Two Types of Imposter Syndrome

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Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that you are in a certain position but don’t deserve to be.  Someone made a mistake somewhere- you’re not as good as people think you are.  You feel inadequate as a consequence of this belief.  Even though there’s external evidence of your success (e.g. getting a job, getting good annual reviews, getting good student evaluations, getting a publication), you believe that you are incompetent.  You also feel like you don’t belong where you are.

There are a variety of imposter syndrome quizzes online and, whenever I take them, I score fairly highly.  But when I think about it, I don’t FEEL bad.  I don’t feel like I shouldn’t be where I am.  I’m doing _exactly_ what I think I’m good at- being an academic!  I feel accomplished and happy in my professional position.  I contrast this with some of my academic friends, who have told me they don’t feel secure in their position and that they don’t “deserve” to be there.  What’s going on here?

In looking at imposter syndrome quizzes, there are a lot of questions that I believe relate to humility.  “I hesitate to brag about my accomplishments” and “I don’t like drawing attention to my successes.”  I think humility is a very important quality, particularly for people who are going to be effective in a team and be effective leaders.  I try to embrace these aspects of humility, so that’s how I perceive it, rather than an imposter syndrome characteristic. Note that humility is different from false modesty. False modesty, or pretending you’re not as competent as you are, is a form of dishonesty. It’s important to show confidence and competence as a DVM to your clients so they feel comfortable with your recommendations. 

There are other questions like “I believe the success I’ve had is a fluke” and “Even when I do well, I don’t think I really deserve it.”  I believe these questions are addressing the question of privilege.  EVERYONE who’s been successful has been a fluke!  Luck has a tremendous impact on success.  And I’m a tall white man raised in an upper middle class socioeconomic status household with two loving parents in the richest country in history.  I have every advantage imaginable- of COURSE I don’t “deserve” success.  It’s an accumulation of genetics, my upbringing, and how society treats me. I definitely worked hard (see below), but there are people out there who worked much harder than I did but may not have been able to achieve the same results due to being in a less advantageous situation.

Then there are questions I absolutely don’t identify with, like “ Success doesn’t come easy for me; I have to work at it” and “I worry about feeling overwhelming shame if my incompetence is ever revealed.”  Success HAS been easy for me.  I have realized in recent years that my ability to work long hours and enjoy doing so is yet another privilege because for some people working hard is HARD.  And I don’t feel incompetent, so I don’t worry about anything being discovered there.

I don’t know, maybe I do have imposter syndrome.  But I don’t FEEL like I do.  I feel like I am humble, appreciative of all the things in my life which have led to my success, and recognize the important part luck plays in our success.  That seems to meet a lot of the criteria for imposter syndrome, but I genuinely believe those questions miss the mark for me.  Maybe I’m in denial.

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