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The Truth About Imposter Syndrome

by Anna Harberger

[originally published 10/11/19]


In the vague humidity of premature autumn, you walk down Main Street on your way to Wilder. You pass the Apollo where, instead of Hustlers, the charmingly off-white marquee displays “The Exorcist” and “The Godfather Part II,” in black block letters. Passersby look spiffy in Maderas shirts of the orange or green variety. Just as you cross the street to head (diagonally) through Tappan, you catch the hushed humming of ABBA’s recently released hit “Waterloo” pulsating from the rhythmic bobbing of a feathered blonde head of hair. The year is 1974 and while you head to PSYC 100, you are unaware of how your assistant professor, Pauline Rose Clance, is about to alter the lexicon of popular culture, and the world of modern psychology with her introduction of the term “Imposter Syndrome.”

Clance coined the term “Imposter Syndrome,” or “Imposter Phenomenon,” during her time on campus in the mid 70’s after spending time with young people at Oberlin. On her informational website, Clance describes both what Imposter Phenomenon is and how she came to define it as such. Imposter Syndrome is characterized by individuals feeling like their successes have been due to some “mysterious fluke or luck or great effort. Common to many who experience Imposter Syndrome is a sinking fear that any and all achievements are due to “breaks” and not the result of their own ability and competence. This forces individuals to go to tremendous lengths to emulate the win they just stumbled upon. More common than not, though, there seems to be a constant, foreboding feeling that they will “blow it” the next time around.

“When I began to teach at a prominent liberal arts college with an excellent academic reputation, I heard similar fears from students who had come for counseling. They had excellent standardized test scores grades and recommendations. One of them said, “I feel like an impostor here with all these really bright people.” In discussing these students, Dr. Suzanne Imes and I coined the term “Impostor Phenomenon” and wrote a paper on the concept,” Clance wrote. Though 45 years have passed, Imposter Syndrome still continues to infect the psyches of Oberlin students and beyond. To assess the seemingly unending prevalence of Imposter Syndrome amongst my classmates and peers, I took to Instagram polls like any respectable Screen-ager.

Let us proceed with some facts and figures. Out of my 1,154 followers (feel free to platonically slide into my DMs @sicko.phant) approximately 300 young people of high school and collegiate age viewed my Instagram story. Of 129 participants, 71 percent of individuals responded that they had heard of the term Imposter Syndrome. 95 percent of my followers were unaware that the term was coined on the Oberlin campus. Out of a group of 108 participants, 90 percent struggle with feelings of inadequacy and 83 percent agree that they are “faking it till they make it” and that “we are all faking it till they make it.” Unsurprising for our liberal arts campus, 80 percent of participants (52 people) were willing to sit down with me to talk about their own run-ins with Imposter Syndrome throughout college and their greater lived experiences.

One of those individuals was Jacey Davidson ‘20, a fourth year with a heart of gold and proclivity towards art history. We sat down on a brisk Friday afternoon to talk about Oberlin culture and why it feels so conducive to experiencing Imposter Syndrome.

“We are really smart and really driven people, and I think smart people are more prone to insecurities because we think a lot...We do a lot of dwelling in our own heads, which makes it hard. We also are in a place where there isn’t a ton of stimuli, so that gives you a lot of space and time to be with yourself– which can be really nice, but can also be really jarring at first,” Davidson commented.

So, where do we go from here? At this point in the article, you might be wondering Anna, how are you, a wildly anxious first-year who doesn’t remember a time in her life when she did not experience Imposter Syndrome, in any way qualified to give sound and reasonable advice? And to that, Reader, I agree! In lieu of my (probably) bad tips, let us direct our attention to the Big Dogs: the scary, corporate monolithic journalistic entity that is Time Magazine and see what they think we should do to fight those inner Imposter Syndrome-ridden demons.

In their concise piece on the subject, journalist Abigail Abrams discusses several psychological tools one can use when dealing with Imposter Syndrome, with help from Valerie Young, expert and author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women.

“One of the first steps to overcoming impostor feelings is to acknowledge the thoughts and put them in perspective....You can also reframe your thoughts....It can also be helpful to share what you’re feeling with trusted friends or mentors. Most people experience moments of doubt, and that’s normal. The important part is not to let that doubt control your action,”Abrams wrote.

Still not convinced? We can consult our wise fourth-year friends, like Jacey, for some sweet, Oberlin-specific advice.

“Fake it till you make it. I just go through the motions, even if it feels mechanical somedays. You just have to keep moving. That’s literally how I got through my four years at Oberlin… Also remind yourself that you're good at stuff. Take time to look at what you’re doing and be like ‘that’s fucking dope,’ which is hard to do. It’s way easier said than done. But we all are smart people, we can [all] see [that], we just don’t want to,” Davidson remarked.

Whether you want to hear it from the lips of Time Magazine or a fellow classmate, no one is pretending Imposter Syndrome is easy to go through. Especially coupled with factors like age, individual experience, and mental and physical health, Imposter Syndrome can feel as suffocating as anything else. Until we all reach a point of collective care for one another that doesn’t feel “weird” or “performative,” feelings of inadequacy will continue to serve as a major cultural aspect of our campus. While being earnest and honest when giving others validation is crucial, it is time to mobilize so we can find that kind of support within ourselves.

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