Working With The Doubt Inside Your Head: My Experience With Imposter Syndrome + Tools to Overcome It
Throughout my life I’ve been privileged to work + learn beside several highly driven, talented, + intelligent peers. I’m beyond grateful for all of these experiences + each has helped me grow tremendously. However many also caused me to question – did I deserve those opportunities? Was I worthy of these interactions? + were my abilities enough to “keep up” + be valuable in these collaborations?
As the accolades I achieved continued to accumulate, the questions in my head became louder. Soon enough I entered a vicious cycle where my own self-induced question of my abilities manifested my core fear – not being a useful project member/intern/employee/student/etc. I was fearful to critique a teammate’s ideas out of the possibility of being wrong in my analysis, + surely did not speak up when I didn’t understand something they discussed to avoid looking “dumb”. Only in rare circumstances did I share an idea – and when I did, it was preceded by “I’m not sure if this will work but..” By doing so, I forced my teammates to assume I had no ideas, no ability to enhance group discussion, + held only the ability to execute basic tasks.
It took me several years to slowly start to become more confident in my abilities + willing to accept that I deserved to be where I was. I owe much of this to the friends + family that gave me the external validation I needed in some of my times of doubt, + to the peers + professors who insisted my thoughts + ideas be heard even when I deemed them not worthy of sharing. Over time, I’ve learned to separate my logic from my emotions + recognizing when it’s imposter syndrome speaking, + when it’s reality speaking. While I still find myself facing these thoughts + questions from time to time, I can definitely say I’ve become better at accepting my competency + learning to be comfortable speaking up, asking questions, + allowing myself to learn from failures.
If you resonate with parts of my story you’re not alone. These thoughts are extremely common especially amongst highly achieving individuals. A multi-study review published in 2019 found up to 60% of medical students, PhD candidates, + college students experience this + many of the studies cited found prevalence was higher in women specifically[1-6]. So how do we learn to work with these thoughts? Here’s 5 ways I’ve found helpful (from reading literature on the subject + experience):
Learn to separate logic from emotion + use the emotion for good.
One of the biggest pieces of advice I can give is not to ignore those feelings or try to pretend they don’t exist – they’re there, + they’re real. What we can do however is recognize this is what I’m feeling, + separate it from “these are the facts I know.”
Example: When I won an academic merit scholarship my junior year, emotionally, I felt as though others were as smart or smarter than me, seemed to pick up material more quickly, had more intellectual questions than me in class etc. Logically however I knew I took the same classes + had the same opportunities as everyone else that was considered. I knew that I studied hard + I earned the grades I did on exams + assignments, and performed as I did on presentations and projects which got me this award + therefore I deserved it. Once you’ve separated that emotion from logic -take that emotion, isolate it + use it for good. This may seem completely counterintuitive, but this article from Harvard Business review sums it up well!  The jist of it is this: the feelings of nervousness/wondering if we’re belonging or deserving of our positions show how much we care + also that we want to continue to grow! This is good! In this example: wondering if we deserve the scholarship makes us question if we really mastered the material taught to us at a satisfactory level. To use this for good we should use it as motivation to continue to study hard, do well in future classes, + enhance our academic merit.
Pattern match what you have not what you don’t have.
Another great tip from a woman in the tech industry. In her article detailing her experiences with imposter syndrome she discusses how in times of doubt we tend to look for patterns of qualities that others in our equal positions have that we don’t . “They all got over a 95% on this exam, they all can do X,Y,+ Z easily, they all contribute ideas in groups, etc, etc” What we fail to often do, is pattern match what we do have – “I have strong technical communication skills, I was able to critically think through this problem, I also did well on this exam, etc.”
Focus on where you are not how you got there.
It’s no secret that talented + deserving people get denied opportunities. It’s also no secret that there are thousands of factors that go into many high profile decisions. Ultimately we will never know nor can we control these factors. In any high profile accolade we achieve or opportunity we get, there is likely another deserving person out there – but none of that discounts that it is us who is deserving to be in that position or with that opportunity. It is useless to fixate on why we got here over them – they are not here and asking the question of “would they have done better?” does no one any service. Rather, we need to focus on the fact that we were chosen + selected + put our best effort into making the most of that opportunity out of respect for ourselves and those who were potentially equally as deserving but were not selected.
Learn to exercise intellectual caution without self-doubt.
Something I struggled with for a really long time was finding the balance between being confident in my idea’s merit, but not giving a false sense of certainty that it would work. In many fields, mine included, decisions will impact lives. False certainty or premature acceptance of an idea can have grave consequences so a certain level of doubt + caution is not only smart, but critical. Naturally this can be hard to do while battling thoughts of imposter syndrome concurrently. I often found myself hesitant to give ideas out of fear of them having bad outcomes + not being challenged. One way I found helpful to combat this was to eliminate “I don’t know” from my vocabulary when presenting ideas. When presenting ideas in a group – if I was unsure about an aspect of the idea, rather than saying “I don’t know if this will work” I’d say “If we can verify X, Y, + Z, I think this idea is plausible” or “I think we should try this, but we’ll have to look into this as well”. This allowed me to share my legitimate intellectual concerns, while presenting confidence in my idea’s merit to be taken seriously by my peers.
Normalize your standard.
I often found that my fears that I was underperforming stemmed from unrealistic expectations. I held myself to a standard that I should already know everything + was afraid to ask questions out of fear of looking dumb for not knowing. The reality is – we are all here to learn. If we already knew everything, we wouldn’t be there! Instead of telling yourself they are going to find you out or that you don’t deserve success, remind yourself that it’s normal not to know everything + that you will find out more as you progress. Additionally, consider the greater context – nobody knows everything. There’s a reason that every major innovation or problem solving committee involves a large interdisciplinary team from various backgrounds of expertise – because not one of them alone could answer any question relating to every facet of the design or problem. Most people will have experiences, moments, or occasions where they don’t feel 100% confident. There may be times when you feel out of your depth + self-doubt can be a normal reaction. If you catch yourself thinking that you are useless, reframe it: “the fact that I feel useless right now does not mean that I really am, I just may be out of my comfort zone or area of expertise.”
- Gottlieb, M, Chung, A, Battaglioli, N, Sebok-Syer, SS, Kalantari, A. Impostor syndrome among physicians and physicians in training: A scoping review. Med Educ. 2020; 54: 116– 124. https://doi.org/10.1111/medu.13956;
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- Imber, A. A. I. (2021, May 17). How to make friends with your inner imposter. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/05/how-to-make-friends-with-your-inner-imposter
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