Impostor Syndrome

By Ashley Lane

When I received my acceptance letter from Georgetown last December, my first reaction, after my initial shock and excitement subsided, was that there had to be some sort of mistake. How could I, a girl from a small rural town in Michigan, possibly be qualified to go to Georgetown? I was incredibly thrilled and humbled to have been given this amazing opportunity, but no amount of excitement could shake this feeling from my head that at any moment a mask would be ripped away from my face. Soon, everyone would find out that I really didn’t belong here, that I was a complete fraud. I was admitted by chance, by luck, I convinced myself; I couldn’t attribute my own accomplishments and success to my admission, unable to accept that they alone could possibly be enough. After all, weren’t they achieved by circumstance and luck too? This line of thinking followed me throughout my high school career, bleeding into everything from AP scores to grades to extracurricular accomplishments. Ultimately, what it boiled down to was this: I couldn’t accept myself as the reason behind my success.

It turns out that I’m not alone in this feeling. In fact, many high-achieving and successful individuals, from Sheryl Sandberg to Tina Fey, have expressed their own struggles with internalizing success, of feeling like a fraud. This is commonly known as impostor syndrome or impostor phenomenon, and was first researched by Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, and Suzanne Imes, PhD, in the 1970s. They studied what they described as “the impostor phenomenon” among high achieving women, among whom they found the phenomenon to be especially prevalent. While impostor syndrome affects people of all genders, social discrimination and stereotypes can contribute to its increased effect on women and minorities. Particularly in professions and fields that are male-dominated, women may be more likely to feel the effects of impostor syndrome. The same applies for people of color in largely white-dominated spaces. Overall, however, impostor syndrome seems to plague high-achieving and successful individuals of a variety of backgrounds.

Considering that Georgetown students fall under the category of highly successful individuals, I can imagine that what I felt upon my admission to Georgetown isn’t that uncommon. At some point, the majority of us will experience this form of self-doubt. So how do we deal with impostor syndrome and move beyond it? I think that the first step comes in recognition. Acknowledging and validating my feelings allowed me to move to the next step: putting them into perspective. Does what I’m feeling necessarily match reality? If I were looking at myself from an outside perspective, from the perspective of a friend, would I have the same thoughts that I do now? Often, the answer is no. Trying to put these thoughts and feelings into perspective and reaching out to friends and mentors are valuable tools in confronting impostor syndrome. 

I can’t say that I have completely eliminated my feelings associated with impostor syndrome, and I don’t think I ever will. However, I don’t think that this is, or should be, the ultimate goal. Rather, our goal should lie in recognizing these feelings where they exist and learning how we can work beyond them. I know that I have a tendency to over-internalize failure, while I struggle to internalize success: I have to make a conscience effort to remind myself of this each day. But I also recognize now that I am not alone, and that it is only if and when we let such doubts have power over us that they do.

So wherever you are, whoever you are, know this: you are enough. You are more than enough. You belong just where you are. Sit at the table; own your accomplishments, your voice, yourself. After all, shattering glass ceilings starts with shattering your own.