DIANA OPONG, HOST:
Have you ever felt like you just weren’t good enough, like maybe you don’t deserve to have a seat at the table? And sometimes, does that feeling make you think you’re going crazy? I mean, what is that feeling anyway?
This is NPR’s LIFE KIT. I’m Diana Opong. On this episode, we’re going to explore the impostor phenomenon. I’m on a mission to better understand the factors that contribute to experiencing this feeling. We’ll explore what it is, why it happens, who tends to be affected, along with the impact of societal messaging. And to be completely honest, this is a slightly selfish mission ’cause the thing I want to know most of all – is there a cure?
We are recording.
CATHERINE SAINT LOUIS: Perfect. Great.
OPONG: The voice you just heard is my mentor, Catherine. She worked at The New York Times for 18 years, but now she has a new gig.
SAINT LOUIS: I’m Catherine Saint Louis, and I am an editor at Neon Hum Media. I’m a podcast editor.
OPONG: One of the things that happened is you helped me get to the place that we’re at today, which is not something I could’ve foreseen. You sent me a pitch request via email saying that LIFE KIT was looking for ideas. And I was like, it says experienced producers. That kind of makes me scared. Do you remember what you wrote back to me in your email?
SAINT LOUIS: Yeah. I said something like, get over your impostor syndrome. You can do this.
OPONG: How did you know that’s what I was experiencing in that moment?
SAINT LOUIS: I’m not sure I totally knew. But I feel like most people feel impostor syndrome at one time or another. For me, impostor syndrome feels like this horrible voice in your head. Like, this mean girl – she has your voice, and she’s like, Catherine, you suck. Like, she’s super mean (laughter).
OPONG: I was surprised when Catherine told me that she struggles with feeling like an impostor, mainly because I thought feeling like an impostor went away once someone had made it. And to me, she had.
SAINT LOUIS: I think impostor syndrome doesn’t go away just because you achieve certain goals or you have a certain resume or you went to a certain school or you worked at a place like The New York Times. Even when I worked there, I stayed quite anxious about whether or not I was doing enough. And you can imagine when you’re surrounded by people who do a lot of great work, it only feeds your impostor syndrome in a way ’cause you’re like, do I belong here?
OPONG: Let’s examine where this idea came from and exactly what it means to feel like an impostor.
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OPONG: In 1978, as graduate students, Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance coined the term impostor phenomenon after realizing they both felt like they weren’t good enough to be doing their graduate studies. And many of the female students they were teaching felt the exact same way. When I reached out to Dr. Imes, who’s a practicing therapist in Atlanta, Ga., and she agreed to do this interview, I told her my impostor feelings were raging like a fire, and she told me she understood and that she would be nervous, too.
SUZANNE IMES: I’m a little bit anxious always about doing these sorts of things.
OPONG: We decided to be anxious together. Real quick – you’ve heard me say impostor phenomenon, and you may be wondering, what’s that about? Most people are probably more familiar with the term impostor syndrome.
IMES: The impostor phenomenon is actually not a syndrome in the medical sense of the word, but it has become popularized as the impostor syndrome because I guess it has two syllables instead of four.
OPONG: While doing their graduate work, Dr. Imes and Dr. Clance’s research revealed that there are two types of people. There are people who tend to overestimate their abilities and some people who tend to underestimate their abilities.
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OPONG: People who feel like impostors tend to underestimate their abilities. I first experienced the impostor phenomenon my senior year of high school. My GPA wasn’t that great, and I worried I couldn’t get into a good college. When I finally did get into college, I felt like a total impostor, like I didn’t belong or deserve to be there.
Sometimes we feel things and don’t always have the words to express what we’re going through. So let’s define what the impostor phenomenon is.
IMES: The impostor phenomenon is a feeling by many high-achieving people that they’re not as intelligent, as bright, as creative, as able as other people think they are. And they live in a constant fear that somebody’s going to find that out.
OPONG: Before we can work through any of this, we have to be able to identify it and understand it. That brings us to takeaway No. 1.
