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Aug 2, 2023

Imposter Syndrome in Graduate Students and New Counselors - S3E4

Danielle Irving:

Welcome to The Voice of Counseling from the American Counseling Association. I'm Danielle Irving, and joining me today is Dr. Laura Smestad and Madelyn Duffey, who are here to talk about imposter syndrome and graduate students and new counselors. Welcome Laura and Madelyn.

Madelyn Duffey:

Hi. Thank you so much for having us.

Dr. Laura Smestad:

Hey, Danielle.

Danielle Irving:

Absolutely. So let's go ahead and get started. What is imposter syndrome and the different types that one may actually experience?

Dr. Laura Smestad:

I would say to me imposter syndrome is this feeling that I think everyone has experienced where we feel like we're afraid that we're not actually competent, but other people think that we are. So we're just kind of fooling everybody and one day we are going to be revealed as a huge fraud.

Danielle Irving:

Any thoughts from you, Madelyn?

Madelyn Duffey:

Yes. I think that Laura summed up the main components. Really, it is this feeling of being a phony, of being a fake. And even when there's external evidence pointing to the facts that you're not and that you are competent, you still have these feelings of "How did I get here and when is someone going to find out that maybe I don't belong?"

Danielle Irving:

And imposter syndrome is somewhat of a new phenomenon. Can either of you speak to where this concept originated?

Madelyn Duffey:

Yeah. So it originated in the late 1970s when there was a series of studies done on high achieving women in the workplace. And basically, what the researchers found out is that despite all of the achievements and accolades and really how these women were doing professionally, there were still these pervasive feelings of "Maybe I don't belong here," an imposter syndrome.

Danielle Irving:

Great. Thank you. Laura, anything you wanted to add on to that.

Dr. Laura Smestad:

I think that was a pretty great history.

Danielle Irving:

And what about the causes? What causes imposter syndrome?

Madelyn Duffey:

There's not one cause and I think that's why it's hard to answer this question. You can't point to one or two factors that are involved in it. I think the first thing, Laura, that you would agree with is that it's very common, so that at most point in our lives we experience it in some situation. But it's usually a mixture of culture, family, social environments, it might have to do a bit with individual person's personality. But one thing that can contribute or spark feelings of imposter syndrome or when you grow up in a really competitive environment and you're always feeling like you have to prove yourself. So this could be a school you attend, it could be your family of origin. But this idea that you're always having to prove yourself as an adult can manifest in uncertainty and feelings of imposter syndrome.

Danielle Irving:

You also bring up a good point about culture and other things like race, ethnicity, and even gender. And research has shown that imposter syndrome rates tend to be higher for those type of marginalized populations. Why might this population experience increased levels of imposter syndrome?

Madelyn Duffey:

Well, when we have cultural and systemic factors that have presented obstacles and barriers to marginalized groups, it makes a lot of sense that these feelings could arise. So for example, if you experience microaggressions throughout your life and these little subtle things that can have a profound impact that can have one question, "Do I belong? Am I supposed to be here?"

Madelyn Duffey:

Also, representation. Let's say you're in a graduate program or you're in a organization where you might be the only person from your community or background that can lead to questions and feelings and also this need to present as perfect or whatnot. And all of these are signs and symptoms of imposter syndrome. So that can definitely manifest with women, with LGBT communities, and with people of color and first-generation students.

Danielle Irving:

And we also know that imposter syndrome is not a diagnosis, is not in the DSM. What are some of the key symptoms or how would one recognize if they are actually experiencing imposter syndrome?

Dr. Laura Smestad:

Yeah. I think depending on the person. There are a lot of different ways this can manifest. For some people, it can be intense over preparing for things, kind of this perfectionistic aspect, if I have to do everything perfectly, everything correctly. They might be spending excessive amount of time on various tasks, but it can also look like the opposite. So a lot of people with imposter syndrome end up procrastinating a lot. If I can't do this well, if I'm not actually competent, then maybe I just need to keep putting it off and putting it off because the idea of even trying is scary at that point.

