In this issue

On being an imposter

Don't let self-doubt get in the way of your success.

By Sarah Miller, PhD

We live in a world of imposters. No, I'm not referring to the Frank Abagnale type, but the imposter we create in our heads. Most people reading this have probably suffered from the “imposter syndrome” at some point in their graduate studies or career. That feeling of “How are you possibly asking me to do this [fill in the blank]? I have no idea what I'm doing!” But we all manage to muddle through because someone along the way has told us to just “fake it ‘til you make it.” And we do. Some of us in fact become so adept at “faking it” that we're surprised when we land our top choice internship, our first job, a big promotion. We're so enthralled with having “made it” that we forget about important factors like negotiating salary packages and delegating to avoid burn out.

And here is an important crossroads for the burgeoning psychologist: Are you using those imposter feelings to reach your optimal point on the anxiety-performance curve, or are you so overwhelmed by self-doubt that you hold yourself back from success?

The first step is identifying these moments in your life. An occasional “imposter” myself, I wanted to dispel some myths of the field and provide some insights I've learned along the way.

There's no crying in prison.

This is a lesson I learned early, while on internship. Of course this is utterly false; I don't think I know of an early career psychologist who has not cried sitting in their prison office. So know that you are not the only one feeling in over your head. Find a way to connect to your fellow early career professionals, whether it's just eating lunch together or creating your own peer supervision group. These are some of the professional and personal relationships that can last a lifetime.

I'm just a public servant.

When was the last time you downplayed a compliment from a colleague, or attributed your success to luck? While humility is a wonderful trait, “just” is certainly the wrong qualifier here. You career choice does not negate the fact you need to make a living and deserve to be recognized for your accomplishments. Acknowledge what you've earned through hard work (because no one earns a doctoral degree without some) and seize appropriate opportunities to self-promote.

I'll never be as good as my boss.

Finally, we can all take solace in the knowledge that the imposter syndrome plagues those who are highly competent and skilled. It lingers throughout your career, re-emerging with each new accomplishment. Aristotle had it right on: “The more you know, the more you know you don't know.” Famous individuals have even come out as self-identified imposters – Maya Angelou and Tina Fey to name a few. Try asking your mentor if they have struggled this way. You might be surprised at the answer.