Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: Imposter Syndrome: The Masks of Success

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Imposter Syndrome: The Masks of Success

    A old friend of mine from college (and now a Grad.Life reader!) sent me a link to an article on a very interesting issue that haunts many graduate students: it’s called the Imposter Phenomenon.  As soon as I saw the headline to the article, I immediately recalled discussing this syndrome in my dissertation group, years ago. Our group’s advisor was listening to us collectively vent our fears about not being good enough – but as we sat and talked and sipped wine and shared our feelings of inadequacy and began to come to terms with some of our feelings, we realized that these emotions were much more complicated than some kind of low self-esteem or low self-worth (which are complicated enough on their own, believe me). The feeling we were converging on was more a fear of being “found out” – found out by those among us and above us that we had faked our way to the top of our high school and college classes, faked our way into graduate school, and faked our way through comps, and faked our way through the proposal, and faked our way into this group. It was a fear that we’d basically keep on faking it until we make it, blindly grasping at luck and opportunity and just barely scraping by, somehow tricking people, until someone finally catches us in our act of academic deception. I remember looking around with a sick feeling in my stomach, as if I was finally admitting something that had been hiding like a skeleton in my educational closet -- that the jig was up. I was ready to surrender, with hands in the air, the weight of deception and guilt off my shoulders. 
     And then our advisor intervened and calmly said, “There is actually a name for what you are feeling. It’s called The Imposter Syndrome.” He explained that it was an extremely common feeling among graduate students and professionals.
    As my advisor was explaining this syndrome to us, I felt a rush of relief flood into my heart, as the blood rushed into my face – other people outside of this room feel this way too? You mean there’s an actual pathological component to this feeling? You mean, other people have this, and feel this, and know about this? As he continued to field our questions, I looked around, my mind blown. Knowing that this feeling had a name, and had been studied by real psychologists, (although it is not officially recognized in the DSMMD as a psychological disorder), somehow did make me feel slightly better. Not less of a fraud, but perhaps a little bit more aware that my fraudulent feeling might exist in my head, rather than in reality.
    So, what is the imposter phenomenon, exactly? The imposter phenomenon, a.k.a imposter syndrome, a.k.a fraud syndrome, is a condition in which a professional unfoundedly feels as if he or she has fraudulently joined the ranks of his or her own profession, or in which a student irrationally feels as if he or she doesn’t belong among his or her peers. If you suffer from this syndrome, you feel undeserving of your success and achievements. You feel like you have slipped past the barriers, snuck in under the radar. To me, I understand it as a type of paranoia. Constantly, you feel like you will be “found out” or “discovered” for the fraud that you are. It is also the feeling of not belonging. It is dark, and strange, and very real inside the heads of many graduate students. 
    The psychologists who coined the term and first studied the syndrome emphasize the internality of this disordered thinking. Sufferers of this syndrome lack an internal sense of success – they are just unable to internalize their own success and their own merit. In other words, they feel they do not deserve their status, degrees, accolades, and that they have somehow deceived the world around them in order to attain what they’ve attained.
    In trying to tease out what might cause this emotion or pattern of thinking to arise, I tried to draw some analogies and connections to other situations and experiences. At first, I began thinking of developmental psychology, noticing that in some articles I pulled up on the topic, imposter syndrome seems to arise from succumbing to past images of oneself. A person may not be able to get around an image of herself that concretized long ago, which has nothing to do with her current status or state of being. Then, thinking about perception of oneself, I realized that imposter syndrome has some parallel characteristics to another mental disorder known as body dysmorphic disorder – in which one perceives his or her body in a negative way and makes observations that are not supported by reality. (For example, a woman sincerely believes she is “huge” when she is factually 100 pounds and 5 feet tall.)
    It’s also similar to when you first fall in love with someone, and that person falls in love with you, too, and suddenly you begin to wonder, “Why on earth does this person love me?” And you wait for them to discover your real, hidden self, and, upon the discovery, for them to get up and walk away.
     Whoah! Didn’t mean to take such a dark turn there! But it is kind of a dark issue, when you really think about it. Imposter syndrome! It sounds like the stuff of a great Gothic slash dark comedic novel set in the world of academia, exploring the psychological limits of the human being in the post-post-modern world.
     The question left for me is: what is it about graduate school specifically that creates the conditions for this syndrome to arise? Is it due to some kind of barriers put up between the students and the mentors? Is it just human nature when it comes to intellectual activities? What causes this failure to internalize one’s own success and merit? Is it indicative of low-self-esteem? Or is it something systemic in our educational and professional structure that causes someone to feel like a fraud amongst peers? Is it a combination of one’s nature and one’s environment? Who is vulnerable? More interestingly, who is not vulnerable to this syndrome?

