Thursday, September 20

The Quad: Why it’s normal to feel like an impostor


(Creative Commons photo by verkeorg via flickr)

(Creative Commons photo by verkeorg via flickr)


Fake it till you make it. The amount of times I’ve casually thrown this phrase around in conversations, coupled with a slight eye roll, to garner light chuckles should have been indication that this was not a philosophy realistic enough to be taken seriously. But what did I do? I turned this phrase into my action plan and proceeded to fake it till I made it to UCLA.

That was, up until my first English lecture, when the girl who sat next to me threw together the phrases “rectification of the binary domination” and “representational epistemology” (all in one breath) to address the novel, effectively shooting my long-term plan down the drain. I shot her a dumbfounded look — man, and here I thought I was good at literature.

To say the least, I felt intimidated by my inadequacy within the high-pressure UCLA academic environment. Had I aimlessly underplayed my abilities and held myself to a lower standard until I was ultimately a fraud, someone who wasn’t good enough to be here?

This question may plague many UCLA students today, likely because of the chaotic struggle to stay ahead of nearly 45,000 others on campus who are just as highly successful and motivated, if not more. Even Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis feels similar symptoms. In fact, there’s a term for this: impostor syndrome.

[Related: Life as an average UCLA student ]

Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, two clinical psychologists, first introduced this phenomenon as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness,” especially for women. Individuals often have a high degree of perfectionism and performance anxiety along with a low sense of control and self-acceptance. A fear of being found out as an impostor exists because one’s success and intelligence seem undeserved.

Since then, this definition has expanded to include both genders and is now commonly known to occur “among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success.”

Those who experience the impostor phenomenon attribute success to an external locus of control, factors that are outside their realm of control. Despite studying several days in advance, these individuals may believe an A they received on a midterm was due to the luck of the draw or a lenient teaching assistant. Reaching the conclusion that their success did not come from any personal contributions leaves feelings of satisfaction and internalization out of the equation.

However, for people experiencing impostor syndrome, failure is attributed with an internal locus of control – factors that the individual has full responsibility for. When the second midterm doesn’t go well, people often attribute responsibility to their own attributes, such as a lack of competency or hard work, which makes failure even more traumatic. The exaggeration of failure over success contributes to the persistent feeling that one is only an impostor, with only failure after failure under their belt.

[Related: Submission: Students should be more open with each other about academic pressures]

Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard University, encourages individuals to be transparent and open about their experiences with the impostor syndrome. It is only when we understand that there are others who feel the same way that we can correct our self-assessments. Clance herself does not believe the impostor syndrome is a diagnosable syndrome or illness but rather an experience that people often come across.

To stigmatize the impostor phenomenon as a syndrome may be counterproductive and aggravating toward one’s sense of impostorism and abnormality. Rather, a feeling of impostorism could just be a common byproduct of intense stress and lack of social support. A more productive alternative would be to engage in a collective conversation about the root of this phenomenon: an overwhelming fear of success.

There exists the fear of owning up to the idealization of success, to constantly have to perform well and meet one high-reaching expectation after another. In order to seek comfort and a safe zone, failure becomes a more tempting alternative charged by our eagerness to dismiss the exhausting standards of success. This leniency toward failure becomes the very basis of the impostor syndrome.

The truth is, you are not a fraud, but a high-achieving, perfection-seeking, yet self-protecting individual among similar-minded people. And I’d dare say, on behalf of your family, friends and peers, that it’s normal to feel this way, so make sure to hold onto your token of sanity come time for finals.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on Reddit

Comments are supposed to create a forum for thoughtful, respectful community discussion. Please be nice. View our full comments policy here.