Why capable people experience impostor syndrome?

Feelings of anxiety, doubt, fear of success, reminiscing around a small mistake, always wanting to spend time to make things perfectly are only some of the "symptoms" of a vicious cycle for many women who struggle with self-worth and consequently, impostor syndrome. Successful women usually experience imposter feelings the worst, and it hits their self esteem big time. The impostor phenomenon demolishes self-confidence, turns high achieving women towards self-doubt and fraudulent feelings, has high achievers feel shame of their own merits, and leads them to seek external validation.

I don't have all the answers, and I'm not sure that overcoming imposter syndrome is even possible. There are a lot of external factors which contribute to this, which is why often capable people suffer. In other words, if you're a natural genius, you're very likely to feel like a fraud. The more you know...

The good news is, I do believe that each of us is an impostor syndrome expert in our own way. The story that follows is about how Andrea experienced impostor syndrome, how it impacted her self esteem, how it overshadowed her feelings of success, exacerbated her anxiety, self doubt, and feelings of perceived fraudulence, just like it does to many graduate students. And in the end, how she grew with it, not from it.


My experience impostor feelings

My experience with Imposter Syndrome goes way back. It started well before I knew it had an official name. I always struggled with feeling like I was good enough. Back in school as a kid, I knew I was smart, but I only focused on the kids who I thought were smarter than me. If something good happened in my life, I thought it was a fluke. This mentality was a background issue throughout my teen years and my undergraduate work, but my journey with Imposter Syndrome picked up when I started graduate school.

In the autumn of 2005, I started an MFA in Costume Design. I was so excited, but within weeks I realized I made a mistake. I hated the program. It just wasn’t a good fit, them for me or me for them. We were just all wrong for each other! I lasted one semester and tried to find an exit plan before they could kick me out. Oddly, in this experience, I knew I was a talented designer and that I was good enough to be there. I don’t know where that confidence came from. But I’d always done well in the field and already had some professional credits to my name, so while I knew I was still growing as a designer, I wasn’t as bad as they were making me feel.

Since I knew I wanted to work in film more than theatre, I investigated the MA in Media Arts degree at the same university. I could finish my degree without having to move universities or move towns. I did a semester as a non-degree seeking student while I applied formally and I loved it! I loved the classes. They were different and challenging, but so interesting. I had two amazing professors that semester and I did really well in their classes. But I had another professor who constantly dug at me and made me feel like an outsider for being the one “theatre” person in the class. They made it very clear that I “didn’t belong”. A seed was planted.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop / Unsplash

At the end of the semester, I got the devastating news. I wasn’t accepted. My application had been denied! At this point, I still had my confidence and believed that I really had found the right place for me. I spoke with the director of the program. Could I appeal? Was there another option? Talk to your professors, she said. She was one of them. She said I was doing great in her class. See what the others thought. Professor 2 was the one who let it slip that it was Professor 3 who had an issue with me. Didn’t think I fit in. Not enough academic experience. I guess they didn’t think that I could go from taking pattern-making classes one semester to studying media industries the next. I went to see Professor 3, someone I was already dreading interactions with. I begged. I said I’d take remedial Film & TV classes (something I categorically did NOT need to do. I already had the knowledge, but I did it anyway). Long story short, I was finally accepted. But that seed had been watered and had taken hold.

Doubting my own abilities: when self-doubt kicks in

The next year and a half flew by in a haze of late nights reading and writing, panic attacks in my car on the way to campus for class, and the emergence of crippling self-doubt. My classmates and other students made it look so easy. I felt like I was doing five times the work, but was ten times worse than the rest of them. I was afraid to speak up in class. In my final semester, I had to take a class with Professor 3 again. I had tried to avoid them after my first experience. They also ended up on my Comprehensive Exam committee.

I was miserable, but I graduated. I was so relieved. I’d been judged so many times and never felt like I measured up, but somehow I completed all the requirements. I was at least minimally “good enough” to graduate. But my confidence had been obliterated.

Graduating with my MA in Media Arts coincided with the economic collapse of 2008. I had a graduate degree, but no one was hiring. I was living with my parents again. I was in my late 20s. This wasn’t how things were supposed to be. Once again, I got pulled into theatre work. The only job I could get was as a costume technician for a local theatre, spending my days sewing. Not exactly what I’d spend thousands of dollars on a graduate degree to do. At this point, I didn’t really want to be a costume designer anymore. I had discovered a love for teaching and academics.