Dr. Laura Smestad:

We know a lot of people with imposter syndrome experience burnout. It's exhausting to always be questioning yourself. So that self-doubt, I think, is also a decent hallmark of imposter syndrome. Just doubting yourself, your capabilities, even if they're external sources saying that "No, you are competent, you can do this," it's almost like that doesn't fully register.

Danielle Irving:

Madelyn, did you want to add something?

Madelyn Duffey:

No. I think Laura hit upon a lot of the main ways that imposter syndrome can manifest. One thing I would add is self-sabotage sometimes, right? You might be right about to meet a goal and then something comes up in your mind with, "Do I deserve this, or should I get this? Maybe not." And that can result in self-sabotaging behavior.

Danielle Irving:

Yeah. And I'm thinking when you speak about self-sabotage and self-doubt, some of the symptoms of imposter syndrome can look very similar to that. So how can we distinguish the difference between just general self-doubt and actual imposter syndrome?

Madelyn Duffey:

So, this can be a tough one. But basically, when we think about self-doubt, you might ask yourself a question like, let's say you're a grad student starting off an accounting program. You might ask yourself, "Am I up for this? Will I succeed? Do I have what it takes?" And those are feelings of self-doubt. Imposter syndrome could look like, "I don't know why they let me in. I shouldn't be here, but I'm going to fake it till I make it until someone finds out" or "I'm not smarter, talented enough. How did I get here?" So the two things can look differently. It's natural for people to doubt themselves. Imposter syndrome goes a little bit further into this supposition that you're not supposed to be or not qualified for a certain place or event.

Dr. Laura Smestad:

Yeah. I know just like, how pervasive it is. Like, self-doubt, like Madelyn said, like is going to happen from time to time. But this imposter syndrome is like in the background all the time. I'm always going to get found out at some point. Not yet. And self-doubt might come up in more specific instances, so imposter syndrome seems to be a little more pervasive.

Danielle Irving:

And do you think that it manifests differently in graduate students versus new professionals and someone that's been practicing for a while?

Dr. Laura Smestad:

Sure. I think there are probably some differences, especially between someone who's been practicing a while and someone who's just starting out. Some of that natural self-doubt is going to come up for, let's say someone who's starting their practicum that is, they haven't really done it. They haven't proven themselves yet or proven to themselves that they can do it, as opposed to someone who has been in the field for a while or even a new professional who has that evidence to back up the fact that they're not a fraud.

Dr. Laura Smestad:

They've been doing this successfully for some time, but it's still not really clicking that they can do it. So I would guess that there might be a little bit more of that self-doubt in early graduate students and then a little bit more imposter syndrome as that evidence isn't making any difference to them.

Danielle Irving:

Anything that add on to that, Madelyn?

Madelyn Duffey:

Yeah. I mean, I think they share a lot of similarities and a common one can be burnout, either as a graduate student or as a new professional. It could also impact career choices that you're going to make. So for example, you might limit yourself or you might do the opposite and try and overcompensate and take on everything, even when it might not be what you really want to do professionally or academically. So I think while they share a lot of similarities, Laura's right in that it's one thing to be a brand new student and another to be a new professional. They're both new parts of your journey. When leaving supervision, branching out on your own that's going to come with feelings of newness that you might've felt as a student.

Danielle Irving:

Right. And with graduate students and new professionals being more at risk. We already talked a little bit about causes and symptoms, but what type of impact can imposter syndrome have on not just the professional but the person as a student or new professional?

Dr. Laura Smestad:

Yeah. I would say we've already talked a little bit about burnout. Obviously, that can come into play. Also, just someone diving into their work fully, and that can obviously have impacts on the personal life as well as the professional life. Someone is spending so much of their time focused on work because they're trying to prove themselves in some way, shape, or form that's going to have residual impacts on their family or their loved ones or their ability to go out and enjoy and do fun things. So it'll all tied together, I think.

