Taking the Imposter out of Imposter Syndrome

What is imposter syndrome? If you’ve never heard this term or experienced it, consider yourself lucky, but you may have experienced it without even realizing it. Imposter syndrome, perhaps at universities such as Penn, are not entirely uncommon. Anecdotally, it’s a term I often hear as an advisor to both graduate and undergraduate students. It’s a syndrome where you don’t feel you belong in a context or perhaps you perpetually feel underqualified. In fact, you might sell yourself short or undermine your past accomplishments. Do you feel that often you’re not where you belong? Do you have thoughts that creep up telling you’re not smart enough, worthy enough, or deserving of the position that you hold? This is imposter syndrome and many encounter it at some point in their life, however successful.

Imposter syndrome is highly prevalent among high achieving individuals and likely why it is often affecting many university students.  Most individuals who often encounter imposter syndrome are quite successful, but often do not internalize their achievements. Sometimes, imposter syndrome can be linked to perfectionism tendencies as well. According to a research study done by the University of Texas at Austin, many graduate students experience some form of imposter syndrome, in particular minority students, including international students. The effects of imposter syndrome induce stress, anxiety, and in some instances, bouts of depression.

As an advisor, I have had countless conversations with students to remind them that they ARE Penn students. Yes, you’re here at Penn for a reason. You belong HERE. Swimming in a sea among other bright students, it’s very easy to forget that.

Here are some strategies to work past imposter syndrome:

Talk to mentors and friends.

Take the time to check in with your mentors. Seek their advice and counsel. It’s wonderful to seek their input before making big decisions, but also fill them in on your journey, even through your missteps and pivots. This is a form of networking, but also, a way to give yourself care. More often than not, your mentors and friends will welcome hearing from you.

Remember your context.

Remember that you likely didn’t get to where you are without some hard work and dedication. Remember that you ARE qualified and that you CAN ace your job interview, graduate application, and/or class presentation. You are more than qualified to do it, but do you believe in yourself that you are capable? More likely than not, you bring a unique slant to the project or application at hand. Take a good look at yourself and think about what talents you bring to the position you are aspiring to obtain. You DO bring qualities to the table that no one else brings, and that will make you stand out. 

Remember your journey.

Undoubtedly, you are reaching for the next step in your career trajectory for a reason. You have reached the next goal. You want to learn more about your field, perhaps. You need a challenge. You crave professional development. You desire more leadership opportunities. There are a myriad of reasons why you are making the decisions you are – a journey that has carried you. No matter the reason, you have had a journey that more than qualifies you. You have had successes (as well as failures, I’m sure) working at your previous employment positions, perhaps in studying in your major, and with interacting with your peers and colleagues. Don’t forget these joys and accomplishments. Give yourself the credit you deserve and know that such past experiences will work in your favor in future endeavors.

Reframe and reprogram.

Ask yourself, why do you feel underqualified? Why do you lose confidence? What are the triggers that hinder your progress? Attack these fears. Place them aside. It’s easy to lend your thoughts to thinking that you’re an imposter, however, it’s also important to recognize these fears, and kick them to the curb in a healthy manner. Then begin to ask yourself, “What can I do more to learn about X?” “What can I do to better myself and stay focused on my goals?” It’s easy to constantly look to your left and to your right, however, to stay the course, you need to look straight ahead. Stop comparing yourself to others. They are not you. Stop comparing your accomplishments and qualifications. You are uniquely you and they are uniquely them. Focus on your goals and spend less time thinking about those around you.

Visualize your goal(s) and the end product.

What is that you hope to achieve? What is your next goal? Visualize it! Can you picture yourself getting the masters diploma on stage? What about that tam and gown you’ve always thought you’d wear once you finished your doctorate? Do you picture yourself in an office in an organization that you admire? Or, can you see yourself work with a population of people that are near and dear to your heart? Picture it and capture the photo in your mind and make tangible goals to take steps to make this a reality. You CAN do it!

Here are some resources to better understand imposter syndrome and its effects:

Lastly, if you feel that you are dealing with imposter syndrome, please reach out to resources here at Penn campus. There are so many folks here willing to help you. Below are a few departments here on campus to walk alongside you, depending on your needs:

Penn Counseling and Psychological Services

Reach-A-Peer Helpline

Penn’s Weingarten Learning Resources Center

Penn’s Office of the Chaplain & The Spiritual & Religious Life Center (SPARC)

Penn Writing Center

By Esther Ra
Esther Ra Associate Director, Nursing/Education/Social Work