Thinking Like A Non-Imposter When You Have Imposter Syndrome

in order to change how you are feeling you must first change the way you think.


Many people ask me what to expect in their first year of graduate school and my answer is always the same, “the Imposter Syndrome”. The Imposter Syndrome is a collective feeling of inadequacy and usually occurs when a person is placed in a new environment or unfamiliar territory. The truth is anytime you’re outside of your comfort zone there will be some feelings of inadequacy, but the Imposter Syndrome is a mindset. If you constantly think you are a failure, you will fail at everything you try. This is why the Imposter Syndrome is a nasty deep hole filled with self doubt. Therefore, in order to change how you are feeling you must first change the way you think.

The first thing you must do is determine why you feel like an imposter. In my experience there are a few general things that usually plague first year graduate students:

  • Research or should I say failing at research
  • Hard classes or new subject matter
  • Being apart of an underrepresented group
  • Living in a new environment (HBCU to PWI, Small town to large city, etc)
  • No friends

For me it was the first one and since I had never failed at anything before, it was really hard for me to accept that I was not good at something. Out of 100 experiments during my first month of graduate school only 10 of them provided useful data and if you’re an experimentalist you know that’s nothing. I also hated not seeing black/brown people on campus. I went from seeing 50 a day to being lucky to see 2 in a week. What I know now, is that the root cause of my Imposter Syndrome was my habit of comparing myself to other people. The truth is everyone is on their own unique journey and that everyone coming to graduate school has a unique set of skills including YOU. There were subjects I knew everything about and others where I knew nothing. And that was ok. You have to learn to not only own what you’re good at but to also own what you’re not good at because you’re not perfect. The perfectionist attitude is a non-stop flight to Imposter Syndrome. Work hard and smart to improve, do not sit around and feel sorry for yourself or your incompetence. You are meant to be there like everyone else.

If the issue is deep rooted do not be afraid to seek therapy. Sometimes our background influences how we handle failure. Some people are taught to be motivated by failure while others are taught that it is a sign of weakness. The latter will be harder to deal with on your own and will require an expert to provide the tools needed to overcome it. I too was someone who saw failure as a weakness. So when I failed, my feelings of being a fraud were magnified  and could ruin my mood for weeks. Through therapy I learned to develop the tools needed to overcome the Imposter Syndrome:

  1. Separate Fact from Fiction: Just because you feel dumb does not mean you are DUMB
  2. Think About The Positive: When you feel like a fraud take a step back and think about your successes or positive things in your life
  3. Be OK With Walking Away: If you are failing at an experiment or completing a homework assignment walk away and do something that makes you feel good. That way when you return you have a clear and fresh mind
  4. Visualize Success: Remind yourself of the amazing things that will come once you complete your degree whether it is having your dream job or providing for your family/community, it will help you refocus
  5. Ask For HELP: Reach out to colleagues, peers, and friends when you’re struggling with a task or need to vent. And please don’t call home . I mean no disrespect but your family has no idea what you’re going through and sometimes talking to them can make you feel worse.
  6. Join An Organization: This is very important for minority students. Organizations provide a relaxing outlet when you are stressed with graduate school or feeling like an outsider.  It is also a great way to meet new people and gain allies. Participating in outreach programs and initiatives are also ways to reinforce positive thinking.

Six years ago I was sitting in your same position. I thought I was too confident to be affected by the Imposter Syndrome but I was not. My first two years of graduate school were extremely hard. I was embarking on a very hard journey at the same time as I was growing up. I went through a million different personal and professional transitions and there were times when I was certain I would not make it to the end. And now that I have, I know that you too can make it to the end. When you feel like a fraud…remember it is a mindset and you have to stay positive.

From Aeriel, With Love

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