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Understanding Imposter Syndrome and What You Can Do About It

October 29, 2015

By Kelly Pedersen

I had been out of school for eight years, working, teaching and traveling. I returned home from a four year stint in Asia and applied to graduate school some months later. When I received my first acceptance letter, I was incredibly excited. I felt that I was starting a new chapter in my life. But, in the weeks leading up to my first semester, I started to get nervous. By entering my graduate program, I was breaking into a new field where I didn’t have much experience. I felt certain that I would walk into a classroom full of industry professionals who knew much more than I did. I experienced feelings of inadequacy and began to wonder if I even belonged. By the first day I was shaking when it came time to leave for class. After a few class periods, though, the feelings of inadequacy subsided and I adjusted to my new role as a student. But what if they hadn’t? What if I had continued to feel like I didn’t belong, like I was an imposter, just waiting to be found out?

These types of feelings are typical of students who suffer from imposter syndrome, a specific form of self-doubt often found in professionals and academics. Imposter syndrome, first researched by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in the 1970s, occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud. (American Psychological Association)

So how do we, as students, stop these feelings of self-doubt?

Talk to Your Mentors/Professors/Advisors

Don’t idolize or fear the people who are here to teach and help you. Some of the professors may be notable professionals in their field or may be intimidating. Even people who are highly successful in their careers had to start somewhere. Ask them how they got to where they are today. Don’t be afraid to ask for their help. In my experience, people are generally very willing to pass along their expertise and knowledge to others who are just starting out.

Build Your Self Confidence

Don’t just look to people who are more experienced than you for help. Help others who need some of your knowledge. Tutoring or working with younger students can help you boost your confidence and realize how far you have come in your academic career.

You can also build your confidence by building your resume. Apply for internships or assistantships to learn more about your field (and don’t give up after a few applications.) Attend conferences or join an emerging professionals group to become part of the community you are studying.

Cut Yourself Some Slack

Don’t focus on perfection; focus on performing the best that you can at the time. Sometimes performing well enough is all you need.

Talk to Someone Who Can Help

Remember that others in your program may feel the same way you do, even if they seem more experienced or confident. Every graduate student is new at some point, just like you. Talk to others in your program and build relationships with your fellow students. You can share your feelings about class and support one another.

For many people with impostor feelings, individual therapy can be extremely helpful. A psychologist or other therapist can give you tools to help you break the cycle of impostor thinking. At George Mason the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) office is here to help students deal with these types of feelings. Services are provided by a staff of professional clinical psychologists, social workers, counselors, learning specialists, and psychiatric providers.  CAPS individual and group counseling, workshops, and outreach programs are designed to enhance students’ personal experience and academic performance.

For more information about CAPS, you can visit their website at www.caps.gmu.edu. Call (703) 993-2380 to schedule a consultation for individual counseling or call at 8:30AM to inquire about available same-day consultations.  These slots are filled on a first-come, first-served basis.

Change can be difficult, especially if you doubt your own abilities. Students at Mason can make the most of their graduate school experience by taking advantage of the many resources available to them. The faculty and administration are available to help students enjoy this process of growth and learning.

* http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/fraud.aspx

Kelly Pedersen is a Graduate Assistant with University Life Arlington and masters candidate at the College of Visual and Performing Arts in the Arts Management program.

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