Impostors on campus: Consultant gives workshop on fear of success

By Rachel Solomon Einschlag '04

They live in fear of being unmasked. They work alone, rarely take criticism and hate making a mistake. Their symptoms include an overwhelming sense of self-doubt, chronic perfectionism and a nagging fear of challenges.

They suffer from Impostor Syndrome.

Educational consultant Valerie Young speaks about the Impostor Syndrome during a seminar for engineering students in Olin Hall, Cornell University, Oct. 15, 2003. Frank DiMeo/University Photography Cornell Chronicle archives.

According to Erin Finehout, president of Cornell's Engineering Graduate Student Association (EGSA), the Impostor Syndrome is the persistent feeling "that you have fooled others into thinking you are smarter or more capable than you really are."

On Oct. 15 in Olin Hall, EGSA, together with the Office of Research, Graduate Study and Professional Education and two women's engineering groups, brought Impostor Syndrome expert Valerie Young to campus to lead a workshop on a problem that appears to trouble many students. Young, an educational consultant from Northampton, Mass., specializes in helping women reach their full potential, though she admits the syndrome affects men, too.

At the workshop, titled "How to Feel As Bright and Capable As Everyone Seems to Think You Are," Young led undergraduate and graduate students through a series of exercises designed to help them realize their true potential.

The Impostor Syndrome is not an officially listed diagnosis. It is more of a social phenomenon -- a term often used by academics about other academics.

Young was once an "impostor" herself but didn't realize it until she sat in on a graduate school lecture that changed her life. "I found myself nodding in agreement throughout the presentation," Young said. "And when I looked around, I saw other people nodding, too."

Now a "recovered impostor," Young is able to joke confidently with her audience about her "creative spelling" and the "coffee cup meets keyboard snafu" that caused her to leave her workshop Power Point presentation at home.

Smart people, according to Young, often crave external recognition of their intelligence and all too often cannot internalize their successes.

"Many smart people feel they may slip through the system undetected and it's just a matter of time before they are found out," Young said.

She explained that people often attribute their accomplishments to luck, personality or the simplicity of the task rather than their own merits. People go so far as to list computer errors as a source of their success. Young described one case in which a woman with a common name thought she was admitted to a prestigious university due to a name mix-up. It was only a matter of time, the woman feared, before officials came knocking at her door to tell her she had to exchange places with the applicant they originally meant to choose.

Under Young's instruction, audience members identified their individual patterns of negative thinking and coping strategies and then tried to remedy their behaviors by developing constructive plans of action for themselves.

Finding humor in everyday situations and separating feelings from fact were among Young's suggestions for overcoming Impostor Syndrome. She also suggested renaming psychological reactions, such as excitement for fear, reframing modes of thinking and presenting a confident demeanor at all times, or as Young calls this behavior, "fake it 'til you make it."

Sharing feelings with others is an important step to "recovery," and is also an idea students at the lecture mentioned as helpful to their own personal psyches.

"I enjoyed the lecture because it showed me that everyone on a college campus is in the same boat," said undergraduate Josh Fishman '05. "It's good to see that other people have the same thought process that I do."

October 30, 2003

Economic Straits