Impostor syndrome. That wonderful (insert sarcastic eye roll) feeling of insufficiency at a job we are perfectly capable of doing. For the blissfully uninitiated, impostor syndrome or impostor phenomenon is a psychological state where people who have clearly achieved things in their lives, feel like frauds. They live with the constant anxiety that their accomplishments are down to sheer dumb luck and that they will soon be revealed as impostors masquerading as experts in their field. This is not isolated to experts though. I myself suffer from crippling impostor syndrome and I am quite far from being an expert in my field. In fact, it took a huge amount of self- motivation to start this blog. It’s funny to think of now, but it took me nearly an hour of hovering before I hit the submit button on my first post! While the positive feedback has been fantastic, the little devil on my shoulder that is impostor syndrome is waiting for the other shoe to drop.
In her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Dr. Valerie Young has compiled a helpful list of subgroups that can classify sufferers.
- The perfectionist– This is a lethal combination. Perfectionists tend to set lofty, sometimes unrealistic goals for themselves and when they fail to meet those expectations, major self- doubt can set in.
- The superwoman/ superman– These people tend to push themselves to the brink to overcome a false sense of inadequacy. Usually the first into the office and the last out, this can inevitably adversely affect their mental and physical health.
- The natural genius– A close relative of the perfectionist, this group believes in the need to be a natural achiever or genius. They assume that they have failed if they have not achieved their goals on the first try.
- The soloist– These people are fiercely independent. They feel that they have failed and been revealed as phonies if they have to ask for help to complete their work.
- The expert– Experts determine their worth based on the amount of knowledge they possess. Their biggest fear is that they will never know enough and be exposed as inexperienced or ignorant.
I’m going to make this post personal and discuss my impostor syndrome. I identify with categories 4 and 5 the most. The soloist and the expert. I suppose that this is an outcome of my training as a scientist. The standard expectation from a graduate student or postdoctoral scientist is scientific independence. In me, that manifested as a reluctance to ask for help even when I needed it due to my irrational fear that people would think I was incompetent. Many times, this proved to be a huge detriment because I would needlessly struggle with tasks on my own, when it would have been so much more efficient and better for my sanity if I asked for help. Another facet of being a scientist is the expectation that we’re experts in something, however small. I spend an unnecessary amount of time stressing that I will do something that will expose me as totally inexperienced and serve me up for the judgement of my peers. It is interesting because impostor syndrome is an illogical state and is in gross contrast to my analytical and logical nature.
So how do I deal with this on a daily basis? Whenever crippling self-doubt hits, I stop what I’m doing and take a minute to regroup. This usually involves a few deep breaths and counting to 10. Then I remind myself that I managed to get a PhD from a reputed university and get a postdoc at one of the world’s top universities. I wouldn’t have got here if I was genuinely rubbish at my work. On a more practical note, I have recently started forcing myself to start thinking about scientific questions and issues removed from my own. For example, I am a protein biochemist by training and the majority of my research has been on proteins involved in multidrug resistance. I recently contributed an article on plastic degrading bacterial enzymes to my departmental science communication journal. My first instinct was to shy away from the task due to the fear that people would find inaccuracies in my article. I then went through my ‘Nah you’re awesome!’ pep talk and delivered an article that fortunately got a lot of positive feedback. This blog started as a way for me to pen down my thoughts and discuss interesting science. It has also incidentally fed my mission to banish or at least diminish my impostor syndrome. I doubt that I will ever reach a point in my life where I have absolute confidence in my abilities. However, this trial by fire approach seems to be helping reinforce my scientific abilities so far. Everybody’s experiences are different. I don’t expect my approach to help everyone, but if I manage to positively impact even one other person with this blog post, I will consider that a huge win. I have no illusions about my influence, but I really hope this can start an honest conversation about impostor syndrome and how we can deal with it.