There was me and my monkey
And with his dungarees and roller blades smoking filter tips
Reclining in the passenger seat of my super-charged jet black Chevrolet
— Me and My Monkey, Robbie Williams (2002)
Here I am, taking the floor and getting ready to speak. I know my paper by heart. I have written and rewritten it a dozen times. Every detail has been double-checked. I clear my voice and come closer to the microphone. The audience is looking at me. Among them are some of the most respected academics in my field. I open my mouth to tell my opening joke. Suddenly, my brain snaps and decides that it is just the right time to tell me, “They’re going to find out. You know they are, don’t you?” I feel like running away from the lectern as fast as I can, but I hold on tight to my sheets and start talking. Surprisingly, at the end of my presentation, I get a round of applause and quite a few interesting comments. Two people even ask me questions. I leave the stage relieved, but the nagging feeling that I have tricked everyone into believing I knew the first thing about my topic does not leave me. “You may have got away with it this time,” says the little voice inside me, “but you’ll end up being caught.”
I have been trying to write on the impostor syndrome for quite a long time now, mainly because I have been struggling with it for an equally long time. When I started out working in academia, no more than six years ago, I had never heard of it. Nowadays, the topic is trending in academic circles, and it is good news because it means the cat is finally out of the bag.
Caltech Counseling Center defines the impostor syndrome as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.” (Side note: I love that Caltech not only has a definition for it, but also counselling strategies. Unfortunately, I do not work at Caltech.) Long story short, you feel like a fraud and live in the fear that somebody, someday, will find out. Apart from that constant self-doubt, you also think that you have duped the people around you for too long and that they deserve to know the truth, which can lead you to self-loathing, and ultimately, sabotage.
Though virtually anyone can suffer from impostor syndrome, though Margie Warrell argues that the impostor syndrome is the domain of the high achiever (Forbes 2014), and though I’d be more than willing to agree with her because it would flatter me, I am afraid there is more to it than that.
In a clinical experiment conducted in 1978, Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes found that the impostor phenomenon occurred with more frequency in women than in men and that when men were indeed were affected, it was with less intensity. Their explanation to this is that men “tend to own success as attributable to a quality inherent in themselves” (Clance & Imes 1978: 2) while women “are more likely either to project the cause of success outward to an external cause (luck) or to a temporary internal quality (effort) that they do not equate with inherent ability” (idem). Women who suffer from the impostor syndrome tend to adopt a series of behaviours, from extreme hard work in order to “cover up” for their alleged lack of intelligence to efforts to gain approval from their mentors on other topics than their work.
Clance & Imes add that the phenomenon “may be further maintained in response to the negative consequences that are likely to befall the woman in our society who displays confidence in her ability” (op. cit. 5). Long story short, if you are a successful woman, you perceive yourself as defying the gender-appropriate social norm that requires from you to be dependent and unobtrusive. I know that not every problem is a matter of gender, but many of them are.
More recently, a team of scientists from Ghent University have come up with new findings regarding impostor syndrome. According to them, the impostor syndrome is a cycle in which you feel like a fraud, so you behave like one in order to cover up, which in turn reinforces the feeling of being a fraud. Luckily enough, there are solutions to this vicious circle.
Clance & Imes suggest Gestalt therapy (op. cit. 6-7), including roleplay and group therapy, as seeing the phenomenon from the outside may help overcome it.
Caltech Counseling Center identifies five practical solutions to deal with the impostor syndrome, including finding support, awareness, identifying automatic thoughts, doing your own reality check, and understanding the difference between feelings and reality.
In my own experience, support and identifying automatic thoughts are by far the most efficient coping strategies, but I have to confess the nagging is never too far away for reasons that will be covered in the next point.
Reinforcement of the impostor syndrome
Academia is a difficult place to thrive for people with the impostor syndrome. Ironically enough, it is precisely where you are most likely to find them. Maybe because deep down, we all are a bunch of masochists with a strong death drive, or more likely because academia itself — with all its specific codes, ways, and traditions — reinforces the impostor syndrome.
Last month, I had an appointment with a professor of my faculty in order to discuss my thesis. On the one hand, she is a nice and warm person, which means that I should not have been intimidated. On the other hand, she is a senior member of our staff, vice-dean, and all together infinitely more experienced with both research and academia than I am. Now don’t get me wrong, feedback and input are absolutely invaluable and should be sought at all cost when doing research, but that does not mean they are easy to deal with. She made extremely useful comments on the structure of my thesis and on my methodology, which is basically what you hope for when you meet with a member of your committee. Anyone in their right mind would be grateful, even enthusiastic after such an interaction. If you have to deal with the impostor syndrome, it is a different story.