What few chances I’d been given had ignited a passion for being in a classroom. With my degree, I was able to get a few part time teaching positions at local community colleges, including one where I was also contracted to be the resident costume designer for all their shows that year. It was amazing. But a full-time position remained elusive. There was one thing all the job postings had in common…a terminal degree. I’d have to go back to grad school and do a PhD. I wasn’t sure if I could handle grad school again.

Designer sketching Wireframes
Photo by Green Chameleon / Unsplash

I researched several programs and eventually found one I thought I would be interested in. It was a completely new field to me, Rhetoric & Composition. I’d always felt like clothing conveyed meaning and messages, and studying rhetoric allowed me to look at the rhetorical side of material culture. I was hooked! But also coming from a disadvantage. I didn’t have an English degree, only Theatre and Media Arts. I didn’t know any of the key scholars or works in the Rhetorical Canon. So I decided to take one step backward in order to take several steps forward. Time for MA degree number 2!

I ended up doing my second MA and my PhD, back to back, at the same university, in the same department. By the time I got to my PhD, I thought, I’ve got this! I already know everyone, I have teaching experience to help me as a Graduate Teaching Assistant, I’ve been taking two years of graduate level coursework in this topic. This is going to be a snap! Wrong.

My mental health took a plunge

My first semester as a PhD student saw me slammed against the rocks by wave after wave of doubt. Imposter Syndrome, the thing I still didn’t have a name for yet, the thing that had nearly debilitated me during my first stint in grad school, was looming over me. Everyone was so much smarter than me. I had gotten a late acceptance, and I felt like that just underscored the feeling of being “last pick”. Like I’d gotten my spot because all the “smarter kids” had decided to go somewhere else.

I was struggling with everything. I had good friends who knew what I was dealing with. They introduced me to the term Imposter Syndrome. Oh! So that’s what it’s called! I had a name. I Googled. It. All. Made. Sense! It wasn’t an immediate fix. I was dealing with other stuff, and finally, after weeks of hearing me vent, my friends gave me an ultimatum. Either you go to the counseling center on campus to talk to someone or we will drag you there ourselves. My mental health had gotten to a point where it was more than I could handle myself and far beyond what my friends could handle on top of their own struggles. I don’t know what I would have done without that group.

Therapeutic intervention & realistic assessment of my feelings

Therapy helped. I learned how to deal with Imposter Syndrome. I focused on the things I was doing well. I reminded myself that I hadn’t been kicked out of the program. Every time I thought my work hadn’t been good enough, it ended up getting positive comments from my professors. My professors were challenging, yet they were consistently complimenting my work and encouraging me. There was literally no proof of what Imposter Syndrome was trying to tell me. I was learning to say “shut up” to my Imposter Syndrome, and it was working.

By the time I finished my PhD, the Imposter Syndrome was still in the back of my mind, but by that point, I knew those thoughts weren’t real. I could recognize the Imposter Syndrome for what it was, lies my brain was trying to make me accept as truth. I could acknowledge them and then tell myself all the reasons the fearful thought wasn’t true and move on with my day.

I thought I had somehow transcended Imposter Syndrome

I graduated and got a job, not the one I’d been hoping for or working so hard for that past several years to get, but it was a job and it came with health insurance (a necessity if you live in the US) and it was a job I knew I could do in my sleep, which my burned out brain needed after finishing my PhD. I could have felt defeated about not landing a coveted tenure track position, but the fact is, I no longer wanted it. I felt like I had somehow transcended Imposter Syndrome. If other people thought I wasn’t pursuing the academic job market because I wasn’t “good enough,” not my problem. I was charting my own path and doing my own thing. I was cured of Imposter Syndrome! Except I wasn’t.

A strong woman climbing a mountain.
Photo by Jimmy Conover / Unsplash

A year after graduation, I desperately needed something creative. I’d written two novels in the past and after telling a friend about one of them, she encouraged me to publish it. I researched my options and, for a variety of reasons, I opted to go the self-publishing route. Everything about being an indie author appealed to me, and it seemed like not only could it be the creative outlet I was looking for, but it could also become a side business.

When I start a new project, I dive into the research process first. I’m a researcher and a planner. So I joined online groups, subscribed to podcasts, watched YouTube videos, read blog posts, and scoured the internet for everything I could learn about writing, publishing, and marketing as a self-published author, all while editing my first novel. I fell down one digital rabbit hole after another, learning as much as possible. It was overwhelming, but exciting.

