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Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

The recent boom in popularity of the online game Among Us has dominated charts around the world. Based on a common party game called Mafia, it is a social deduction game featuring an imposter, who up to 10 other players work together to identify. How to be the best imposter? Blend in. After playing this game, I couldn’t help but be reminded how common it is for women in science to feel like an imposter, and how much of a toll it can take on us as we enter workspaces that can feel incredibly intimidating. I found myself feeling like I had to blend in and pretend like I knew what I was doing, instead of asking for help because I was afraid I would look weak or incapable.

I recently spoke with one of the physical therapists that I intern under at a local hospital who expressed similar thoughts. She graduated from Columbia University’s DPT program, one of the most prestigious in the country. She helps all kinds of patients from those orthopedic injuries, to pediatrics, but she specializes in treating multiple sclerosis, a degenerative neural condition. She is one of the people I look up to most and go to advice for, so it was surprising to me when I heard her express how she often feels like she never knows what to do in the clinical setting, or like she is less competent than her colleagues. Keep in mind, she is one of the most sought after physical therapists in San Diego. However despite all her successes, she felt like she was a fraud, and it was only a matter of time before her luck ran out and everyone else would figure it out too.

This is a widely experienced phenomenon called imposter syndrome, which is estimated to affect about 70% of people at some point in their careers according to an article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science. Although imposter syndrome affects men and women alike, it has been shown that women are uniquely affected by it in increasing numbers. In situations where you are one of only a few people in a meeting, classroom, or workplace who looks or sounds like you, then it is natural to feel like you don’t totally fit in. Women and minorities have also felt an added pressure to represent their entire “group.” Instead of taking your self doubt as a sign of inability to perform, recognize that it may just be a normal response on the receiving end of internalized social stereotypes.

If you identify with this, here are some ways I’ve chosen to combat imposter syndrome that you might find helpful too!

How to deal with imposter syndrome

1. Acknowledge your thoughts and put them into perspective

Instead of engaging a thought, try to just observe it. Make a conscious effort to question that thought and what may have led to you feeling that way. This is a common activity done in cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches you how to challenge and change unhelpful thoughts like those encountered in imposter syndrome. We would never call our best friend a loser, a failure, or an idiot. So why do we say things like that to ourselves? Negative self-talk often stems from the downward spiral we can let our thoughts go into. Messing up in a lab or stumbling over your words in an interview turns into, “I’m such an idiot, I’ll never do well in this major.” But putting these statements into perspective can help us figure out what might have really gone wrong. Usually the problem is solvable, you just need to break it down and address it slowly.

2. Own your successes

People with imposter syndrome tend to experience a lot of self doubt. They are also slow to give themselves credit when it is due. I have seen so many peers pass up on applying for amazing internships and job opportunities and limit themselves. There are countless times that I was afraid to apply to certain internships because I thought there must be so many people more qualified and smarter than me, but I ended up getting the job! If I had listened to those negative thoughts, I never would’ve even given myself the chance. Try to shift your focus from avoiding failure to pursuing success. For some people, the worst thing they can do when they're thinking negatively is to try to force themself to say nice things about themselves. Instead, start by saying neutral things that can move toward a possible solution. Rather than thinking “I’m a failure,”,say “I didn’t do too great on that exam. I’ll take a look at what I can change so I can do better next time.” You don’t have to lie to yourself. But you can be realistic, without the self-hate.

3. Rethink how you define “failure”

Henry Ford once said that “failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” Doing “well” doesn’t mean you don’t make mistakes. Imperfection is a universal feature of human nature. It can’t be changed. Even the person you look up to the most has had times where they feel stupid or inadequate. Failure is all relative. Even though that person may be better than you at a certain skill, they are still experiencing their own moments of growth that require them to step out of their comfort zone. What I’ve learned is that growth doesn’t take place until you learn from those mistakes and adapt accordingly. For example, if you got a bad grade on an exam, I’ve learned to take that as a note that whatever way I was studying for that exam may not work well in the future, so I should try studying differently next time.

Be gentle with yourself, and remember that you are capable.


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