“I Don’t Know What I’m Doing”: Understanding Imposter Syndrome

Ever since finding out that I was offered a place in a graduate program, I have been suffering heavily from imposter syndrome. That’s a fancy way of saying, “I may have made it and achieved my goals, but I have no idea what I’m doing and how I got here.”

What exactly is imposter syndrome? Is it a disease? The short answer is: no. Imposter syndrome is not a diagnosable mental health disorder but rather it is a series of behaviors and feelings that someone experiences as a result of not being able to internalize their successes and accomplishments.

The feelings that are associated with imposter syndrome are very familiar to women, first-generation students, perfectionists, and more. It is the lack of confidence and feeling of not deserving your accomplishments, even if you worked hard to accomplish them. It is the feeling of not belonging, feeling like you’re fake and a fraud for being in a place that you don’t deserve to be. It’s feeling like an imposter.

As someone who believes in fate, luck, and my religion, I find myself associating my success with everything but my own hard work. When I found out I was accepted to my undergraduate institution, I thanked Buddha and Guan Yin for the luck they have bestowed upon me. When I landed a research position after sending many cold emails, I was sure that I just got lucky and emailed the right person at the right time. For graduate school, I thought I bombed my interview and gave up hope of getting accepted to the program. When I got the call that I was offered a place in the incoming cohort, I thought it must’ve been because I visited a temple that past week.

Now, these reasons could definitely play a role in how I got to where I am, but they are definitely not the main reason. One thing that’s hard for me to realize myself is that my successes and accomplishments are also due to my own hard work and perseverance. For some reason, I am blinded to this realization and instead tell myself “I don’t know how I got here,” “I don’t know why they accepted me,” and other statements undermining my own hard work.

A lot of us love the phrase “fake it ’till you make it” and although it may be helpful in some situations, it may be hurting us as well. How do I know if I’m faking it or being real right now? I must’ve faked it this whole time; There’s no way for me to get this far on my own.

How do we overcome imposter syndrome? Through many brief informal chats with mentors, peers, and strangers on the internet, I’ve learned that imposter syndrome is just something many of us face. Someone could be the most successful engineer in town and may still be thinking about whether or not they deserve to have their job or the promotion. Imposter syndrome usually accompanies us wherever we go, whatever we do.

To better cope with imposter syndrome we can do the following:

  1. Be aware of what we’re telling ourselves. Tell the judgmental voices to keep quiet and tell the encouraging ones to speak louder!
  2. Share your experiences with coaches, mentors, friends, family, and other community members! This can help create a network of support and validation and also normalize the feelings as something that we all face.
  3. Remind yourself that you are worthy and that regardless of how you got here, you are here and you belong.

The first step is recognizing that I am experiencing symptoms of imposter syndrome. The next step for me is to work on improving my self-talk and to be kinder to myself because I belong.

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