Overcoming the ‘imposter experience’

Rice students, faculty and staff share their experiences of self-doubt

“I don’t deserve to be here.” “I’m unqualified.” “Luck is the only reason I’m here.” “Everyone knows I don’t belong here.” “I’m a fraud.”

Insecurities like these are commonly shared by people experiencing imposter syndrome, a psychological pattern in which individuals doubt their accomplishments and fear being exposed as a fraud.

Caroline Quenemoen, associate dean of undergraduates and director of Inquiry-Based Learning at Rice, speaks during “Overcoming the Imposter Experience” March 21 in the Rice Multicultural Center.

Caroline Quenemoen, associate dean of undergraduates and director of Inquiry-Based Learning at Rice, speaks during “Overcoming the Imposter Experience” March 21 in the Rice Multicultural Center.

Rice students, faculty and staff explored these feelings at “Overcoming the Imposter Experience” March 21 in the Rice Multicultural Center. The program hosted by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion featured a panel discussion, video clips and questions from the audience.

“It can follow you throughout your career if you don’t address it,” said Ruth Reitmeier, assistant director of coaching at Rice’s Doerr Institute for New Leaders. “These toxic beliefs and behaviors can be debilitating, and they can have a significantly negative impact on leaders as well as their teams.”

Imposter syndrome is not unique to students or young professionals. Symptoms include risk aversion, perfectionism, indecisiveness, micromanagement, procrastination and “workaholism.”

“The imposter experience is something we will all encounter at some point in our lives,” said Ijeoma Nwaogu, the associate director of the Multicultural Center who served as the program’s emcee. “Individuals experiencing this will believe their success is only due to luck or good timing and not because of their intellect or skill. Imposter syndrome is a lifelong journey. You can overcome these feelings in one space and encounter them again in another.”

Imposter syndrome often emerges when people compare themselves to others, especially when they’re in the minority in a group, like being the only female in a meeting or the only person with a disability on a team. It’s also common for people experiencing imposter syndrome to make others feel like imposters.

“My goal for this program is that you understand that you do belong in whatever program or space that you’re in,” Nwaogu said. “You do deserve to be there. You are enough and you are not alone in these feelings.”

The program’s panel was comprised of a staff member, an alumnus and undergraduate and graduate students.

Matthew Cheney ‘11, a forensic toxicologist and president of the Society of Latino Alumni of Rice, has experienced imposter syndrome both professionally and personally.

“I’m Hispanic, but I’m adopted and my last name is Cheney,” he said. “So I’ve often felt that I’m not respected or seen as a Latino.”

Cheney’s support network helps him overcome professional fears.

“It’s important to have mentors in your field,” Cheney said. “Friends are great, but I also need ethical mentors in my field who value who I am as a person.”

Caroline Quenemoen, associate dean of undergraduates and director of Inquiry-Based Learning at Rice, experienced imposter syndrome as an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, as a Ph.D. student at Yale University and as a professor at Rice.

“The reasons I’ve felt imposter syndrome have evolved over time,” she said. “There were very few of us who were low-income at Dartmouth, and I coped by being a good student. Yale is where I experienced intellectual imposter syndrome. It was about everything — gender, class and privilege. The culture was very toxic, and I internalized this idea that I had to do everything myself and couldn’t ask for help.”

When she became an assistant professor of art history, her fear of asking for help continued.

“I didn’t reach out as much as I needed to and there were mentors who could have helped me along the way,” she said. “I’ve learned how critical asking for help is, and my current role aims to give and mentor others through challenging processes.”

James Alex Warner, a junior statistics major, recently experienced imposter syndrome as the newly elected president of Baker College.

“Interacting with the other presidents, I noticed I’m the most introverted,” he said. “I’ve realized it’s OK to do things differently than those before you. I can still complete the mission of president by being true to myself. I don’t have to be the life of the party like the last president. I can do it in my own way.”

Mekedlawit Setegne, a senior chemistry major and president of the Rice African Student Association, was always the smartest person in the room growing up.

“When I got to Rice, everyone was the smartest person in the room,” Setegne said. “I didn’t think I belonged here. When things got hard, I felt like I wasn’t good enough, instead of acknowledging a difficult situation.”

Setegne explored other areas of her identity at Rice. “When you put too much into one part of your life, it’s easy to feel like an imposter because you’re only associating your worth to one element,” she said. “We are multi-dimensional, and all of our experiences make up this unique person who can contribute to a community in a way that no one else can. I’ve learned you’re not lucky to be in a space, the space is lucky to have you just the way you are.”

Finding support has helped Setegne’s imposter syndrome. “It’s important to seek out the support and mentorship you need, not just what you’re getting,” she said. “Find what you need to grow and someone with the same values as you.”

The event was sponsored by the Doerr Institute for New Leaders, the Rice University Student Center and the Rice Society of Women Engineers.

“The imposter syndrome can hold leaders back and keep them from fulfilling their potential,” Reitmeier said. “Acknowledging these barriers is the first step to overcoming them. Research shows that leadership is mostly learned and is not an innate ability. Wherever you are, the Doerr Institute has the resources to help you grow as a leader.”

Rice students interested in developing leadership skills and working with a leadership coach are encouraged to learn more about the Doerr Institute at doerr.ride.edu.

About Kendall Schoemann

Kendall Schoemann is a staff writer in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.