Have you ever been given an amazing opportunity, only to show up and face a crippling fear that you aren’t as qualified as everyone else or were chosen by mistake? If so, you’re not alone. There’s actually a name for this feeling that many members of our generation face: imposter syndrome.
You strap on your goggles, throw on your coat and head to chemistry lab for the first time. A professor
is going over the syllabus and explaining safety procedures as you scan the room. There’s equipment you’ve never seen before and have no idea how to use. Next to you, a girl is picking up a pipette like she’s been using one since childhood.
“Does anyone know how to use a centrifuge?” The professor asks, looking directly at you. You don’t. Wait—does everyone else? Should you even be here?
It doesn’t have to be a chemistry class. This situation can happen in almost any situation or environment: a leadership role in a student organization, a dream internship, a post-grad job or what have you.
Imposter syndrome is “the idea that you don’t feel like you belong in the space you are asked to inhabit,” explained Aaron Heller, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami. Basically, he continued, it’s those feelings of anxiety and stress that make you feel like you aren’t good enough.
According to an article published by the Journal of General Internal Medicine in 2019, this phenomenon was first described in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. Originally, they claimed it impacts high-achieving professional women. But as more research was done, scientists observed the phenomenon in both men and women in many settings.
About 82% of people, this article said, report feeling like an imposter at some point.
Justin Shatz, a graduate nursing student at UM, is among a handful of men in his 90-person program. As nursing is a female-dominated profession, he said, it has been difficult to define his place.
“I feel this syndrome a lot,” said Shatz. Many people, he said, have told him he was only accepted into the program because he’s a man, and he said he experiences this feeling with other achievements as well.
“It downplays the fact that you have the achievements just like everyone else, and you have the qualities and skills that make up what that position needs.”
Jessica Deaver, a UM alumna and Ph.D. student studying environmental engineering and earth sciences said that she recalls one UM professor making an obvious effort to curb imposter syndrome in his students.
Richard Myers’ “end-all-be-all chemistry class,” she said, was encouraging because the exams didn’t have one right answer.
“You were not expected to know everything,” she said. “You were just expected to think critically.”
However, Deaver began doubting herself when she entered her graduate program
at Clemson University. At conferences she felt like everyone knew more than her. Yet, Deaver was far from unqualified; she was one of the only people in her department with a background in molecular biology, which put her in a position to give input to advisors.
Being the expert on this subject in her lab gave Deaver the confidence, she said, to feel like she belonged.
“I realized I had my niche,” said Deaver, “but then I was also smart enough and capable enough to pick up on the engineering side of things too and incorporate that into my research.”
STEM students aren’t the only ones who doubt their abilities.
“It happens everywhere,” Heller said. “Anytime you start something new where you’re really pushing yourself, it’s common for those thoughts to come up.”
Rebeccah Blau, a junior journalism and theatre arts major at UM, said she has experienced imposter syndrome as well. Though it has never happened, Blau said she fears people won’t speak to her for story interviews because she doesn’t work for an established publication.
“Every time I have to send that email, I’m like ‘what if they say no and the whole thing falls apart?” she said.
Cassandra Michel, a junior psychology and community and applied psychological studies major at UM, first learned about this phenomenon in her college prep program that was catered to first-generation and low-income students.
While Michel, a first-gen student, said she was initially confident she would get into college, doubts piled up when she received her first rejection letter.
“When I got in to [UM] I was told that I was going to be a spring admit, which really made me feel like the university didn’t think I was good enough for them,” she said. “I started questioning why I was accepted for the spring and others for the fall.”
It wasn’t until she found Empower Me First, a UM initiative to support first-generation students, that Michel realized she deserved to be here and didn’t have to prove that to anyone.
However, when she started applying for internships and prestigious scholarships Michel was crippled by self-doubt again, to the point that it made her question even applying for opportunities.
It was former EMF director Whitley Johnson who would provide the powerful piece of advice on this matter that Michel kept coming back to: “Give them the chance to tell you no.”
While imposter syndrome was discovered in the 1970s, it may be even more prevalent among younger generations.
One Wall Street Journal article published this year said that this may be in part because of the 2008 recession.
“Millenials were either early in their careers or still in school, so they had little or nothing in the way of reassuring experiences to fall back on,” the article wrote. “More than a decade—and another recession— later, many are still hesitant to claim their newfound success.”
Another article published in Forbes in 2016 says that some millennials were raised by parents who send mixed messages, “alternating between over-praise and criticism.” This can increase the risk of fraudulent feelings.
If these experiences sound familiar, there are ways to cope. The best way to handle self-doubt and worry is to face those fears, Heller said.
“If you buy the argument that imposter syndrome is just a form of anxiety, the best way to treat that anxiety is to kind of lean into the things you’re worried about,” he said.
Having a healthy work-life balance helped Deaver combat negative feelings.
“Having things that I like to do outside of research helps me be more productive in research,” she said, “and then also helps me have the mental wherewithal to feel more confident in myself.”
So, next time you’re in a new conference, class or internship and feel like everyone else knows what they’re doing, remember they may be worried about the same thing.
words_cat mcgrath. photo & design_keagan larkins.
This article was published in Distraction’s winter 2021 print issue.