Rethinking Imposter Syndrome

By Jackie Collens

I was working an early morning shift at Wooddale Village Retirement Community in Sun City, Arizona the day I found out I had been accepted into the Women’s History graduate program at Sarah Lawrence. As readers might be able to gather based on the fact that I am currently writing this, I decided fairly quickly and easily that I would be attending in the fall. The week of orientation came and went, and my optimism about my place in this program soared. I spent my first weekend of the semester browsing through my required reading lists and talking to my friends back home about how stunning the campus was, and how anxious I was to really get started. Then all of a sudden, classes started, and my hopeful enthusiasm turned quickly to terrified self-doubt.

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As I’ve familiarized myself with the campus, my classmates, and the new material presented to me in each of my courses, I have felt a growing feeling inside of me that maybe I don’t deserve to be here as much as everyone else does. I have been struck by all of the insightful ideas my classmates have brought up during discussions. At the same time, I have found myself repeatedly questioning the worthiness of my own thoughts and allowing myself to sit in silence, fearful that what I have to say is simply not worthwhile. I have grown increasingly self-conscious that my experiences up to this point, educational or otherwise, are not on par with those of my peers. My worried reflection has driven me, on one or two occasions, to question the possibility that perhaps my admittance into this program was some kind of fluke.

Before I go on, let me take a moment to clarify one thing. When I made the decision to go to graduate school, I did not for one second think that it would be easy. I expected this to be an enriching time in my life when I would get a chance to develop the ideas I had conjured up as an undergraduate and turn them into work that I could be proud of. I also, however, expected nights of little to no sleep and days where I found time for nothing but reading and writing. I envisioned two years of headaches and homesickness and feeling mentally challenged like I had never been before. I found myself asking over and over again these past few weeks, “If I knew school was going to be like this, why do I feel so out of place?”

During one of my first days on campus, a classmate and I were discussing our nerves and apprehension about the our places in the program, and she mentioned the concept of Imposter Syndrome. Imposter Syndrome, or perceived fraudulence, is a psychological experience, “of perceived intellectual phoniness that is held by certain high-achieving adults who, despite their objective successes, fail to internalize these successes.”[1] It is a constant feeling that any and all of an individual’s accomplishments can be attributed to luck, chance, or some other external factor, but never to their own ability. Although there is some debate on the subject, it has often been suggested that imposter syndrome is far more commonly experienced by women than by men. Pauline R. Clance, the clinical psychologist who coined the term, originally suggested through her research that imposter syndrome, “occurs with much less frequency in men and that when it does occur, it is with much less intensity,” and so a number of her studies have focused primarily or completely on this experience among women.[2] More recent studies performed by Clance and others, however, have found that the phenomenon may be just as common in men. Catherine Cozzarelli and Brenda Major consider the possibility that various gendered societal expectations actually cause men to be less likely to express their feelings and experiences of imposter syndrome when asked, although they may be just as likely to have such experiences.[3]

I began to think more about this idea of perceived fraudulence, because as the days went by I continued to encounter it in some form or another. Slowly but surely I began to recall many other instances in my life when I had felt this very same way: from the time I won a poetry contest in fifth grade to the day I was offered my first job promotion. As I talked to more first year students, almost every one of them shared my feelings of being overwhelmed by our coursework, or intimidated by our classmates and professors. That first person who mentioned Imposter Syndrome early in the semester was not the last. Even as I shared my experiences with friends in different programs at different schools, I found that they were experiencing the same emotions.

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Fortunately, having had time to look into the idea of Imposter Syndrome and talk about it more in depth with some of my classmates, I have started to regain my optimism about my place in this program. If anything, these first few weeks have taught me a great deal about my current environment. While the work I have to look forward to over the next two years will be challenging, I am fortunate enough to have the chance to do it in a setting with peers I can share both my successes and failures with, and with professors who ultimately want to support me. Perhaps by focusing so heavily on my own nerves and doubts I allowed myself to forget what attracted me to this program, and more broadly, to feminism in the first place: the chance to expand my knowledge and the idea that my thoughts and opinions were worth sharing. I wish that I could say that I am writing this as someone who no longer feels like an imposter, but that isn’t necessarily true. I am still worried about my ability to produce meaningful ideas and work, but I also realize that I am attempting to do so in an amazing place that I worked hard to get to, just like everyone else here.

*Jackie Collens is a first year student in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College. She graduated from Arizona State University in the spring of 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in History and certificate in Women and Gender Studies. Her research thus far has focused primarily on the U.S. women’s suffrage movement as well as the lives of women during the Great Depression. In her free time, she enjoys binge-watching Bob’s Burgers, annoying her cats, and continuing on her lifelong quest to discover the world’s greatest sandwich.

[1] John Kolligian Jr. and Robert J. Sternberg, “Perceived Fraudulence in Young Adults: Is There An Imposter Syndrome?,” Journal of Personality Assessment 56 (1991): 309.

[2] Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes, “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention,” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice 15 (1978): 241.

[3] Catharine Cozzarelli and Brenda Major, “Exploring the Validity of the Imposter Phenomenon,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 9 (1990): 403.

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