We are pleased to have Janet Morrison, Vice-Provost, Students at York University, write a guest blog for us on the “Imposter Syndrome”. Janet shares her experiences with this “imposterism” phenomenon. She tells us the story of how she has been able to accomplish her goals, despite at times having to work through and use “the fear” associated with the syndrome, in all facets of her life. We hope this blog is helpful as you think about your own development and accomplishments.
My Life as an Imposter
By: Janet Morrison
I enjoyed the privilege of growing up with two parents who believed that I was capable of greatness. They were strict, set very high expectations, and provided me with the resources I needed. Owing to their support and encouragement, I did well in school and excelled as an athlete. I was not, however, a confident kid or teenager. Regardless of the marks I earned or the medals I won, I was driven by self-doubt and a compulsion to be better. A fear of being exposed as less than the person others thought I was or could be propelled me to be diligent and work really, really hard. It still does.
I remember having first heard about “Imposter Syndrome” when I was a graduate student working full-time at the University of Guelph. Having applied for a leadership position in Student Housing Services on a whim, I was shocked – but pleasantly surprised – to be offered the job. Over the next three years and thanks to stellar mentoring, I immersed myself in the literature on student development and grew passionate about a career in the post-secondary sector. The harder I worked, however, the more anxious I became about my competence: I was convinced that at some unexpected moment in time, I would be identified as a fraud who was hadn’t earned her seat at the table. More than twenty years later, equipped with a Ph.D. and experience at five different colleges and universities, I have the job I always wanted and love it. Still, I’m forever waiting for the curtain to open and reveal that the person behind it is simply … ordinary.
“Imposterism” was first defined by therapists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance at Georgia State University in 1970. It was aptly described by Hannah Pearson in 2014 as a phenomenon wherein someone “has feelings that they are inadequate despite clear, consistent evidence that they are capable.” Imposters feel like a phony, or a great pretender, or as though people will discover that they’re not genuine. They believe they are more overwhelmed and more anxious than their colleagues. They fear that others will discover how much they don’t know (Leary, Patton, Orlando & Funk, 2000). The literature notes that Imposters are more likely to be female, experience burnout and “downshift” to a simpler, less stressful life (Collett, 2013). I see this too often in academia, when smart, passionate female faculty members abandon their dream for a tenure-stream position and shift instead to teaching part-time. I see it across my network, when highly skilled and driven women become sickened by the long-term impact of stress.
Though managing fear consumes energy, it can foster forward propulsion. In my life, fear keeps me sharp; it has made me a better life partner, parent and professional. As an educator, it heightens my empathy for learners who are stretching, struggling and desperately searching for their life purpose. I am, however, going to embrace advice recently posted by Deepika Dabke, who discouraged Imposterism as “a place of dwelling.” Rather, he wrote, we should refocus on a “journey of excellence versus a journey of perfection”. He reminded me that a neighbor’s garden is not always that green. In other words, they are probably as anxious, as overwhelmed and as driven to maintain the illusion of being competent as I am. They too have likely made their parents very proud.