When I was in graduate school working on my Ph.D. I had recurring feelings of anxiety bordering on panic. Although my grades were fine, and I was there on a scholarship, I was sure that my colleagues, professors, department and University would find out that they had made a mistake; that they shouldn’t have admitted me to grad school; that they shouldn’t have given me a scholarship. I would alternate between feeling this way because I was sure I didn’t have the capability of getting a Ph.D., or because there had been an error in my undergraduate degree. I thought there was some mistake in the transfer of credits from one undergraduate school to another, and that the college I got my bachelor degree from would decide that I didn’t have enough credits… They would rescind my bachelor’s degree which would mean that I couldn’t continue in grad school.

I remember one night tearfully confessing to another grad school friend who was several years ahead of me in the program that I was a fraud and would eventually be exposed. He burst out laughing and then gave me a hug. “Don’t you know that EVERYONE here feels that way?” I was shocked to discover I wasn’t the only one.

In fact, this feeling of being a fraud is so common it has a name, “The Imposter Syndrome”, and it’s own entry in Wikipedia. Some estimates are that 70% of people have the imposter syndrome. Wikipedia says of the Imposter syndrome:

“a term coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes referring to high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”…Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are moreintelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.”

Some psychologists say that the Imposter Syndrome is most common in high achieving women (me), results in working harder in order to prevent people from discovering that one is an imposter (me), promotes a need to be approved of (me), and is most common in graduate students (was me).

If not dealt with, people who feel the Imposter Syndrome can become anxious, stressed, and even go into depression. It certainly encourages self-doubt. People with the Imposter Syndrome obsess about mistakes, negative feedback, and failure. They may be afraid to try something new.

I know two people in my life who are going through this right now. There are probably others, but there are two that I know about.

If you feel this way, take heart. You are not alone. Take a deep breath. I recommend yoga and Mindfulness meditation. My internal Imposter and critic has been quieted down significantly since I’ve taken up a regular yoga and Mindfulness practice. I think I’ve come to accept myself, my life, my mistakes, and my achievements too. So I’ve been able to avoid the later “symptoms” described above.

Unless I’m not doing yoga and meditation the “right way” and I’m really a fraud….?? (Just kidding).

About the Author

Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D.

Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D.,is a behavioral psychologist, author, coach, and consultant in neuropsychology.

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