All of us have been there. You start a new school, club, or job, and everybody around you seems to be so put together and competent. That’s when the intrusive thoughts start to flood in! Everybody here has things figured out much better than I do. I am not qualified to be here.
What if they made a mistake when letting me in? When will they realize I don’t belong here? While we may have the external achievements, for example, being hired for a competitive position, we can still feel undeserving of the accolade. This can lead to negative thought patterns and anxiety about others “discovering” that you are not qualified to be where you are. This is what psychologists like to refer to as the “Imposter Phenomenon” (Hawley, 2019).
The imposter phenomenon or imposter syndrome occurs because of our natural biases. Specifically, biases held against our own performance. While we may feel like we don’t belong, in reality, we are there because others saw our value and deemed us capable. In large scale studies done on imposter syndrome, psychologists found that women and members of minority groups are the most likely to experience this phenomenon (Bravata et al., 2019). These effects are thought to be due to the socially internalized prejudices (Feenstra et al, 2020). If a woman grows up dreaming of becoming an astronaut, but all of her astronaut role models are men, she may subconsciously see the position as one that is not meant for women. After years of hard work and determination, she gets the position, but is still haunted by the subconscious prejudice that people who look like her don’t belong on spaceships. It is for this reason that representation is so important in order to reduce the stress experienced by traditionally underrepresented groups.
While I wish I could wave my wand and solve some of these social inequalities, I cannot. So how do we move past these feelings of inadequacy? Well a great way to reduce these feelings is to talk about them and to hear from others who feel the same way (Bravata et al., 2019). Celebrities such as Serena Williams, Tina Fey, Tom Hanks, and even Michelle Obama have all reported struggling with imposter syndrome! While it may not always feel like it, know that you are where you are because you worked hard and you have a lot to offer!