When they hear “Your structure needs to be reworked,” regular, balanced people hear — Well, I don’t know what they hear. Possibly something along the lines of “your content is ok, but the way you organize it is not, so please organize it differently.” What I hear is “Your work is bad, you’re bad, and you should feel bad for lying to the world for such a long time,” however nicely put or well-meaning it was in the first place. Cue to three days of mourning my defunct project and of looking for jobs in garden centres (I am not even overdoing it, I literally sent cover letters).
The thing is, when you work on a PhD thesis, part of your work consists in seeking for criticism. Unfortunately, when you have that feeling that you are going to be found out, all criticism sounds like a confirmation that people can indeed see right through you and your shenanigans. It is stupid and irrational, but it takes a big fat reality check to realize it.
Job & funding competition
The first time I applied to a doctoral position that came with a charge of teaching assistant, I received a reply saying that the institution had decided to take on people who where more experienced and more qualified than I was. Later on, I was hired to a different position because the person who was first on their list had had second thoughts and declined the offer at the last minute. My greatest asset at the time was that I was available, which is not flattering at all. I sent countless applications that were never answered. I went to countless interviews for jobs that I did not land. I applied for funding on many occasions and never even made it to the interview. And if you look at all that objectively, taking a step back and really seeing things as they are, there is nothing personal in all those decisions.
The trouble is, I, just like everyone else, am a person. Whatever happens to me is personal to me. But it is not for any of the institutions I have been in contact with. They make choices based on many criteria that (1) are specific to them, and (2) I have no control over.
Academia is very good at making you understand that you are not a special snowflake. Though it might be good for some people to go through that type of humbling experience, it is not the case for everyone. In the end, you start to wonder what exactly your problem is, and how come everyone but you can see it. In my case, I have had to learn the hard way that the problem was not that I was not good enough; it was just that many people were simply better. And it has been a liberating discovery.
Ambition & malevolance
Though it is a privileged environment, it would take a gread deal of naivety to believe that academia is only made of well-meaning people who are willing to pass on their knowledge and help you climb the ladder to join them at the top. While I want to believe that 99% of academics genuinely are good people, and even if that percentage might be a tad optimistic, it still leaves out a tiny percent of endoparasites lurking in the dark.
When I was preparing my first paper in 2011, I was terrified at the idea of presenting it and I turned to my supervisor for advice. He told me one thing that has resonated ever since. He said, “Don’t worry too much. The competent are always kind. Only the mediocre feel the need to be mean.” And he was right. Each time I have come across someone who tried (overtly or not) to bring other people down, it was out of fear of seeing their ambitions threatened. As Laurence J. Peter once wrote, “competition in academia is so vicious because the stakes are so small.”
The truth is, some people will be plain mean, and some will undermine you one comment at a time. There is nothing you can do about that, except avoiding them all together, and if you cannot, try and forget whatever they say if there is even the remotest possibility that it could fuel your own insecurities.
In addition to gestalt therapy and the solutions offered by Caltech, I would like to share of few tips of my own. Some of them are quite straightforward and self-explanatory, but it does not hurt to state the obvious when it comes to impostor syndrome.
- Talk to people. When I discussed the impostor syndrome with some of my colleagues, I realized that many of them had experienced the feeling. It was not entirely reassuring, but at least it we found out that we were not as isolated as we initially had thought.
- Keep track of your achievements. People with impostor syndrome tend to work twice as much in order to compensate for what they believe is a lack of adequacy, which contribues to reinforcing the feeling that they work only to hide said lack of adequacy (I have told you it was a vicious circle). If you have evidence that you have achieved something, it will be harder for you to overlook your successes. So go ahead and make a list of your achievements, whether they be the papers you have published, positive feedback you have received, grade reports, etc. For instance, when I am in a period of self-doubt, I open the file that contains feedback emails sent by former students over the years and I instantly feel better.
- Take risks. If more than a journal is willing to publish your work, it probably means that it is worth publishing. In order to find out, you need to get out of your comfort zone and try different options. Network. Meet people who work in your field. The more people you know and the more difficult it will be for you to think that you are fooling them.
- Learn to trust people. Even if you think that you are a walking failure, you surely cannot believe that everyone else is. Part of the impostor problem is that you believe that you lie to others and that they are naive enough to fall for it. It is one of the reasons why you should make sure that you have clever and competent people to turn to. If someone you respect for their intelligence tells you that you are doing a good job, trust them. You came to them in the first place because you thought their insight was informed and valuable. There is no reason for you not to trust them. When my supervisor says my work is crap, I trust him without any hesitation, so why would I doubt him when he says it is good? Stick to the rule that you cannot fool all the people all the time and start listening to positive comments with as much faith as you listen to negative comments.