Grad Women of Color Discussion Group: Conquering the Impostor Syndrome

 

On Thursday, February 4, Anika Green (Assistant Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Director for the Diversifying Academia, Recruiting Excellence (DARE) Fellowship) facilitated a discussion event about the impostor syndrome.

What is the impostor syndrome?

The impostor syndrome is a term which refers to the inability of some people to internalize their achievements. The impostor syndrome is characterized by thoughts and feelings like:

  • What if people find out that I’m a fraud and they kick me out?
  • The only reason I got that job/fellowship/scholarship is because I filled some quota requirement.
  • Even though my advisor said I did good work, she was just being nice.

What each of these have in common is attributing achievement, not to personal work and merit, but to other people’s mistakes or good intentions.

How can we manage impostor feelings?

Reframe the “What if?” questions

  • When we ask ourselves “What if?” it’s almost always bad. Some examples: What if my advisor doesn’t have good feedback? What if I fail this test? What if my students ask me a question I can’t answer? Instead, Anika suggested, look at “What if” in a positive way. What if my advisor gives me great feedback? What if I do really well on this test?

Tell the “Negative Committee” to be quiet!

  • Anika shared an article by Dr. Fanuel Muindi, a former DARE fellow and PhD who graduated from Stanford, about dealing with the negative thoughts that followed him throughout his time at Stanford. Fanuel ends his article with the positive results of gaining confidence and perspective: “I know how and when to shut it up. And when I can’t shut it up, I just prove it wrong.” Learning how to tell your committee to be quiet and paying attention to the reality of what’s going on around you is an invaluable skill that requires daily practice. You might feel like you did horribly at a conference, but if you pay attention to reality, you may remember that there were people at your talk who responded well and wanted to follow up afterward. That is evidence that perhaps you didn’t do poorly after all.

Find a “hype person,” build your support team

  • Finding a person who will encourage and support you and remind you of your accomplishments and skills is a great way to combat the impostor syndrome. If you can’t always be vigilant about keeping negative thoughts at bay, recruit mentors, friends, and colleagues who can lift you up when you don’t feel like you can. Sometimes you need a person to remind you how amazing you are.

Pay attention to the way you talk to and about yourself.

  • Don’t downplay your amazingness! Instead, own your brilliance. There is a huge difference between saying, “I’m just a PhD student,” and, “I’m a PhD student.” The first example downplays the effort it took to get into a PhD program and the work you are doing within the PhD, neither of which are easy.

You are amazing!

While it may feel like it to many of us, there is no way that you stumbled and bumbled and accidentally made it to Stanford. Getting here takes a lot of hard work and time and energy. This is true of many aspects of your life. It takes work to have successful relationships with friends, family, partners, children, coworkers, supervisors. It takes work to do well at your job. It takes work to ask for help when you need it. If any of these are true of you even some of the time, own that. Be proud.

Reach out for help when you need it

Reach out to family, friends, and colleagues when you need help. Mental health professionals are an invaluable resource when struggling with confidence and the impstos syndrome. At Stanford, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) are always available, so call 650-498-2336  if you need help.

– Vanessa Seals, Graduate Program Coordinator

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