Conquering Imposter Syndrome

I recently saw a clip of an interview with comedian Chris Rock on Jimmy Kimmel. Chris told a story about his visit to the White House during the Obama administration. He was there among legends in the entertainment industry, rightfully so. Chris Rock is an accomplished actor, comedian, television producer, and filmmaker undeniably earning his spot as one of the best in the business. In the interview, Chris recalls fumbling a conversation with Michelle Obama revealing, in his mind, that he did not belong there. In the moment, due to his perceived lack of sophistication and book smarts, he was sure that the First Lady wondered, “who let this guy in here?”

I laughed hearing that story, not only because Chris Rock tells hilarious stories (you have to hear him tell it), but because it was all so familiar to me. I have struggled with Imposter Syndrome at various times in my educational and career journey. Imposter Syndrome is the “persistent fear and false belief of being incapable or unworthy of success or potential despite noticeable accomplishments suggesting the contrary (Tsai 2019).”

When I was just beginning my career in higher education and I had the opportunity to teach a graduate-level course for my alma mater’s Masters in Counseling program. As I entered the room on the first day, I asked one of the students— “Are you here for Career Development Theory and Practice?” The student responded, “Yes, but we’re early. The professor hasn’t arrived yet.” As I made my way to the podium, I felt like a wave of surprise had swept over the room. I was sure that students were thinking— “No, she can’t be our professor.” Could that be true or was it all in my head? All I know is that I over-prepared for every class that semester because I was sure I was going to be found out. I would surely misuse a word or get stumped by a question and it would be confirmed that I did not belong up there.

Have you ever felt this way? Well, it’s not just me and you and Chris Rock— an estimated 70% of people experience Imposter Syndrome at some point of their lives (Sakulku & Alexander, 2011; Solomon, 2016).

For me, teaching a graduate-level course was surreal. I was the first generation in my household to earn a college degree, and then an advanced degree. I felt like I had two versions of myself. The self my old friends and family know. The self I can be at home. Then there was my professional self. I would try to speak differently and was hyperconscious of my word choice. My defense mechanism to imposter syndrome was to code-switch. According to the Harvard Business Review (2019), code-switching “involves adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment and employment opportunities.”

Although code-switching seemed like a solution, the feeling of imposter syndrome would still creep up. According to studies, individuals of diverse groups are more susceptible to imposter syndrome, which contributes to higher levels of distress (Cokley et al., 2017). When we convince ourselves that we do not belong or worry that others have that impression of us, it limits our career opportunities. We may be less likely to speak up at a meeting, to apply for certain positions, or take on leadership responsibilities.

So, what could be done to combat imposter syndrome?

  • Create a network of support with others with similar experiences. Seek mentoring relationships. Remember you are not alone. Hearing how others have overcome imposter syndrome could serve as a positive example. In turn, remember to lift up others. Congratulate your peers on their successes. Compliment your friends on their strengths. Positivity can be wonderfully contagious!
  • Reality-check yourself. When you hear negative self-talk creep into your head pause to think “is this really true or am I making it up?” Practice reframing and using positive affirmations. For example, when you are about to give a presentation and you think to yourself “What if I mess up?” reframe to say “What if I do great? I will do great. I am prepared and ready.”
  • Keep track of your accomplishments. At least each semester, update your resume and LinkedIn profile with something you have completed or achieved. This could be earning Dean’s List, completing professional development training, learning a new skill, and so on. A career consultant could help you with this process so reach out for an appointment with the Center for Career Development.

As I have progressed in my career, the feeling of being an imposter has significantly subsided. Through the years, I started to realize that I do know my stuff. I’ve taught numerous courses at this point and when I stumble on a word or don’t have an immediate answer, I don’t let it deter me. Being comfortable with my own imperfections has made me a better educator. My true self and professional self are more in unison rather than separate personas. What helped was having amazing mentors and opportunities to make positive contributions by utilizing my strengths. Gaining confidence involves taking healthy risks, seeking opportunities to learn new things, and recognizing your accomplishments. Whoever needs to hear this—you belong exactly where you are today and where you will be in the future.

By Tara Malone
Tara Malone Associate Director, Regional Campuses Pronouns: she/her/hers