IMES: Awareness is a key factor in helping yourself with the impostor phenomenon.
OPONG: The worry and anxiety that comes with feeling like an impostor can show up for people in a variety of ways.
IMES: There’s a cycle that starts with you may have bad dreams, you may have a lot of worry, you may have a lot of anxiety because you have been given a task to do. Let’s say you have some kind of assignment, like doing this podcast, and you start feeling anxious about, oh, dear, I’m not good enough. I don’t know how to do this. So you start worrying about it. You may feel immobilized. You can’t get ready for it. You may procrastinate, or you may get started early and just work and work and work and way overprepare.
OPONG: Hearing that definition was really helpful for me because I didn’t realize that I was an overpreparer. Being able to manage feeling like an impostor may seem hard, and that’s because sometimes it is hard.
Author and trauma therapist Aundi Kolber says naming reality helps us find our way through it. Naming it also means recognizing other people feel like this, too. It’s a shared experience. I set up a Google Alert, and in just a few hours, I started to see interviews with celebrities describing these feelings, from actress and Honest Company founder Jessica Alba to Golden Globe Award-winner Awkwafina. There is no amount of money or fame that can cull the impostor phenomenon.
So what can you do? Dr. Imes says being kind to yourself, giving yourself credit and taking stock of your true talents can help. And that’s takeaway No. 2.
IMES: Have self-compassion. Be self-soothing. Say, I’m going to do OK. I did OK last time. I know enough about this. I don’t have to be perfect. Perfectionism gets in the way so much with people with impostor feelings. They have to do it perfectly. They have to be fabulous, not just good, all right? You know about that?
OPONG: Yeah – little bit, little bit.
IMES: So if you can learn that you don’t have to be perfect, you can just be good.
OPONG: It’s essential to have grace for yourself. No one is perfect. We’re all trying the best we can. A technique that Dr. Imes uses with her clients and even for herself involves making a list.
IMES: Get a piece of paper and make three columns. And in the first column – I’m not so good at. In the second column – I’m medium good at. And the third column – I’m very good at. And you write all the things you can think of.
OPONG: Dr. Imes walked me through what she puts in her three columns, starting with not so good at.
IMES: Like, I’m terrible at directions. Never have been very good at that. And then I might tell them something I’m kind of medium good at, like fixing things around the house. Then I’ll tell them something I’m very good at, which is critical thinking or global thinking, OK? I’m very good at that. I also like to tell them I’m very good at pingpong (laughter).
OPONG: Writing a list can help, and that’s a great second step in the process of managing this feeling. But what’s the root cause of all of this? Is this something people just internalize and create all on their own?
SAINT LOUIS: As a Black woman to a Black woman, it’s also what our culture is telling us.
OPONG: And that leads us to takeaway No. 3. We must acknowledge the societal impact that influences this feeling. Different racial and even gender groups are messaged various things about their place in society. What we see, hear and read can intensify this phenomenon.
ANDREA SALAZAR-NUNEZ: Part of the work that I do is putting things into context – current context, historical context – because that brings a great awareness of where everything fits.
OPONG: That was Dr. Andrea Salazar-Nunez. She’s a staff psychologist at the University of Washington Counseling Center, and she also runs her own private practice where she specializes in racial trauma.
SALAZAR-NUNEZ: So what may feel hysterical, when you put it in context, it may look more historical.
OPONG: Whoa. What may feel hysterical with context may look historical. I had never thought of it like that before. Hearing that made me feel like maybe I wasn’t defective in some way all of these years. Maybe this is why just willing myself to be more confident hadn’t been working.
SALAZAR-NUNEZ: So many times, especially for people of color, women of color, like, we’re gaslighted, dismissed, invalidated, ignored when we bring up these things. And so then we think we’re, you know, going crazy. There’s something wrong with me.
OPONG: The first time I experienced a sense of dissonance related to my worth and my skin color was in middle school. A male teacher of color told me that because I was Black, I had to work twice as hard as everyone else. I was only 12. As a Ghanaian immigrant, my parents told me that all we had to do was work hard like everyone else, and we could make a good life for ourselves. So to be told that I had to work twice as hard because of the color of my skin was shocking.