     Personally, I deal with this feeling often, especially after reading a great journal article, or a new book in my field – it comes into my head that my ideas are inferior, and that I don’t belong in this league, that I am out of my depth – and I wonder one day, they will tell me that I need to leave – that it just hasn’t been good enough. 
    The strange thing is that I don’t feel this way in ALL areas of my life. Aside from being a grad student, I am also a singer, and I used to act in plays and musicals, and I can’t remember ever once feeling as if I faked my way through an audition, faked my way through a song, or faked my way into the cast of a musical.  I don’t remember thinking, "I’m not as talented as these people, how did I get here, I’m going to be found out…. " I just sang, and left it all out there, and accepted the outcome, good or bad. For some reason, I could always internalize my sense of achievement much more easily as a singer than as a literature student. 
   The difference is, I guess, that in academia, we rise up the ranks based on a system that we know deep in our hearts to be politicized and arbitrary, with inflated grades that pretend to be objective but are ultimately subjective. A Phd is kind of like this objective body of evidence I can point to to say, look, I’m smart and I achieved something significant in my field. But, if in my heart and brain, I know that this evidence is only an illusion of objectivity, perhaps that is why I am constantly looking over my shoulder, waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Maybe the existence of Imposter Syndrome exposes the phantasmagoric underpinnings of the academy in the first place. If ultimately there is no way to prove yourself worthy anyway, it makes sense that you would be constantly worried about being caught defenseless.
    With art, on the other hand, nothing pretends to be objective. Everything is subjective – so there is no worry about having to one day prove yourself worthy with some objective measure. You just are what you are. I sing the way I sing. I write the songs that come to me. There is no layer of wondering whether or not I have “tricked” people into thinking I can sing – because it is all subjective anyway. It is already understood by my brain and my heart that people may or may not think I’m a good singer. When my band plays at a local bar, I don’t worry about whether or not will think I am a fraud or not -- which is not to say that I don't worry at all; I worry about something more simple: whether I will be good or not.  Any worry I have about being on stage is not about any kind of deception. In fact, it's the opposite -- because when I'm out on stage, I'm not hiding behind sentences, and language, and structure, and grammar, and jargon -- I'm not hiding anything. It's me out there, raw and vulnerable -- singing my heart out. Take it or leave it. 

    Of course, I’m only an amateur singer. So maybe that’s the real difference? Perhaps for professional artists and performers, Imposter Syndrome exists as well? There are certain professional heights you may achieve – winning a Grammy or a Tony or perhaps getting into a Song Writer’s union – do you think professionals who achieve these things feel like frauds? Do they wonder if some day they will be found out as fakers? Somehow, it doesn’t seem to fit with the pattern. But maybe I am wrong.
   What experiences have you had with this feeling? Have you experienced it? Or have you been baffled by dealing with others who clearly are amazing but can’t seem to acknowledge their own competency? Share your thoughts! There is so much more to be addressed concerning this topic and others like it – let’s start the conversation!!! And thanks to Brandon C. who tossed this topic my way – if you want to see any topics covered here, let me know!


  1. It's so strange reading a post, written by somebody else, that feels like it's speaking from my own personal experiences!

    I also felt SO much better a few years ago when I realized this feeling had a name. It was as if my feelings were legitimized as insanity rather than as a representation of truth. And I would definitely choose insanity over failure. That's probably 'cause I'm insane...