Feeling like an impostor in your internship? You are not alone
The impostor syndrome, prevalent especially among people with higher education, refers to a mode of thinking in which the person in question doubts their skills and fears being exposed as a fraud. An internship is a typical situation where thoughts about being an impostor may awaken.
Good internships provide the intern with working life experience, accumulate their career skills and help them form networks. A successful internship has the right balance of orientation and responsibility: the intern is provided with sufficient skills and information to perform their duties, but the work also provides them with challenges and meaningful things to learn. I have been lucky, as I have had the opportunity to learn new things in amazingly interesting places alongside my studies – most recently here at HYY.
Working at HYY, I have received support and encouragement in my learning process, and I have been accepted as a full member of the work community. My duties have been motivating, and I have managed to develop my skills. All in all, my own internship has gone extremely well.
Fear of being exposed for incompetence
Internships are also situations where your belief in your own abilities may waver. Even though the express purpose of internships is to learn new things, a new environment may give rise to insecurities and worries. It is natural that telling people about your own ideas may occasionally make you nervous and that you compare yourself to your more experienced colleagues.
However, this becomes a problem if you start to constantly think of yourself as incompetent and cannot even be happy about your successes, dismissing them as lucky breaks, for instance. If this happens, you may also start to fear being exposed for your incompetence: ‘someone will soon realise that I don’t actually know how to do anything’.
Does this sound familiar? It may just be normal insecurity, but it might also suggest that you are suffering from the impostor syndrome, which is especially common among people with higher education. According to Psychologist Tiina Ekman, the phenomenon refers to a distorted mode of thinking in which the person does not believe in their own abilities and feels like they are just fooling other people. In other words, those suffering from the syndrome are afraid of being exposed as a fraud. Students may also feel like the place of study, internship or job that they got was just a stroke of luck, not something they deserved on their own merits.
The impostor syndrome does not imply fraud or illness – it is an illusion. Usually, the people who have thoughts of being an impostor complete their studies diligently, while people are also satisfied with their input and learning during their internships. In their mind, though, the person may turn any compliments and encouragements around and start working even harder than before just to cover up their imagined incompetence.
Societal pressures and the culture of getting by
Studies that deal with abstract phenomena along with the ever-increasing pace of working life have made the impostor syndrome more common than before. Competition in many fields is tough, and social pressures push you to constantly develop your skills, networks and vision. Developing yourself and being goal-oriented can, of course, help you reach your dreams but can also give rise to a feeling of inadequacy and wear you down.
Students or interns who experience thoughts of being an impostor may overperform their duties ‘to cover their shortcomings’ or try to excessively adapt to others’ needs. In the long term, the fear of being exposed may also cause anxiety and depression, for instance.
There is a powerful culture of getting by and underestimating problems in Finland. People not discussing the challenges they face openly creates the illusion that your insecurities or worries are unique. At the same time, comments like ‘that was nothing’ teach people to underestimate their skills – you are not expected to praise others and especially not yourself. As underestimating your own abilities is common, it may be difficult to identify and help those who suffer from the impostor syndrome.
Get rid of damaging thoughts
Fears related to the impostor syndrome have occasionally plagued me, too – in both my studies and my internships. Starting my university studies and getting my first experiences of work in my own field awakened feelings that told me I had not done enough to deserve the things that were happening to me or the trust others showed in my skills. I remember joking to my friends about still waiting for someone to contact me to tell me that my place of study was the result of a system error.
Because the syndrome is an internal mode of thinking, you can also get rid of the thoughts of being an impostor by recognising the situations and thoughts. When these thoughts arise, you should remind yourself that they are only thoughts and tell nothing about your skills, development or value. Thinking back on a moment of concrete success may also help.
If you constantly experience thoughts of being an impostor during your studies or internship, you should openly talk about them with your instructor, supervisor or loved ones or with healthcare professionals. Openly processing the thoughts helps you cope in the future.
I also recommend learning to be merciful to yourself. Try to remind yourself that you are a valuable and competent person.
Further information on the impostor syndrome (in Finnish):
Tiina Ekman (2017) Huijarisyndrooma: Miksi en usko itseeni (vaikka olen oikeasti hyvä), Minerva Kustannus.
Psykopodiaa -podcast, jakso 17. Huijarisyndrooma