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OPONG: Is it fair to say that people of color sort of have a class of contributing factors that other people don’t?
SALAZAR-NUNEZ: Yeah. For people of color, and especially women of color, that impostor syndrome is influenced by the messaging that we’ve received from Day 1 being born as a woman of color, a person of color in this country.
OPONG: But my mentor, Catherine, works hard not to dwell on this.
SAINT LOUIS: I don’t want to believe what America thinks of Black women. I want to believe that I can do better than that. So I could spend a lot of time paralyzed, or I could put that in a box and be like, you know what? I know what I’m capable of, and I’m going to just show you. Watch me.
OPONG: We’ve talked a lot about women and how this impacts them, but obviously this does impact men and men of color as well. Is that something that you see? And if so, does it manifest in a different way for men than it does women?
SALAZAR-NUNEZ: Yeah, actually, that’s a really good question because I think there are some differences in the way it manifests.
VICTOR YVELLEZ: My name is Victor Yvellez (ph). I’m 28 years old. I live in Missoula, Mont., and I am a Mexican American. Impostor syndrome has kind of always been there, though I didn’t know that’s what it was. I wouldn’t have called it that for the longest time. Now that I reflect on it, maybe that is what I was feeling. I doubt everything that I’m doing ’cause I don’t know if I’m doing a lot of it right. I don’t have a good answer as to why I feel these things. I just know that I feel like I’m faking it till I make it, you know?
OPONG: That was my friend Victor. And that thing he just said about how he didn’t realize it at the time – that’s really common.
SALAZAR-NUNEZ: The socialization of men in general, they’re not really encouraged to express emotions more, like, stereotypically. And I think that impacts their ability to recognize that I’m feeling like I’m an impostor and identify that, right? They just right away internalize that there must be something wrong with me, right? Like, why can’t I show up?
OPONG: My conversation with Victor made me think of what Catherine said earlier about how she works to not be paralyzed by cultural messaging. But then I wondered, what exactly is the best way to even begin doing that? Dr. Salazar-Nunez told me one way to help push through when societal messaging leaves you feeling drained and unworthy is to ask for help. And that’s takeaway No. 4.
SALAZAR-NUNEZ: Really making sure they connect with community or a support system or at least one other person – right? – because with, like, community or another person or a support system comes, like, validation, right? Like, oh, you’re experiencing that, too? So am I. And we’re not alone.
OPONG: I have spent many years taking pride in being able to figure things out on my own, but that’s been a bit of a trap. Catherine shared some good insights on this.
SAINT LOUIS: I think the message I got was I was supposed to know everything already when I think the best people in the business when it comes to journalism, when it comes to podcasting are constantly asking questions. You cannot grow if you don’t ask for help.
OPONG: It’s essential to ask for help. Look to people who you are hoping to learn from and accept that you don’t have to be an expert. It won’t make you look weak.
Create community and build up your support system. I didn’t realize it until after the fact, but talking to Victor made me feel better. It was nice to know that he understood exactly what I was talking about.
Dr. Imes says there’s also another aspect to asking for help, though.
IMES: Ask your friends not to say, you’re going to do great; don’t worry about it. That’s not helpful. It’s sort of dismissing. It’s not acknowledging how you feel. So you have to educate your friends about how to be with you. Tell them how what the kind of support that you need right now is not to be told that you’re going to be great, but to understand your anxiety, your fear, your feelings and said, I’ll be here for you. Call me when you’re done.
OPONG: Letting your friends and support network know how they can help you when you’re experiencing impostor feelings can help to stabilize you and make you feel grounded as you prepare for that next meeting or phone call where you’re feeling unsure of yourself.
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OPONG: While I was researching Dr. Imes, I read on her website that she has a motto.
IMES: Less judgment, more curiosity.
OPONG: Getting curious about emotions is a big part of mindfulness and meditation. And LIFE KIT has a lot of episodes about managing anxiety.
