What is the impostor syndrome Natalie Portman talked about at Harvard?

By Lilian Ma, Wellesley College, US
By Lilian Ma, Wellesley College, US |

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Actress Natalie Portman delivers the keynote address to Harvard's Class of 2015

Natalie Portman recently spoke to the graduating class at Harvard during their commencement exercises. A Harvard graduate herself, she spoke of experiencing the “impostor syndrome” and as a result, a continual need to prove that she wasn’t some “dumb actress” (she had starred in a Star Wars movie prior to studying at Harvard).

She isn’t alone. Among other famous people who have spoken of experiencing this are Sheryl Sandburg, Tina Fey and Maya Angelou. In their admissions blogs each year, Massachusetts Institute of Technology responds to entering student’s moments of self-doubt found on Facebook pages. There are counselling services devoted to the phenomenon at nearly every university in the US.

So what it is the impostor syndrome? The impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon particularly common among women and high-achievers. Sufferers are unable to internalise their accomplishments. Despite all external evidence to the contrary, they remain convinced that they are frauds who do not deserve the success they have achieved. When they achieve something, they dismiss it as the result of luck, timing, or deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

Some may feel that this definition of the impostor syndrome sounds vaguely like having low self-esteem. But the difference between the impostor syndrome and low self-esteem is that the person’s feelings of achievement may not be present in low self-esteem when they actually achieve something.

Women are more susceptible because they are more likely to credit their success to something other than their own intellectual worth – a fluke or fooling other people – while men are more likely to accept it as their own.

But the impostor syndrome is not permanent. One of the first steps to combating the impostor syndrome is, like Natalie Portman, Maya Angelou and numerous others, to acknowledge and identify the feelings that you have. Then it’s to try and steer the automatic “I’m not good enough” thoughts into something more constructive.

Reality checks are important, but don’t let the impostor syndrome become a paralysing roadblock to enjoying and seeking the success you deserve.