and anxiety, which may or may not reach levels sufficient to render a diagnosis such as Major Depressive Disorder or Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Regardless of context, it worth noting: all distress is real, and deserves to be taken seriously and treated (whether formally or informally), even if it does not have a diagnostic label attached to it. In fact, your imposter syndrome might tell you be telling you that even your imposter syndrome is not real, that you are faking it, and that seeing a counselor or getting help is being “dramatic.” This can create a negative cycle that is difficult to break. The first step is taking yourself seriously and recognizing that inner critic for what it is: fake. You are not the imposter—your inner critic is. 

All About Imposter Syndrome

Why is imposter syndrome such a slippery adversary?  

Imposter syndrome is so sneaky because it preys on our biases as flawed, imperfect human beings. Social psychology has identified several faulty patterns of perception that are fairly consistent across people of different cultures and age groups; three of these biases play a huge role in the experience of imposter syndrome.  

  • Negativity bias. Research shows that people are more likely to notice, remember, and be emotionally impacted by negative events in our lives than positive ones, even if the two events are of the same magnitude. We also view events with both positive and negative characteristics in a disproportionately negative light, or as Decision Lab researchers put it, “we typically view the whole of an event as more negative than the sum of its parts.” Say you put on a presentation for your research lab, and everyone has overwhelmingly positive things to say, except one individual who gives critical feedback. Not only are you more likely to focus on that one piece of criticism, but you also remember more details about it for a longer duration of time and attach more emotional significance to it. It’s easier to feel like a fraud when the things that we notice, remember, and feel are negative. 

  • Attribution errors. It is well established that we are more likely to attribute the outcome of a situation to external circumstances for ourselves whereas we assume that someone else’s outcome is due to their own performance or innate characteristics. This can work in both positive and negative ways; for example, someone without imposter syndrome might interpret their own professional hiccup or shortcoming as a product of the situation they were put into and not let it impact their overall views of themselves (while not necessarily granting the same grace to a colleague). This helps them be resilient in the face of challenges and mistakes, which are inevitable in any field! However, since imposter syndrome already predisposes us to insecurities, the attribution error will likely show up in the reverse; we might see our colleague deliver an impressive presentation and think to ourselves “wow, they are such an eloquent speaker and so charismatic.” Whereas, when we ourselves deliver a successful presentation, we might think, “I was lucky that it went well this time,” or “I guess my practice paid off;” or even “People here give nice feedback no matter what.”  

  • Confirmation bias. Further complicating all the biases above, humans tend to selectively notice and remember exactly what confirms their already existing beliefs. While this is similar to the negativity bias, it is different in that it can apply to any beliefs, positive or negative! If you believe that you are the funniest person alive, you will notice and remember all the instances in which you made people laugh instead of the ones where people didn’t seem to get the joke. Unfortunately, imposter syndrome gives us the belief that we are frauds who don’t possess the skills and qualities to deserve our achievements, and therefore we are hyper attuned to any tiny piece of evidence that might corroborate this belief.

A Venn diagram with two circles reading "Objective facts" and "facts confirming your beliefs;" the overlapping area is labelled "what you see."

From Mark Manson

Who does it effect?

In short, almost everyone! Experts estimate that at least 80% of the general population experience impostor syndrome at some point in their lives. Grad students may be particularly susceptible because of the unique pressures of academia and the fact that we are by nature at the beginning of our careers, working with and learning from people who are in reality much more experienced and knowledgeable than ourselves. 

It is very important to note, though, that imposter syndrome does not impact everyone equally. Evidence shows that imposter syndrome impacts minority individuals at a higher rate overall. This includes racial/ethnic minorities, sexual/gender minorities, and essentially all groups of individuals who are in some way underrepresented within their professional or academic environment. This makes sense; often, these individuals receive subtle and not-so-subtle messages that they do not belong, whether this is from microaggressions, outright discrimination and expressions of prejudice, or an overall lack of representation. If we don’t see others like us succeeding at what we do, it can lead us to question what sets us apart, and this introspection can cause feelings of insecurity. 

What causes imposter syndrome?  

Many things can lead to imposter syndrome, so it is difficult to pinpoint exact causes. Research on the syndrome’s risk factors has linked family environment to the phenomenon, specifically families that highly emphasized achievement. Sometimes people who grow up in this kind of environment internalize the message that their value as a person is based solely on their achievements, and consequently develop a sense of contingent self-worth. Other factors that are linked to imposter syndrome include starting new roles/responsibilities as well as certain personality characteristics including neuroticism and low self-efficacy. These factors are not determinants, though: imposter syndrome can happen to anyone.

What can I do about my imposter syndrome?  

  • Seek professional help. UC’s Counseling and Psychological Services offers free counseling to all UC students and, as licensed mental health professionals, are very well-equipped to support you in conquering your imposter syndrome. They can provide evidence-based treatments such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in order help you recognize and restructure unhelpful thoughts and identify the way that those thoughts lead to harmful behaviors. They also offer group counseling resources including a graduate-student specific option!

  • Practice putting your thoughts on trial. Sometimes writing out the evidence can help you push past your biases to reach for a more balanced perspective. If you have a thought along the lines of “I would definitely fail at leading that project,” write out the evidence that supports that thought and the evidence that negates it. Imagine yourself as a prosecuting attorney, ruthlessly poking holes in a defendant, your imposter syndrome. What about all the projects you’ve succeeded on? Why would your boss offer you the lead role if they didn’t think you could do it? What does failing even mean? 

  • Think about the benefits of being new at something. There may be a grain of truth to some of your imposter syndrome fears, especially if you are a brand-new graduate student who is thrust into a world of responsibilities that you’ve never tried before. But your lack of experience is not the whole story. Everyone has to start somewhere; even Albert Einstein was once a little baby who couldn’t speak let alone define relativity. And there are actually benefits to being new! You bring a fresh perspective and might notice things that someone who looks at the same information every day could miss. You’re likely less burned out than your senior colleagues. Your past professional experience in different roles and even fields makes you well rounded and unique! If we were all exactly the same, collaboration would be pointless. You bring something valuable to the table, whoever you are.

  • Connect with peers. Since the very nature of imposter syndrome makes us feel like we are the only one who is feeling the way we do, it can be an incredibly powerful experience to hear that others experience the same things you’re going through. CECH runs a weekly Graduate Peer Support group open to all graduate students that is the perfect space to connect with your peers and normalize your experience.  

  • Practice self-compassion. It may feel cheesy at first, but be intentional about showing yourself some love and appreciation on a daily basis. Whether that’s looking in the mirror and giving yourself compliments, repeating affirmations, or journaling, there are a lot of ways to give yourself a little TLC. One strategy could be to keep a running list of your successes and times that you’ve gotten positive feedback from people you admire, and give it a gander whenever you need a little boost. You can also share your successes with others in your life who will reinforce your awesomeness. By strengthening your confidence and showing yourself some well-deserved respect, you can put your imposter syndrome in its place.