IMES: It has to do with not judging anything about ourselves, ideally about other people, too, that we should be aware of what we’re feeling, what we’re thinking, what we’re experiencing and not judging that.
OPONG: And this, my friends, is our fifth and final takeaway. Take a break when the pressure is high, and be curious about how you’re feeling. Sometimes, taking a moment to take a few deep breaths can help. Making sure to get a good night’s sleep can also help you feel balanced when you get off-center and are feeling unworthy. For Catherine, she goes for a run. Victor shared what he does to help manage the stress of feeling like an impostor.
YVELLEZ: Little things like doing yoga in the morning or eating healthy, going to bed on time, all these little things that kind of affect the bigger picture of who I am. And I do feel a lot better. I do have a lot less anxiety, and it’s very – it’s noticeable.
OPONG: I think we’re all pros now at knowing some ways to master feeling like an impostor. But what I still need to know – is there a cure? So I asked Dr. Imes.
IMES: Do you ever get over it? Are you ever cured? No. But it does get better.
OPONG: OK, not exactly the answer I was hoping to hear, but it’s not all bad news. Dr. Imes says the impostor phenomenon will start to wane as you get older.
IMES: When I was younger, I had to achieve, achieve, achieve. I have three master’s degrees and a doctorate. That is ridiculous.
IMES: Oh, my goodness. But I’m 76 years old, and I still love being a psychologist and a therapist. And I think that – you know, I say that, well, OK, I know how to do this, so I have to do it or I should do it. No. I don’t have those shoulds the way I used to.
OPONG: And Catherine sees this, too.
SAINT LOUIS: I would actually say that now that I am 46, I want to dial back on my perfectionism. I don’t think it did me any favors. I think I went a little too far. Seriously, cut yourself some slack.
OPONG: So to recap, much to my chagrin, there is no magic cure for the impostor phenomenon. But good news – there are many tools to help manage it when it starts to rear its ugly head.
Takeaway No. 1 – be aware of how you’re feeling.
IMES: Awareness is a key factor in helping yourself with the impostor phenomenon.
OPONG: There are going to be good days and bad days, and your worth is not tied to the lies in your head.
Takeaway No. 2 – be kind, give yourself credit and take stock of your true talents.
IMES: Have self-compassion. Be self-soothing.
OPONG: And by making a list, you can get a realistic picture of who you are and your skills and abilities.
Takeaway No. 3 – acknowledge the societal impact that influences this feeling. Accept that people who are in groups where they are the minority can experience an increase in impostor feelings.
Takeaway No. 4 – ask for help.
SALAZAR-NUNEZ: It’s incredibly important to connect with community around this.
OPONG: Talking about this feeling with friends or colleagues can help you feel validated and supported and also removes the pressure of feeling like you have to process this all on your own.
Takeaway No. 5 – take a break when the pressure is high and be curious about how you’re feeling. Like Dr. Imes says…
IMES: Less judgement, more curiosity.
OPONG: Don’t judge yourself. Take some deep breaths. Get a good night’s sleep when you can, or take a nap if that helps. If exercise is your thing, you can do that, too – whatever healthy choice you think may help reset your mind.
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OPONG: For more LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We have one on how to curb people-pleasing habits – one of my favorites – and one on how to have a great conversation. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. If you’ve got a good tip – we love getting those – leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or you can email us a voice memo at [email protected]
This episode was produced by the amazing Sylvie Douglis. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Thank you guys so much for taking a chance on me. Our digital editors are Beck Harlan and Clare Lombardo, and our editorial assistant is Clare Marie Schneider. Some of the music for this episode was composed by Stephan Parry (ph). Special thanks to Dr. Suzanne Imes, Dr. Andrea Salazar-Nunez, Victor Yvellez, Luis Perez (ph), Catherine Saint Louis, Kari O’Neill, Sway Steward (ph), Renee Beauregard Lute, Stephan Parry and everyone who supported me on this episode. I’m Diana Opong. Thanks for listening.
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