It’s likely you’ve heard about it—in passing, in a lecture, in a TED Talk. It’s even more likely that you’ve experienced it, whether or not you knew what to call it: that nagging feeling that you’re not really equipped to be where you are, doing what you’re doing; that you haven’t quite earned it like other people, that you’ve likely just waltzed your way in unnoticed, allowed to skirt the edges by chance and luck without begin caught out as the fraud that you really are. Maybe you were assigned a book for class and only skimmed it, where your course mates have the margins marked with notes, and you take this as tangible proof of your status as less than deserving of your place. Perhaps you’re offered an opportunity to speak at a conference with tenured professors and experienced professionals whilst you’re simply a doctoral researcher, and you’re absolutely convinced that they must have made some egregious error in the selection and acceptance process, or perhaps you’re just the token doctoral researcher to secretly criticize, only there to make the real researchers look good. Or, maybe the name of a particular scholar gets tossed about in a lecture, someone everyone seems to know and you’ve never heard of, and you’re reduced to the shameful search on the library catalogue for titles like Guide for the Perplexed, proving yet again that you’re just not up to snuff, that you’re masquerading as a real scholar, that someone along the line was just horribly mistaken at precisely the wrong moment, and in reality, you’re not able to hack it.
This desperately unpleasant spiral of questioning and self-doubt is most frequently referred to as Imposter Syndrome. The good news is: it’s not a disorder in the sense that something wrong, or even that it’s all that uncommon—quite the contrary in fact, it is seen in countless high-achieving individuals across numerous cultures, both male and female, throughout the age and career spectrum.
The not-so-good news is: because it’s not a disorder? There’s no tried-and-true treatment. You can’t take a tablet and go about your day, confident that your pesky Imposter Syndrome will be taken care of in the meantime. So, in lieu of a quick fix, here are a few things to keep in mind in trying to manage the relatively repulsive phenomenon known as Imposter Syndrome, and in so managing, hopefully doing your best to come to terms with the lies it tries very hard to make you believe.
The Sneaky Spiral of Self-Doubt
For the titular reference, I direct you toward the excellent Hyperbole and a Half web comic detailing what the author aptly terms the Sneaky Hate Spiral—that vicious cycle of one wrong thing building upon another until absolutely nothing can appear to go right. There’s a similar kind of poisonous momentum at play in Imposter Syndrome: maybe it starts with a chance encounter with a colleague, or a professor, or someone in your field completely separate from your faculty—maybe it’s a family member, or a complete stranger. But all it takes it one wrong word, or sometimes even just a look, or a quirk in technology even, to begin the spiral of questions. Perhaps a friend in your programme asks you if you’re attending a reception later this week: except, you don’t know a thing about such a reception! Does this mean that you’re not considered important enough to be invited? That no one thinks your work is valuable? If that’s what your department thinks, what about others? Conference coordinators? Publishers? Potential employers? Perhaps all of this have been for naught and you never should have been accepted to this program at all, goodness, what a waste, you—
See what I mean by a spiral? One innocent question can lead to a whole host of uncertainty and self-doubt if Imposter Syndrome is colouring the way you see yourself within your field. Everything is a potential threat to your position, because every encounter that even implicitly questions your “place” may mean that you’ve been found out as a fraud, as having fooled everyone into thinking you’re good enough to be where you are, when really, you’re just mediocre, an average-at-best lurker amidst the real professionals.
This, however, is an incontrovertible lie.
But while you may know this rationally, it’s not so easy to convince yourself, once the spiral begins. And keeping yourself from entering the spiral itself isn’t always something you can control. So: what to do? If the record of your accomplishments, the tangible proof that you’ve earned your place and your standing and your accolades, isn’t enough to stop the horrible voice in your ear saying that all of these things still aren’t sufficient, what are you meant to do?
First: check the Junk Mail box in your email account; that’s probably where your reception invite went.
But second: we’ll start with what usually lurks closest behind the Imposter Syndrome spiral in the first place.
What is ‘Good Enough’, Anyway?
Part of the constant questioning of one’s suitability to be where they are, doing what they are doing and the level at which they’re conferred to work is a nagging question that is—like Imposter Syndrome itself—inherently common for high achievers in competitive environments (see: Doctoral Candidates). That question, however, is one that doesn’t have a clear cut answer, which in turn makes it all the more maddening, and likewise, difficult to move past.
