Impostor Syndrome

Behind the Veil: The journey of a POC at a PWI

Impostor Syndrome

 Dear Diary,

                I…..Am….Drowning…… Drowning in a sea of self-doubt, insecurities, and unanswered questions. What am I doing here? How did I get here? Can I do this? Do I belong?

I was talking to a friend about all of the thoughts running through my head and she said it sounds like I’m struggling with “impostor syndrome.” I had never heard of it before so I decided to look it up. According to Wiki (because of course, wiki is all knowing), impostor syndrome is “a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud. Wow! Talk about being spot on! This is absolutely how I feel. It goes so deep for me that when I received my acceptance email from GW, I thought it was a mistake. I have heard of a number of colleges accidentally sending acceptance letters to students who had actually been denied admissions and I was convinced that’s what happened to me. Every time I received an email after that, I would think that it was going be the one officially rescinding my acceptance. It wasn’t until I received an email from my advisor congratulating me on getting in that I finally realized it was real. Crazy, huh? But accurate. Can you imagine if other people knew that’s how I felt? They would think I was nuts!

 I decided to dig a little deeper into this idea of impostor syndrome (not from Wiki this time), and found out that there are 5 subgroups. I have listed short descriptions of each below but you can find the detailed info by going to

  1. The Perfectionist – Perfectionists set excessively high goals for themselves, and when they fail to reach a goal, they experience major self-doubt and worry about measuring up.

  2. The Superwoman/man – Since people who experience this phenomenon are convinced they’re phonies among real-deal colleagues, they often push themselves to work harder and harder to measure up.

  3. The Natural Genius – People who struggle with this, who are also natural “geniuses,” judge success based on their abilities as opposed to their efforts. In other words, if they have to work hard at something, they assume they must be bad at it.

  4. The Rugged Individualist – Sufferers who feel as though asking for help reveals their phoniness are what Young calls rugged individualists. It’s okay to be independent, but not to the extent that you refuse assistance so that you can prove your worth.

  5. The Expert – People who fall into this competence type may feel like they somehow tricked their employer into hiring them. They deeply fear being exposed as inexperienced or unknowledgeable.

I definitely fall into the “expert” subgroup. I really struggle with not feeling good enough and I don’t really go after things unless I am absolutely sure I can do them successfully… Until now. I think that’s why being a doc student has been so emotionally taxing for me. It’s the first thing I’ve ever pursued that I’m uncertain about. And not uncertain about whether I should do it, but whether or not I can do it. People in my life praise me for my accomplishments and are extremely proud of me. But I just think I’m a fraud, and maybe even a coward. Would I be as successful if I tried things that actually scared me or challenged me? I’m not sure. But I guess I’m about to find out.

One thing I’m struggling with is feeling academically insecure, which is definitely a first for me. I’ve never really had to question my abilities to do well in school, but now, that’s all I do. I think a lot of it has to do with the people I’m surrounded by. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, but it feels like everyone else did. And while I know I shouldn’t compare myself to others, it’s so hard not to. I’ve been trying to focus on the fact that, even though others may have gone to more selective colleges, we still ended up in the same place. So, doesn’t that mean that I’m equally qualified? Cognitively, I know that I am, but my emotions tell a different story.

In addition to feeling like I don’t fit in academically, I am also feeling that way socially. Let’s address the most obvious thing – I am a woman of color in a doctoral program at a predominately white institution. How can I NOT feel like I stick out like a sore thumb? I look around and I rarely see people that look like me, with regards to both students and faculty. Now, don’t get me wrong – I knew that it was going to be this way because, unfortunately, the higher you go up the academic ladder, the less diversity you see. However, it doesn’t make me feel any less “other.”

 I also feel “other” because of my background. Let me start by saying that I am a proud Brooklyn girl who was raised by an incredible single mother who worked her butt off (and continues to do so) so that I can have everything I want and need. I am also a first-generation college student which has shaped my experiences but is also something that I am incredibly proud of. However, my story is not the norm, at least not here at GW. I am surrounded by people who grew up in affluent neighborhoods, with two parents who have, at least, a bachelor’s degree (although most have graduate level degrees). And while I don’t feel less than or even remotely ashamed of where I come from, I do feel different.

 Ironically, while I do not feel I belong in my current setting, it is the people that I feel I have more in common with that are beginning to judge me for being in it. For example, a couple of months ago, I met a bartender at one of my favorite spots here in DC and we really clicked. We were singing the same songs at the top of our lungs and just having an overall great time. After about an hour into it, she asked me what brought me to DC and I told her that I was getting my PhD at GW. Her demeanor changed IMMEDIATELY and she said, “Oh, you’ll stop chillin’ with me once you finish because you’ll be one of them.” I was so caught off guard that I didn’t know what to say. Eventually, I assured her that no amount of letters after my name, regardless of where I get them from, is going to change who I am or how I treat people. She appeared to believe me but still had a twinge of skepticism in her eyes.

 I’ve spent so much time worrying about feeling “othered” by my current situation that I didn’t even think about how being here would affect some of the other parts of my life. But if I don’t fit in in my current surroundings, and I’m no longer accepted in my previous ones, where DO I belong? I’m really not sure.

 I thought about sharing how I’m feeling with others, but I’m not sure that I’m ready for them to know my truth. Vulnerability is a weakness and I have to keep up the façade I’ve created for as long as possible. So, I’ll just keep my insecurities here in my diary and hope that no one ever finds out.

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