Putting Imposter Syndrome in the Spotlight
Updated: Jul 16
By Connor Clark
“Originally called impostor phenomenon, impostor syndrome, as it's now usually called, is commonly understood as a false and sometimes crippling belief that one's successes are the product of luck or fraud rather than skill.” – Merriam-Webster
Imposter syndrome is a phrase that we’ve all (probably) heard at one time or another. In my introductory post, I made a comment about how I had experienced imposter syndrome during Physician Assistant (PA) school; however, until I started looking into it, I didn’t even really understand the meaning of the Imposter Phenomenon (hereby referred to as IP for short). Let’s start from the beginning, shall we?
The first mention of IP came in 1978 by two psychologists, Drs. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. They investigated women who were well respected in their field, or otherwise high achieving, but actually believed they were less qualified than others in their field (Clance & Imes, 1978). Following this research, further studies were conducted chronicling evidence of IP in men, too (Langford & Clance, 1993). These studies also explored some of the more detailed psychology/psychoanalysis of people with IP, which I am not even close to being qualified to discuss. After reading articles and learning more about IP, however, I realized that I still have some of the same feelings that I thought I left behind in PA school.
Alright, time to do some self-reflecting. I wrote my last post about 6 months ago, and looking back, it reeks of IP. Retrospectively, when I originally wrote that post, it’s exactly how I felt. There was something cathartic about it, though—a feeling of, “Wow that felt good to get off my chest.” I remember sending a draft to Mike, who took the time to send it to some other people, read it over and make edits as needed. One reviewer questioned whether or not it was an appropriate post for Science Underdog because I wrote about how I felt I “lucked” my way into the PA program instead of talking about the hard work it took to get into, and then through, PA school.
When I first received that criticism, I was kind of pissed to be honest. I mean, this was my post, and it’s how I felt. I did feel like I lucked my way into the program and that I wasn’t supposed to be in that class. I felt that way for a very long time. It’s ironic, actually, that in my very first post, I almost completely discredited the work I did in undergrad, and then, a few sentences later, implied that I only battled IP in PA school. Looking back at that post, now after a few months into my first job, I’m embarrassed. I worked hard in undergrad—maybe less hard than some, but definitely harder than others—and I deserved to be in that class as much as anyone else. My performance in PA school is supportive of that.
But back on that first day of class, I was mortified. All these smart lads and lasses filled the room, and there I was, sitting in the front row trying to pay attention while dark clouds of doubt swirled in head. There was no way I could keep up with these Type-A-, summa cum laude-, thousands-of-volunteer-hours-at-a-nursing-home-having honors students. I didn’t talk to my classmates for the first 3 months because I didn’t want them “finding out.” I needed to hide because I felt like didn’t belong there. I was constantly comparing myself to others, and my self-esteem suffered as a result.
My first quarter of PA school (didactic year) I was incredibly motivated to do well because I needed to try harder than the rest of my cohort (you know, because I was dumber than everyone else). Unfortunately, I have a little bit of a procrastination issue. I would stay up till 3:00AM on a Tuesday night going over material for the exam the next day at 8:00AM. Then, when I did well, I would feel like I lucked out. I must have just studied the correct things. I was on reddit a few weeks ago while researching this topic and saw a diagram (Figure 1), researched a little more and found it was originally published by Clance in 1985 (the same that co-authored that paper we talked about earlier).
Sound familiar? I was blown away by how accurately this described my feelings in PA school. I was caught in a cycle that discredited my accomplishments and chalked them up to luck or the fact that I probably had to study much more than my peers.
PA school progressed and I consistently did well—passing all of the courses, even pulling out a few A’s. It was probably during quarter two of didactic year that I began to feel a little more comfortable. I started talking to my classmates and found that they were studying just as much, if not more than I was. I found that some of them had similar feelings as I did. This was comforting. Realistically, if I had just talked to them from the beginning, maybe it would have quelled some of my anxieties…
And that’s just it. The entire reason I felt motivated to write this post was to bring IP into the spotlight. It is imperative that we talk openly about these feelings of inadequacy and fraudulence. Recognizing that you are not alone in feeling like you slipped through the cracks is half the battle of dealing with IP. Talk to your peers or others in your field. Talk to us here on Science Underdog! Acknowledge that, although you might feel like a fraud at times, you aren’t one. Emotions are powerful but very different than facts. If you move to a new tab and Google, “Imposter Syndrome,” you’ll see that there are people struggling with IP in all walks of life, in all different careers, and that to move past it, you first have to acknowledge it.
Now that I am graduated and working in the hospital, some of those thoughts and feelings have tried to come creeping back. I am lucky to have a support system that I can confide in and talk to openly. Having that support system is extremely important; it helps you stay grounded and feel like you’re not alone. Whenever I start to question or doubt myself, I think back to how much time and effort I put into my education. I think about how I’m still learning an incredible amount every day. Maybe most importantly, I stopped constantly comparing myself to others and I started talking to my peers about their own journeys and insecurities. So, talk to people, get it out in the open and you’ll find that, more often than not, they feel similarly.
As always, Science Underdog is a forum for like-minded people in similar fields to connect. Feel free to share your story and the way you cope with IP.
Other relatable reads:
1) Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes. (1978). The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice. Volume 15, #3.
2) Langford, J., & Clance, P. R. (1993). The imposter phenomenon: Recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 30(3), 495-501. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-3188.8.131.525
3) Clance, Pauline Rose. The Imposter Phenomenon: Overcoming the Fear That Haunts Your Success. Peachtree Publishers, 1985.