Madelyn Duffey:

And it can also make a person more irritable or not as open to their interpersonal relationships because when you're carrying all this weight and anxiety and worry about whether you deserve to be in a certain place or not, or whether you're competent.

Danielle Irving:

Great. Thank you both for sharing. After speaking a bit about some of the symptoms and the impacts on the person and the professional, Madelyn, could you share some strategies for managing the impacts that it is having on the individual?

Madelyn Duffey:

Absolutely. So first, one of the most important things a person can do is recognize it, own it, and acknowledge it. So to understand that this is what you're experiencing, it's imposter syndrome. It's also important to be really transparent with those around us, especially those who are looking to help us succeed. So if you're experiencing imposter syndrome academically, talk to your professors, talk to people in your department, your mentors. Let them know what's going on clinically. It's important to talk to your supervisor. That's a wonderful resource of someone who can walk through this journey with you.

Madelyn Duffey:

And of course, if you're an individual counseling, bring it up to your counselor. That's a wonderful resource. Another thing you can do is track your successes to have evidence to dispel some of these feelings of, "Am I worth it? Am I supposed to be here?" If you're doing well in school or if you're doing well with your clients or if you have any evidence to disprove that, keep track of it.

Madelyn Duffey:

Say yes to new opportunities when it makes sense for you. So for example, a point of imposter syndrome for me has been public speaking. That is something that used to really terrify me and make me nervous, but I'm here on this podcast today and telling myself, "You know what? I'm just going to do it. It's a wonderful experience and I have value and something to give." So I would suggest taking opportunities when you can. But again, don't feel like you have to prove yourself.

Madelyn Duffey:

So if you're not in a space or moment or you have to prioritize other things, don't say yes to every opportunity that comes up when you're not able to. And then seeking areas of specialization. So if you legitimately would like to grow in a specific area or ensure your competency somewhere, get a little more training to get that comfort and to know that you are competent and on the journey to competency. Laura, I don't know if you have anything to add.

Dr. Laura Smestad:

Yeah. I love all of those strategies. I would say something that's helped me is focusing on making decisions based on my values and not on my fears. And that goes along with saying yes to opportunities. So I think sometimes with imposter syndrome, we can be afraid to do things that are outside of our comfort zone. What if we fail? What if this is the moment we finally get found out? But that's a fear-based decision as opposed to, "I want to do this for my values. This is something that's important to me, either my personal life or in my career." And that's really helped me a lot, I would say, in dealing with imposter syndrome.

Dr. Laura Smestad:

And then sometimes even just adding humor in like, "Wow, I am so good at fooling people. This is amazing that I've been able to fool people my entire life that I'm confident. Wow, I am all powerful." Just adding a little bit of humor, joking around, that can help bring some more awareness to it as well.

Danielle Irving:

Thank you both for sharing. And that also makes me think about, you both mentioned becoming comfortable, training, and advancing skills. And you both are part of the Graduate Student Committee within ACA, even becoming more involved with different organizations and that could help with some comfortability. Can you speak to how to become more involved within ACA or within the counseling profession and how that might help?

Madelyn Duffey:

So I can speak to my experience. I have had a wonderful time with ACA in different capacities. I served on the Awards Committee as a member, and I loved honoring and celebrating other counselors and counseling students and on the ACA Graduate Student, New Professional Committee with Laura. ACA will put out a call for volunteer opportunities, for opportunities to sit on committees and task force. If you're interested, I recommend applying. I recommend talking to professors in your department and seeing if they have any experience or knowledge. You really don't know until you put yourself out there what the opportunities are. If you're able to go to the conference, perhaps volunteer at the conference. That's a great way to meet people, other students and also professionals and people who are a little further on in their career journey. Laura, how did you get into ACA?

Dr. Laura Smestad:

I got into ACA through the Graduate Student and New Professional Committee. I honestly don't remember how I found out about it, but I'm really glad that I did. It's been such a great opportunity and even just, yeah, like Madelyn said, attending the conferences and attending the graduate student events that get put on at the conferences, being able to talk to other people who are in the same boat, who really understand what it's like to be in that area, in that phase of your career, I think is extremely beneficial.

Danielle Irving:

Great. Thank you both. And another reoccurring theme that has come up in this conversation has been around burnout and the need for self-care. Any tips for self-care best practices?

Dr. Laura Smestad:

Yeah, I think the word self-care gets thrown out so much just in society today and people think it's like, "Oh, I'm going to take a bubble bath and do a face mask and then I'm going to be fine." So I think opening up what self-care means, allowing time for reflection, allowing time to yourself where you're not trying to focus on advancing your career or working on your personal relationships, but really just focusing in on you. And maybe that's even going to therapy yourself or reflecting or having some growth areas or even just being alone. I think that can be really, really helpful.

Madelyn Duffey:

Absolutely. And I think self-care is such an individual experience. So for me, I love to get outside. I love to be in nature. I live in Texas, so right now my self-care isn't quite as high as I would like it to be because been over 100 degrees every day. But I know for some folks, that wouldn't be helpful. It wouldn't help fill their cups and give them the self-care that they're looking for. So I think part of its introspection and knowing what works for you and what's really going to help you center yourself with everything that's going on.

Danielle Irving:

Great. And as we are coming up on time, I want to ask and hear from both of you, any last-minute advice or resources that you'd like to share with graduate students and new professionals that are listening today?

Madelyn Duffey:

My advice would be to talk about these feelings when they arise, whether that's with people in your program, your professors, supervisors. But also, your peers because I think you're going to realize that a lot of people around you have, or at one point have had these experiences. And it feels really wonderful to be able to validate one another and to know that you're not alone in this process.

Dr. Laura Smestad:

I'd add to that that imposter syndrome is probably going to crop up in different ways throughout the span of a career. So knowing that that might happen, it might look different each time. Being able to talk about it, like Madelyn said, is super, super helpful. Naming and acknowledging that it exists and then even pointing out ways that your peers and colleagues are doing well and excelling. Recognizing that a lot of us are feeling this way, a lot of us have imposter syndrome. So if we can provide some of that external evidence to other people a little more frequently, I think that could just help all of us as a whole.

Danielle Irving:

Absolutely. And that's an important takeaway that more than likely it's going to show up throughout lifespan in your career. So just knowing that most people have experience or will experience it and normalizing it is very important. Would you like to let the audience know where they can find out more about you? If you have social media handles or website that you like to share, you can absolutely do that at this time.

Dr. Laura Smestad:

Sure. So my Instagram handle is @ocdworkbooks. My professional website is informedocd.com, and that is my website for my practice, as well as my OCD exposure therapy workbooks.

Madelyn Duffey:

And the best way to contact me or engage with me is actually through email. And I'm happy to share that, which is madelyn.duffey@gmail.com.

Danielle Irving:

Wonderful. Thank you, Laura and Madelyn, for your time. It's been great speaking with you today.

Madelyn Duffey:

Thank you. This has been great experience.

Dr. Laura Smestad:

Yeah. Thanks for having us, Danielle.

Danielle Irving:

Absolutely. Be sure to subscribe to The Voice of Counseling on Apple and Google podcast. And you can follow ACA on social media. To join the ACA and get exclusive access to all the member benefits, checkout counseling.org.

Speaker 4:

ACA provides these podcasts solely for informational and educational purposes. Opinions expressed in these podcasts do not necessarily reflect the view of ACA. ACA is not responsible for the consequences of any decisions or actions taken and reliance upon or as a result of the information and resources provided in this program. This program is copyright 2023 by the American Counseling Association. All rights reserved.

 

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