I’ve been going nonstop the past year. It’s my third year as an assistant professor. I should feel more ease, settled in my position, but I don’t. I obsess over my classes, prep and grading even though my student evaluations are positive. I obsess over my manuscripts and work hard to build relationships with everyone. Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing here in the ivory tower. How did I even end up here? No one looks like me, the live people around me or the dead ones on the walls.
Big parts of who I am are invisible or irrelevant in this setting: my background as an immigrant, my family's culture, the other languages I speak. How I got here feels so different from most of my colleagues that I often don’t even talk about it anymore. It doesn’t come up naturally the way their paths do. I also feel self-conscious when I speak about it because an awkward silence usually follows. I wonder if they just can’t relate or if they feel bad and don’t know what to say.
Sometimes I feel self-conscious when I speak because of my accent. I forget that I can speak 2 other languages but obsess at how I am not perfect at this one and my intelligence and qualifications can be judged because of it. So, I keep quiet most of the time in big group meetings. Then I worry that they see me as the immigrant woman stereotype: passive or subservient.
you feel a continual need/push to overperform or be perfect? Do you doubt yourself, your skills and talents even though you’re a high achiever and you receive positive feedback and outcomes? Or do you have recurring thoughts that you’re in your position not because of your skills and merits but out of luck?
These are common experiences of impostor syndrome or impostor phenomenon, first coined by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in their work focusing on high achieving women. Most people experience this phenomenon sometime in their lives.
We may personalize this experience and blame ourselves, but there are conditions that contribute to the development of impostor syndrome in anyone. Some factors may include being new in a role or profession. Other contributors can be personality traits like perfectionistic tendencies, family culture and even attachment styles. Though research shows that men also experience impostor syndrome, most of the literature correlate women with impostor syndrome.
Research also shows higher prevalence of impostor syndrome in ethnic minoritized communities pointing to the significant and often invisible role of bias.
Imposter syndrome isn’t just an individual problem, but a community problem. A systematic review of 62 studies shows that impostor phenomenon or syndrome is often comorbid with depression and anxiety and is correlated with burnout and impaired job performance. But it’s the community, not individuals, who need to change. As authors Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey write, “Even as we know it today, impostor syndrome puts the blame on individuals, without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that are foundational to how it manifests in both women of color and white women.”
What can we do
More research on impostor phenomenon and systemic interventions is needed. Systemic efforts to establish and practice clear standards of equity, diversity and inclusion can increase a sense of belonging, reduce discrimination and impostor experiences for employees of all backgrounds. These efforts can change the reality of underrepresentation and disparity in pay that leads to women and minoritized groups to feel devalued or question their place in certain professions. Differences can be seen as a strengths rather than as a deficit. When there is psychological safety, people are supported to be learners and to share more parts of themselves. Colleges and departments can intentionally reverse bias by investing in programs that support and mentor underrepresented professionals.
Invest in community specific professional and social support. For example, studies have found that gender-specific mentoring for women medical faculty and residents reduced systemic barriers and increased well-being and advancement. Community support can moderate job-related stress and increase well-being for Black women professionals.
The feeling of not being alone, of belonging and community are protective and healing.
Having peers and mentors offers psychological support and practical support such as role modeling, connections and resources.
Self-care & self-compassion
For folks who experience impostor syndrome, we can acknowledge our experience, rather than add salt to the wound by blaming ourselves, minimizing our experience or powering through. Impostor experiences are real and impact our personal and professional well-being. We can respond with compassion and seek support.
Many report that knowing they’re not alone in this experience, increasing support through personal and professional networks as well as through therapy have been helpful in addressing impostor syndrome.
Learn more about mindfulness and compassion. Workshops offered by the Resiliency Center and Wellness and Integrative Health:
Self-Compassion for BIPOC: Healing in Community, 10/13/22 from 9 - 11am
Everyday Mindfulness, begins 10/26/22
Mindfulness in Medicine: Enhancing Quality of Care, Quality of Caring, and Resilience, first course begins 10/24/22
BIPOC Check-in & Support via Zoom - 1st and 3rd Thursdays @ 12:00 PM (MST)