Imposter Syndrome


In my article about my experiences as a teacher, I have already outlined that most of the time I don’t feel necessarily adequate enough to teach. Although, given the years of experience I have in fields and topics directly reflecting the modules I teach, I should not be feeling this way. I should not be feeling like some kind of imposter.

What is the Imposter Syndrome? I am not the only person who doesn’t feel “good enough,” to be doing something. It can happen to anyone. And it can be regarding anything. People in the highest positions, doing the most important of jobs, in the most complicated of fields, can feel like they are less than. That they should not be doing what they are doing. That there are others who are much more qualified. Regardless of whether that is true or not. This is known as the imposter syndrome.

The imposter syndrome is an interesting syndrome to look into. It is partly caused by a fear that can be grounded in reality: the fact that others might be better. Complimented by a fear often ungrounded in reality: the fact that you are not good enough. These statements, as similar as they sound, widely differ.

Externalising being an Imposter To think that (many) others are better than you, at your job, hobby or vocation, is not necessarily a bad thing. When I teach R, I do genuinely believe my own supervisor is better at R, or any type of coding and data science. That thought is not wrong. He has many years more experience, I have seen him done incredible things in R and he has helped me out many times. As such, I have proof of my statement. But that proof only extends to this one activity or skill: R. It does for example not extend to him necessarily being a better psychologist, a better academic or ultimately: a better person than I am. (Although I am sure he actually is at least 2 out of 3 of those things. He is double my age, he’s had some time to get there….).

It is unsurprising that someone of senior experience and status in our own field might look more favourably compared to us. That’s not exactly a harrowing idea. It is almost expected. It becomes an issue if we start feeling this way about people of levels of experience similar to our own. When we look at the achievements of others and marvel at their great work. At the excellence of their presentations. The eloquence of their written work. Their immense social network and their effortless ability to network and know everyone and anyone. The speed and efficiency with which they finish jobs and projects. They are so effortless.

Internalising being an Imposter Now let’s look at the stack of papers on our own desk. We know we are struggling to keep up. We dread the fact that we still have to code, because we haven’t managed to get to that yet. And we also still have to practise our presentation. Because that is due tomorrow. At 9 in the morning. Tick tock.

Even when we do manage, and get complimented on our presentation going well, we smile and say thank you. A voice in our head sighing with relief, because we only practiced it sixteen times that week. We are definitely not effortless. We are tired.

We are in for a real treat when the idea of others being good or great at what they are doing, turns against ourselves. Instead of looking at others, we now look at ourselves, and ask “Why didn’t I, or can’t I do that? Why am I not like them? Why do I have to put in so much effort, and they don’t?!” These type of thoughts, especially as they become continuous and intrusive, are dangerous. They actively, yet insidiously, undermine our valuation of our own achievements.

The achievements of others now become our worst nightmares. Instead of being the motivating "bar to raise", they become a heavy weight crushing us down. Our own thoughts consume us at night. We lie awake not asking ourselves how we can do better. But why we aren’t better. This is a very toxic subcategory of social comparison. Selling Yourself. Short. I had a conversation with a dear friend of mine, who started to feel like an absolute imposter. Now, I should mention, she had been to a network event the night before. We were sipping tea and she went on and on about how everyone at this event was approximately her age, but so much further ahead in life. They all had been involved with fascinating projects, had great jobs, made an impact etc. etc. Naturally, they were all “business people,” and we are “mere academics.” As ironic as that reads, there is some truth to it. Business people know how to sell themselves. They can market themselves to death, going on and on about how much impact they have made. In academia, we tend to be a bit more sceptic. And a lot less than half has a degree even remotely affiliated with marketing. We don’t really sell ourselves. We just sell ourselves short.

I gave my friend the same advice I've been given by someone much wiser, but not much older: “Keep in mind, we often only see the end result of the work of others. We do not see the struggle. We see a finished and polished product. Moreover, when we ask people how they did something, or how they managed to achieve something, their answer is all we’ve got." Now I know that if someone tells me they whipped up a one hour presentation, including artistically designed PowerPoint, in under an hour, I call bullsh—t. Yet, this is an answer I have often received. And so have you.

You are not an imposter. You are just as good as all the others. Maybe even better because you are thinking about how you can improve yourself. Do not confuse your struggle with their “perfect” end products. Do not make the mistake of thinking they are in any shape or form comparable. There is everything to gain from hard work and believing you can do anything you put your mind to.

We finished our tea and continued the rest of our day. Kicking ass, the academic way.

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