As the Galen Stone Tower carillons have begun ringing through the trees and warm summer sunlight has now been replaced by bright desk lamps, it may be time to remind nervous first years, and even jaded seniors, about one of the serious downsides of attending an illustrious institution like Wellesley College: imposter syndrome. Defined as a “collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success,” imposter syndrome, also called Imposter Phenomenon by psychologists, has been well documented among high-achieving students, and particularly among women. This debilitating self-doubt and internalized criticism has been proven to prevent individuals from fully enjoying their careers, celebrating their own success or feeling at ease in professional situations.
The Imposter Phenomenon (IP) theory was developed in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D, and Suzanne Imes, Ph.D, and it is now estimated that around 70 percent of people have experienced IP at one point. In their co-authored article, “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention,” Clance and Imes state that most people who experience IP would not say that they feel like an “imposter,” but they often identify with the symptoms. In academia, IP can be experienced as a cycle: when assigned a task, the individual experiences significant anxiety, and either works much harder than normal or procrastinates. Ultimately if the product is successful, the individual attributes this success to hard work or to pure chance. Does this sound like you? It certainly sounds like me. As an exchange student who did not earn her laurels through SAT-prep and entrance essays, I find that I might be more susceptible to this insecurity than many others here on campus.
Wellesley is no stranger to type A students—perfectionists with a plan for world domination and summer internships galore. When comparing yourself to others, you wonder, “Am I good enough?” and “Will I measure up?” This past month at Wellesley has helped me realize that identity is highly comparative and situational. Who I am at the University of Ottawa is different than who I am here, in Massachusetts. Here, I am overwhelmingly Canadian, my Québécois accent is pronounced and I have yet to figure out where I lie, academically. There, I am patriotically observant only on the holidays, and I am the most comprehensible of all my backwoods-Québec family members. If you are judged in comparison to your peers . . . what do you do when your peers are some of the brightest students in the world?
It certainly doesn’t help that Wellesley is a historically women’s college; 30 years of research shows that imposter syndrome affects more women than it does men. In her dissertation published in March 2018, Sarah Laux of Saint Louis University states that societal structures, including gender norms and expectations, contribute to internal barriers and psychological difficulties to “internalize accomplishments and successes.” Similarly, social psychology professor Linda Carli and coauthor of “Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders” has identified that girls often feel the need to be self-critical and work harder, and that women are punished for bragging by peers much more severely than men.
At the very least, all Wellesley students may be comforted by the fact that they have gained admission to these renowned halls through strict admission criteria, which all included high stakes standardized tests, personal statements and official transcripts. I feel an awful lot like someone who slipped through the cracks, rappelled in via skylight to snatch a piece of your precious experience and escape with it back to the snowy north. Indeed, “imposterism tends to afflict ambitious women in particular,” says Anne Kreamer, author of “It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace,” “because the very nature of ambition means you’re constantly taking on new and challenging experiences.” Women who are promoted are often met with a sense of “impending doom,” which Kreamer says is valid—not because you’re a fraud, but because “you really don’t have any idea what you’re doing . . . since you’ve never done the job before.” Walking through campus, I feel as if I am a first year all over again—which I suppose, in a way, I am. This semester is, by its very definition, entirely new. I am learning where to find library resources, which professors are easy graders and the fastest way from my dorm room to Founders Hall for my morning classes. I am also learning that these experiences, and the mistakes I make while having them, are normal.
This leads me to my next question: how am I and the students of Wellesley supposed to silence our inner critics? Some strategies include ignoring the competition in favor of focusing on your own actions and trying to resist succumbing to self-doubt, or, conversely, taking credit for your achievements proudly and unconditionally. However, while researching imposter syndrome I found a very interesting solution: admit you don’t know everything. This seems counter-productive, but it is grounded in the idea, advanced by Carol Dweck, Ph.D, that “smart women often see perfection as a synonym for achievement.” Any struggle, any mistake, means that they don’t belong. Learning that you can make mistakes, and it doesn’t invalidate your presence at an institute of higher learning, is important in combating IP. During this year’s orientation, the speakers made it clear that “pursuing curiosity” entails vulnerability, because it means admitting that there is information you have yet to acquire. When counselling patients, Suzanne Imes advocates for “less judgment, more curiosity.” Wellesley students would benefit from the realization that while there is always something to improve on, and something new to learn, this exploration does not mean that they are incompetent, but that they are strong and incredibly intelligent.
I could not have imagined a more interesting place than Wellesley to rediscover the values of patience and self-kindness. Ultimately, I find that the voice inside my head telling me that I am an imposter is distinctly male and cisgender . . . which makes it an awful lot easier to ignore.