Advice: The Impostor Effect

I’m a 29-year-old Ph.D. student finishing up my degree in a social science field. A few years ago, I audited a social psychology class on a lark, and the professor explained something she called the Impostor Effect: the feeling that you’ve tricked everyone else into thinking you’re smarter than you are, and you don’t really belong there. She said that a lot of Ph.D. students feel this at first, but then gradually realize they do in fact belong.

I’ve never gotten over this. I have made it through a program that’s notorious for failing people out, and people seem to like my research, and from the outside it looks like everything is going pretty well. But I still feel like I’ve only tricked people into thinking that I’m a lot smarter than I am, and at a certain point everyone is going to get wise to me. As a result, I’m reluctant to ask for help on my work or ask people to explain themselves, because I don’t want to “tip my hand” as a secretly not-so-smart person. But then, not being able to ask clarifying questions only worsens the feeling that I’m not smart enough to be here. And whenever I experience setbacks with my research (which I acknowledge are inevitable for everyone), my first thought is always “This is it. The gig is up, and people are finally going to realize that you’re not nearly as smart as they thought.” I am in all other respects a laid-back and positive person, except when it comes to my work.

Other than the crippling self-doubt, I really, really love what I do. So what do you think? Should I risk letting people know I’m not as smart as they thought (and potentially lose the ability to get a job doing what I really want to do)? Or do I keep it on lock, and try to convince myself that everyone else is putting up a front of knowing everything and that I’m not any more of an impostor than anybody else? [x]

I’ve felt like this pretty much my entire life.  I’m a terrible essay writer (no matter how many times teachers explained to me the concept of an outline [and how much logical sense it makes to me] I could never quite make it work) and I was so embarrassed about being caught at being stupid that it took me until senior year of college to ask anyone to edit my writing and even then it had to be my best friend and came with a huge amount of anxiety.

I will say that the only thing that made it better was asking for help.  When my friends edited my essays they helped me see that my ideas were good it was just my formatting that was bad.

Even better than that was asking for the definitions of words, or at work I even ask people to model an action once so I can be sure to do it right.  It’s gotten to the point where if I don’t ask the questions then I feel like I’m not doing my job or living up to my potential.

And the most amazing thing happened.  When I ask people ‘I don’t know that word.  What do you mean by that?’ I can feel myself growing in their esteem.  They think I’m smarter and more mature.  It’s an outcome that would have seemed so counter intuitive once upon a time but it’s true.

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