This blog post is a part of the series, “CARED Perspectives,” developed by the APAGS Committee for the Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Diversity. This series will discuss current events and how these events relate to graduate students in psychology. If you are interested in contributing to the CARED Perspectives series, please contact Lincoln Hill.
Imposter Syndrome as a Minority: The Struggle is Real
By Fiona C. Thomas
Years ago, I successfully competed, and was selected for a federal government position, a training spot reserved for few undergraduate students. Following a phone interview, I accepted the position, moved to a new city, and was eager to start. On day one my supervisor greeted me with these words, “I wasn’t expecting someone who looked like you based on your name!” His comment was not intended to be malicious. He was being truthful about his thoughts. Yet, this was the first time I felt like an imposter. My name implied a White candidate, not someone who looked like me. Did I need to work harder to make up for this? What were my supervisor’s expectations of me now versus when he interviewed me? And wait a minute, why did I immediately doubt that my experiences and credentials – all of which got me the job – were suddenly insufficient? What did my name or the color of my skin matter?
As a graduate student, I have come to understand this experience as imposter syndrome. The term was coined four decades ago by psychologists, Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes based on their work with high-achieving women. It connotes an internal feeling of intellectual phoniness despite ample objective evidence to the contrary (Clance & Imes, 1978). Indeed, graduate students, academics, and many successful individuals (men included) will not only be familiar with this term, but will have experienced that powerful fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Recent research shows that members of minority groups feel this phenomenon even more profoundly. For instance, the work of Dr. Kevin Cokley and colleagues has pointed to the strong association between discrimination and feelings of impostorism. His research additionally suggests that for ethnic minority college students, impostorism is a greater predictor of negative mental health outcomes than discrimination. These findings have powerful implications. In addition to labeling it and recognizing the moments we feel it most potently, what can underrepresented minority graduate students do to tackle imposter syndrome?
Dr. Sindhumathi Revuluri, associate dean of undergraduate education at Harvard University, recently wrote an insightful piece on overcoming imposter syndrome. A few months ago, the New York Times published an article on this topic as well, particularly with regards to the experiences of minority groups. I pull from the words of wisdom outlined in these articles and have peppered my own learnings below regarding strategies that I have found helpful for tackling impostorism:
- Surround yourself with mentors who simultaneously uplift and challenge you: This does not necessarily mean finding mentors who resemble you and have had similar experiences as you. I have come to learn that this is not easy to do. Instead, surround yourself with individuals who encourage you to not only find your space but to feel confident to own that space with integrity.
Take pride in Slay being the forerunner: Underrepresented populations bring a particularly powerful perspective in academic settings. These voices are not always heard. If you are doing research that no one in your department is doing, or if you’re working clinically with a population that rarely gets access to mental health services, these are major accomplishments. It takes significantly more time, energy, and effort to enter a space that has traditionally not belonged to underrepresented communities, and to then be the advocate for underrepresented areas of research. Once you get there, trust that it is because of your merit, hard-work, and persistence.
- It is okay to say no and set boundaries: Feeling the need to prove oneself can result in the urge to say ‘yes’ – yes to every new project that may improve your skills as a researcher or clinician, yes to speaking on diversity issues in your department, or yes to committee service simply to bring a diverse voice to the table. Indeed, there is extra emotional, physical, psychological, and intellectual labor involved when you try to enter a homogenous field. However, trying to be everything to everyone can ultimately dilute the quality of your work and do more harm than good.
- Genuine humility is different than feeling like an imposter: Even with certain lived experiences, there are limitations to our knowledge. Acknowledge this, own it, and ask for help when needed.
- Pay it forward: When I decided to pursue clinical psychology as a career, I did not personally know any South Asian women in this field. This initially amplified my feelings of imposter syndrome. Who was I supposed to look to as a role model? Given these experiences, I find it deeply rewarding to connect with others who are in the early stages of their graduate degree. I may not have had mentors who looked like me, but I had mentors who challenged me to find my voice. It is not always possible to repay such acts, but you can pay it forward. An honest conversation about the trials and tribulations of impostorism as an ethnic or racial minority can be quite powerful for others struggling with these feelings.
We want to hear from you!
- What have your experiences been with imposter syndrome?
- Are there strategies you have found particularly helpful for coping?
- What are your thoughts on this topic?
Please share your thoughts below in the comments section!
Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241-247. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0086006
Cokley, K., McClain, S., Enciso, A.. & Martinez, M. (2013). An Examination of the Impact of Minority Status Stress and Impostor Feelings on the Mental Health of Diverse Ethnic Minority College Students. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 41(2), 82-95. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2161-1912.2013.00029.x
Cokley, K., Smith, L., Bernard, D., Hurst, A., Jackson, S., Stone, S., . . . Roberts, D. (2017). Impostor feelings as a moderator and mediator of the relationship between perceived discrimination and mental health among racial/ethnic minority college students. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 64(2), 141-154. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cou0000198
Revuluri. S. (2018, October 4). How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/How-to-Overcome-Impostor/244700.
Wong, K. (2018, June 12). Dealing With Impostor Syndrome When You’re Treated as an Impostor. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/12/smarter-living/dealing-with-impostor-syndrome-when-youre-treated-as-an-impostor.html.
Below, are some podcasts that may be of interest. We hope you enjoy these and look forward to hearing your thoughts on the topic!
Mentoring Hour for Students of Color Applying to Doctoral Programs
Joy Zelinski Marquez and Farzana Saleem help prospective students think through program considerations that are salient to students of color (e.g., geography, culture and climate) and increase awareness about different types of psychology programs, admissions criteria and opportunities to study multicultural issues. (Web chat recorded May 2016)
Mental Health of High-Achieving Students of Color
Kevin Cokley, PhD, describes his new research on perceived discrimination, impostor feelings, and the mental health of high-achieving students of color. Cokley is director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, a professor of counseling psychology and African and African diaspora studies and a faculty affiliate of the Center for African and African American Studies at the University of Texas-Austin. (Recorded December 2014)
Additional podcasts on graduate school, careers and additional hot topics can be found here.
We hope that you have enjoyed reading the latest ‘CARED Perspectives’ post. Check out these other articles in the series: