Fighting Impostor Syndrome

Fighting Imposter Syndrome

We’ve all felt like a fraud at times, but for minority students at elite colleges the specter of impostor phenomenon is especially daunting.

I’ll never forget how excited I was when I opened the letter from the admissions office of Wake Forest University and read that I had been accepted. It was a dream come true! Growing up as an African-American student in rural Pilot Mountain, North Carolina, I was aware that there

had not been many African-American students accepted into prestigious universities on an academic scholarship. When I started my freshman year, I was both eager and nervous. How would I do in a new and academically rigorous environment? How would I fit in? I came from a working-class family, and I was surrounded by a lot of upper-middle-class students. I didn’t have a car, while many of my peers were driving BMWs. I was also self-conscious about being from the country on a campus full of big-city kids. And I also came from a high school where the most advanced math course offered was trigonometry, while many of my peers had taken calculus. And most salient for me was the fact that I was an African-American student in an overwhelmingly white college environment.

Sitting in freshman biology and chemistry, I often felt lost and overwhelmed. It seemed that everyone else understood the material better than I did. Did I really belong here? Was I smart enough to handle college classes? Not until years later would I have a name for what I had felt: the impostor phenomenon.

When I first came across this term in literature, I was immediately captivated by it. The impostor phenomenon refers to the feelings of intellectual fraudulence or phoniness experienced by high achievers. It made sense on an intuitive level, and it seemed to capture many of the feelings I had felt as an African-American student trying to negotiate the challenges of an elite, private, predominantly white school. Impostor phenomenon was first defined by an Atlanta psychologist, Pauline Clance, and was based on five years of psychotherapy with over 150 very successful middle- to upper-middle-class women, most of whom were white. Publicly, it’s often called imposter syndrome, although “phenomenon” is more accurate, since it’s not a medical syndrome. Although the term has been around since the 1970s, I was surprised to find that very little research on the impostor phenomenon had been conducted on students of color.

Given its relevance to my research on African-American students, I decided to examine the impostor phenomenon among ethnic minority students. My graduate students and I have found that impostor feelings are negatively linked to the mental health of ethnic minority students and are stronger predictors of mental health than minority-status stress.

What is especially exciting about impostor-phenomenon research is that it is relevant to all high-achieving students, not only ethnic minority students. In our most recently published study focusing on the academic outcomes of women and men, we found that impostor feelings positively and significantly predicted GPA for women, but not for men. This has added a new wrinkle to our research, because it suggests that while impostor feelings have negative effects on mental health, they may actually have potentially positive effects on GPA.

So, how do you counter the negative effects of impostor feelings? Research on this question among ethnic minority students is still in its early stages, and there is much still to learn. What we do know is that for ethnic minority students, providing an informal support network that is not a counseling or therapy group is important because it allows students to share their feelings, challenges, and insecurities in a safe and nonthreatening environment. It is often difficult for ethnic minority students to share their academic insecurities because of concerns that they may be viewed as not deserving of a place on campus. Prior academic success does not protect students, especially ethnic minority students, from feeling like an impostor on a college campus.

For all students who struggle with impostor feelings, seeking formal mental health treatment is helpful. Students who suffer from impostor feelings should also keep a record of positive feedback to counteract negative cognitions and impostor feelings. For example, every time a student gets a good grade, or correctly answers a question in class, or makes an insightful comment, the student should record this as a reminder that he or she is smart, competent, and just as deserving to be a student on campus as anyone else.

In my teaching, I often share with my students that even as a tenured full professor at a prestigious university, I still sometimes experience impostor feelings. My students are typically incredulous that someone of my accomplishments could ever feel like an impostor. The reality is that no matter where you are in your own development, there will almost always be someone more accomplished and more competent than you. This is a fact of life. Hearing me disclose my feeling of impostorism helps to normalize these feelings. Most importantly, I hope through my example that students can see that feeling like an impostor does not mean you are one.

Kevin Cokley is a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and the African and African Diaspora Studies Department at UT-Austin, where he also directs the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis.

Illustration by Gisela Goppel.


No comments

Be the first one to leave a comment.

Post a Comment