The question usually starts with what should, more objectively, be a celebratory moment or experience: the accomplishment of a given goal. This goal—what ever X goal you’ve been striving toward—is tangible proof that you’ve earned something, that you’ve succeeded at something, that you are contributing to your aims and are axiomatically not an imposter! Except, suddenly, you’ve accomplished X. And, oddly enough?
X isn’t good enough.
When this experience of your accomplishments consistently becomes the norm, when nothing you do or succeed in being is “good enough”, now we reach the central question for those who experience Imposter Syndrome:
What is good enough?
And more often than not? Those who struggle with Imposter Syndrome can’t quite answer that question with specifics. They just know it is more than what they’ve accomplished or contributed—and sometimes, the issue at hand in that regard is the tendency to compare oneself to others, at which point its helpful to reinforce the idea that your journey is unique, and that comparing yourself to your peers is much like comparing an apple to a sunset: it yields a whole lot of nothing.
Sometimes, though, the “enough” in your head is even more than anyone have accomplished or contributed. It’s not always—or even usually—logical or rational. It is much more of a sense that, no matter what you do, you are not sufficient to be as good as you should be. That somehow, you don’t deserve your spot at the table, with or without the tangible proof to the contrary.
Deservingness is largely a question of self-conceptualization: it’s a deep question that requires some equally-deep reflection in order to start to evaluate first, and then change toward the better. If you have the time and resources (inner and outer) to embark on that journey, it’s a journey worth taking in the long run. But even upon doing the hard self-work to figure out what you feel you deserve, or have earned—what is enough—social cues and expectations may still rub you the wrong way and make you question whether you’re the genuine article, whether you’re a genuine scholar because you have ten publications instead of eleven, etc. So: now that we have a sense of what’s driving Imposter Syndrome, what might be some coping strategies to think on and implement when we begin to recognise Imposter Syndrome creeping into our daily lives and changing how we engage our work, not to mention ourselves?
Possible Symptoms Treatments Include
Let’s face it—we’re working on our theses, trying to get so many words on a screen per day, and perhaps we’re just not able to do the hard digging required to change our self-images and perspectives at large at just this exact moment. Hopefully, that kind of work and subsequent shift will come with time.
Until that point, however, just because we don’t have the time or the means to enact a grand epiphany just now, doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do to turn the volume down on this pesky inner voice a few notches so as to better get on with our work.
You’re Not The Only One
Studies show that Imposter Syndrome is not only incredibly common, but indiscriminate: most people just don’t talk about it. So the next time you compare your accomplishments to some external ideal? Remember that the person next to you may be doing the very same thing.
Fake It ‘Til You Make It
It’s a clichéd sort of saying, but it’s worth remembering that no one knows everything, or is the best at everything—or anything really—right from the start. Part of self-confidence is the ability to believe that whatever comes at you, you’ll be able to grow and adapt to take it in stride: and to an Imposter-Syndrome-stricken mind, that mentality can indeed smack of “faking”. It isn’t, though: it’s a healthy belief in the idea that, having met your goals in the face of newness and being our of your depth at points in the past, you so far have a 100% success rate at making it through those situations. It’d be a fairly poor bet to go against those odds, in the now.
The Skill of the Long Con?
If you’re in the camp of Imposter Syndrome sufferers that is convinced you’ve simply fooled everyone and are really just faking your supposed skills incredibly well, ask yourself this: are you really that good of an actor/actress? Are you really capable of conning everyone around you for as long as you have, in as many contexts and settings as you’ve found yourself on your way to where you are today? The answer is: probably not. (If the answer is probably yes? Consider the option of making acting your profession, because that’s genuinely impressive!).
There Is Such a Thing As ‘Too Much of a Good Thing’
If it seems like “other people can handle all of this, it’s only me that’s floundering”, keep in mind that, despite your quite-possibly superhuman achievements? You are still human, and no one can give 100% to everything, at every moment, even with minimal commitments; as a doctoral researcher, you likely have several commitments, at the very least. Keep in mind that no one is built to be on top of their game at every single moment, and for every single responsibility—just because you may feel overwhelmed, or falter now and again, doesn’t mean you’ve been faking it this whole time. It means that you’re human, and as opposed to being not-human, that’s actually kind of reassuring.
Regardless of where you are in relationship with Imposter Syndrome, dealing with it, overcoming it, or keeping it carefully at bay—the bottom line is this: