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Duke dean discusses impostor syndrome

| Thursday, October 4, 2018

As part of the Distinguished Lecture Series, Dr. Valerie Ashby, the dean of Trinity College Arts and Sciences at Duke University, gave a lecture titled “The Impostor Syndrome” Wednesday.

“One day they are going to find out, I’m not really supposed to be here,” Ashby said to the audience.

She said that if anyone else had ever felt this before, they might be experiencing the effects of the impostor syndrome.

First identified by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, impostor syndrome is most commonly found “among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success,” according to the American Psychological Association (APA). It is often an effect of mental illnesses such as anxiety or depression. It can also be a byproduct of growing up in families that place pressure on achievement.

Ashby said she first diagnosed herself with the impostor syndrome at age 42, and before then, she simply dealt with its effects without knowing how to cope with it.

“That’s a hard life,” she said. “You don’t have to do that.”

Ashby asked who in the crowd thought they might experience the impostor syndrome in their daily life. She said she used to deal with its effects often and said compliments can hurt with imposter syndrome.

“I’m thinking, oh my God, they think I can do this, and then … it’s pain. I laugh about this a lot because it’s actually painful,” she said.

Ashby tried to give audience members a few key ways to cope with impostor syndrome.

“One of the first things you have to do is not to walk around with this and not tell anybody,” she said. “You’re going to need some friends. No, no, no, I’m talking about real friends. Trusted friends. They will validate your feelings, but not your incorrect thinking.”

Ashby said it’s normal for people to doubt themselves.

“Doubt does not make you a fraud,” she said.

As she learned about impostor syndrome, Ashby said she learned the importance of building up self-esteem and seeking validation from within by celebrating the small, good things in life.

“As the dean, I am in charge of the chair of the department of physics,” she said. “I got a C in physics. Perfect[ion] is not required. When I would get my C+ on a physics exam, I should have been dancing! That’s a small good thing.”

When things go awry, Ashby said it’s important to let go of the mistakes as they come. She said people dealing with impostor syndrome often feel like they should have mastered everything already, but it’s just not possible and mistakes happen no matter what you do.

“You are not the mistake, she said. “You made a mistake. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing anything. Nothing risky, nothing cutting edge, nothing creative. It can’t go perfectly.”

While undergraduate and graduate students often fall prone to overcommitting, Ashby gave advice on how to combat the urge to take every opportunity given. She said that although high achievers can do many things well, it’s important to only do the things that are great for you right now.

“I start with a blank calendar, and I put everything that is required for my self-care on first,” she said. “If we put ourselves on the calendar, you treat yourself like an appointment. I have an appointment with me. Because people will always want more from you than you can give.”

Ultimately, Ashby said dealing with the effects of impostor syndrome is important not only for yourself but also your friends and family.

“I love my life. There are a lot of people counting on me,” she said. “If I don’t take care of me, I have nothing to give them.”

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