New situation, same thing few years on

But eventually, a pattern developed. The more I learned, the more I realized I didn’t know. The list of things to research was endless. And to make matters worse, the more sources I found, the more conflicting information I came across. I looked at my process and knew there were a lot of these “rules” I was breaking. And I got really worried. So many of these authors were selling way more books than me. They were making five figures a month and six figures in a year. That also meant they had more money to invest in their author business and had been doing this for much longer than me, but that didn’t stop my brain from comparing their success to my seeming lack of success. Comparison may be the thief of joy, but it also freezes your own progress because constant comparison stops you from focusing on your work.

Gradually, I felt worse and worse. I doubted everything I did. Other authors seemed smarter and more talented than me. Every time I sat down to write, I second guessed everything. When I would edit, I’d go over the same paragraph multiple times, feeling like it wasn’t good enough, but not knowing what to change.The sneaky thing about Imposter Syndrome is it doesn’t come on overnight. It’s a gradual creeping of negative thoughts in your head. By the time my Imposter Syndrome surrounding my books reached its peak, I already had three novels published and was working on the fourth and fifth. My first three novels had excellent reviews and lots of five star ratings. Clearly, people liked my work. So why was I doubting myself so much?

Realistic assessment 2.0

I had to face facts. I thought I had dealt with my Imposter Syndrome, but clearly it had come back. It was time to take a deep breath and really think about things. I didn’t get into self-publishing only to end up tearing myself up and making myself miserable (the way I had felt through a good portion of my grad school years). I needed to either learn how to put Imposter Syndrome back in the corner where it belonged, or give up on writing. I was allowing Imposter Syndrome to turn me into a product focused writer (stressing about the final product), instead of being a process focused writer and allowing myself to enjoy the journey.

It took me a couple months of self-reflection and slowing things down in my writing process to make sure I was allowing myself to enjoy it, rather than plowing through my writing and editing. I identified what triggered my Imposter Syndrome, and either cut them out or limited them severely. This meant I stopped following a lot of online group discussions and scaled back how many podcasts I listened to. I also focused on the things that helped me, such as creating a nice writing environment while I worked (candles, music, comfy chair) and focusing on the constructive feedback from my beta readers who represent the ideal reader I market my books to. If my beta readers are happy with my writing, that’s all that matters to me.

Ultimately, Imposter Syndrome can be debilitating and heartbreaking. It stole a good portion of my grad school journey from me, time and experiences that I will never get back. I learned a lot during those years and it’s helping me to recognize the symptoms and triggers as I start my self-publishing journey. Will I make mistakes? Absolutely. Will I be the best writer ever? Who actually is? Being the best isn’t important to me. Am I good enough? I’m more than good enough. I’m writing the stories I want to write, about characters that inspire me. The biggest thing that helps is being able to recognize when you’re suffering from it. Learn to recognize the symptoms and the triggers so that you can find things that help counteract the effects of Imposter Syndrome. I’m not perfect. I still have my moments of self-doubt and comparing myself. As a writer, I find the idea of “don’t compare your Chapter 1 to someone else’s Chapter 10” very accurate. I’m writing my own story, running my own race, and staying in my own lane, and already I’m much happier because of that.

Woman lifting up her hands
Photo by Brooke Cagle / Unsplash

No matter how much popularity has the imposter phenomenon been getting in modern behavioral science, the issue of crippling self-doubt, diminishing mental health, plunging self-confidence and self-worth is even worse for graduate students, women, and people of color to work on and overcome impostor syndrome. It's not the same thing for white competent people to break the impostor cycle, as it is for a black woman who has to fight through raising issues such as systemic racism.

I think that on our life paths, we've all definitely had been in the same situation as Andrea, but have maybe kept it as secret thoughts to ourselves because it's hard and vulnerable to speak about it openly. A lot of successful women often feel like a fraud and have impostor feelings, and it's very challenging to "admit" that we're overcoming imposter syndrome, when we feel bad about having it in the first place. We fear receiving criticism from our co-worker (even constructive criticism), other people who are "non-impostors", and to have our competence types judged.

However, once we sit and spend time with our feelings, like Andrea did, and realize how our impostor cycle looks like, we can work towards developing a feeling, a sense, of what our triggers are. Once we manage that, our impostor feelings will start to be quieter and quieter.

It's always amazing to witness when a person believes in their own abilities. I wish for you all to work through your feelings of internal experience, take a realistic assessment of your skills & skill set, and transform into the confident people that you all can be.

Good luck!