What’s something Serena Williams, Lady Gaga, and Tom Hanks all have in common?

They’re all frauds — or they’ve thought so at some point.  

Even as I write this, feedback on an assignment sits untouched in my inbox because I’m terrified of what it may say. Most of us are intimately familiar with imposter syndrome: the feeling of inadequacy that leads to you to think that everyone else is smarter than you. We’ve all been there — the belief that all your achievements have been a fluke, the inability to accept compliments, and the voice in your head whispering, “it’s only a matter of time until you’re exposed for the fraud you are.”

This often overwhelming feeling was the topic of Dr. Josh Drew’s Imposter Syndrome seminar on Wednesday through the School of Medicine and Dentistry. Josh Drew, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor at the SUNY College for Environmental Science and Forestry, approaches imposter syndrome from an intersectional perspective, focusing particularly on the ways in which race, gender, and the pandemic all impact self-worth in academia. The interactive virtual seminar was candid, insightful, provided ASL interpretation, and offered an opportunity to ask questions in-chat or out loud. 

Causes and Impacts — An Intersectional Approach

The talk focused on the causes of imposter syndrome, the tangible effects it can have, and ways to overcome it. Drew started by tackling the culture of brilliance that’s especially prevalent in academia and higher education, which results in feelings of mediocrity and the inability to internalize one’s success. Another underlying cause Drew noted was the illusion that we function within a meritocracy, despite the fact that “not all ideas are judged equally.”

Underrepresented groups, Drew pointed out, are increasingly vulnerable to this “insidious creature working its way into our hearts,” often due to the tacit or explicit suggestion that they’ve only been chosen to “check a box,” and wouldn’t be successful if it weren’t for affirmative action. This devalues their work, undermines their talents and accomplishments, and exacerbates feelings of fraudulence. 

In addition, he observed that a considerable number of students and faculty from underrepresented groups engage in uncompensated labor, either voluntary or structural, such as mentoring other peers from minority groups or serving on diversity committees. While on one hand, these services improve the institution’s image, they also act as a form of “cultural taxation” — unpaid work that underrepresented groups must engage in in order to be accepted “into the academy,” Drew noted, quoting Dr. Cecil Canton, a professor at California State University. This unpaid labor also leads to various microaggressions and setbacks, such as being burdened with the “expert on all things X” label, the pressure to represent an entire group, or getting lower evaluations that don’t take into account all the unrecorded time spent on these activities. This, of course, plays into imposter syndrome — underrepresented groups are exploited, gaslighted and denied achievements and promotions even as they bring accolades to the institution. 

The talk also covered the ways in which COVID-19 has worsened feelings of inadequacy. For example, studying remotely makes classes more difficult for students, especially if they were already disadvantaged to begin with. Furthermore, as the boundaries between work and life continue to blur, we increasingly feel as though we have to constantly be productive. Finally, the lack of “normal feedback loops” and points of reference for how others are faring magnifies stress and self-doubt.

All of these factors, among other causes of imposter syndrome, manifest in a variety of ways. The major effects that Drew mentioned included lower participation, holding back from pursuing opportunities, and limiting oneself to familiar areas of study and conversation. This often creates a “negative feedback loop” of self-regulation and self-doubt, whereby one remains unchallenged and unfulfilled. Constantly seeing others succeed in what they could have excelled in only intensifies the feeling of not being good enough.  

Defeating Imposter Syndrome

To anyone who’s experienced imposter syndrome — an estimated 70% of the population — some of this might not be news. However, Drew’s advice on how to combat the phenomenon may just be life-changing for many of us. First, he emphasized the need to normalize imposter syndrome; the feeling should not be met with stigma or further shame. Instead, it should be acknowledged and then “plucked out” without being entertained, so it no longer has control over you. 

He then stressed the importance of reframing one’s point of view. No, you’re not the dumbest person in your class; you just have the most room to grow, and as an added bonus, you’re surrounded by so many great people to learn from! No, criticism is not a condemnation of you or your worth but rather a chance to better yourself and an opportunity to step back, divorce yourself from your work, and digest the feedback objectively. You have the right to make mistakes, grow from them, and ask for help if needed.

This sort of outlook can be strangely liberating, because there truly is no way but up. There’s also no “turning point,”  Drew mentioned, because you will never fully know something or be exactly who you want to be. As long as your sum of knowledge continues to expand, all you have to do is be brave (or fake it till you really feel brave) and take the plunge. Drew also said that every successful individual stands on “the shoulders of giants” and how putting people on a pedestal for their genius does a disservice to those that helped them — and will help you — get there.  

The seminar then recommended tracking one’s success, be it through looking back on the positive feedback you’ve gotten in the past, making a separate email folder for good news, or flipping through your résumé, just to remind yourself that you are not, in fact, utterly useless. Drew also advocated for “aggressive” self-care, especially during the pandemic. Self-care can mean anything from watching a movie without feeling guilty to going to bed early even if you didn’t cross everything off your to-do list that day.

Towards the end of the seminar, Drew reminded those in attendance that there is strength in community, be it friends you can vent to, or online groups. Finding your army and admitting your vulnerabilities, whether it’s through a subreddit, an anonymous Twitter account, or hashtags like #WomenInStem, can be a game-changer. Pages like @AverageAcademics, Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens, and UR-specific Ever Better Memes for Meliora Teens can also be sources of levity in moments of stress and self-doubt, because the virtual spaces we’re otherwise operating out of are often lonely and deceptive. Seek and give support, he said, and listen, even if you can’t be part of some of these conversations. Other great ways to find support whether you’re on or off campus include the Greene Center, UR Connected, the Health Promotion Office, the CARE Network, the Writing and Speaking Center, and the University Counseling Center. Also, head over to @ur_loved585 on Instagram to discover a new support system or give back to your existing one!

Finally, Drew discussed the importance of setting oneself up for success. Taking on easier tasks that you’re interested in is a key way to build momentum, eradicate imposter syndrome, and just learn, because “success begets success,” he said. Take your time and plan mindfully, so you can improve your chances of doing something right the first time. In addition, being your own biggest cheerleader is essential. Abandoning vocabulary such as “just” and “only” to describe your achievements, taking pride in all of your work, letting yourself say “thank you” when people compliment you, and not apologizing for taking up space are just a few ways to quiet imposter syndrome. 

Also, I’m no Ph.D. scholar, but from one imposter to another — relax. Forgive yourself. We’re doing fine, and we’ve got what it takes. Take a deep breath and open that email. 

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