Look If you had One shot Or one opportunity To seize everything you ever wanted In one moment Would you capture it Or just let it slip? '(Hel) Lo!' Their palms are sweaty, wheeze deep, the paper's heavy There's crumbs on their shirt already, it's a conference, steady They're nervous, but on the surface they look calm and ready To drop facts, but they keep on forgettin' What they wrote down, the whole crowd goes quiet now with an open mouth, the words just won't be invited out they're chokin', how, everybody's coughing now The time hand goes out, times up, careers over, wow!
Lose Your Self – Conference Style (Every Academic at some point in their Career)
If you are not bobbing your head to my terrible interpretation of Eminem’s incredible ‘Lose yourself’, then you should be ashamed – stop reading and go listen to it now – if you are hearing it (or indeed singing it) then congratulations you may read on.
For today’s article for #mentalhealthawarenessweek, I will be looking at impostor syndrome. Something that the majority of academics, along with millions of people around the world, at some point find themselves dealing with.
According to Wikipedia (always a great place to start – just do not stop there!): Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubt his or her accomplishments and has a persistent internalised fear of being exposed as a “fraud.”
This is something that I personally struggle with, on a daily basis so I will be using my own experience alongside evidence throughout this post. For a starting place, Dr Valarie Young is an inspiring academic whose publications and TED Talk on impostor syndrome is very much worth watching.
Dr Valarie Young argues that there are five versions of impostor syndrome so I will consider them each in turn.
1. The Perfectionist
Perfectionist set excessively high goals for themselves, and when they fail to reach a goal, they experience major self-doubt and worry about measuring up. Whether they realise it or not, this group can also be control freaks, feeling as if they want something done right, they have to do it themselves.
Not sure if this applies to you? Ask yourself these questions:
- Have you ever been accused of being a micromanager?
- Do you have great difficulty delegating? Even when you’re able to do so, do you feel frustrated and disappointed in the results?
- When you miss the (insanely high) mark on something, do you accuse yourself of “not being cut out” for your job and ruminate on it for days?
- Do you feel like your work must be 100% perfect, 100% of the time?
For this type, success is rarely satisfying because they believe they could’ve done even better. But that’s neither productive nor healthy. Owning and celebrating achievements is essential if you want to avoid burnout, find contentment, and cultivate self-confidence.
Ok, so from out the outside I’m going to say that I can identify with this. The lowest mark I received at Undergraduate level in History was 64%. I still have nightmares about it. Which is ridiculous. My Guardian, amazing women, and a hero to me, also would ask what happened to the remaining marks when I got x amount on a test. Add to this that I failed school and college the first time around, so I suppose it makes sense that when I received my mark at college of 96% on the final exam. I sought out the tutor who dropped me four marks to ask why!
Wow – even I hate me right now!
2. The Superwoman/man
Since people who experience this phenomenon are convinced they’re phonies amongst real-deal colleagues, they often push themselves to work harder and harder to measure up. But this is just a false cover-up for their insecurities, and the work overload may harm not only their own mental health but also their relationships with others.
- Do you stay later at the office than the rest of your team, even past the point that you’ve completed that day’s necessary work?
- Do you get stressed when you’re not working and find downtime completely wasteful?
- Have you left your hobbies and passions fall by the wayside, sacrificed to work?
- Do you feel like you haven’t truly earned your title (despite various degrees and achievements), so you feel pressed to work harder and longer than those around you to prove your worth?
Impostor workaholics are actually addicted to the validation that comes from working, not to the work itself. Start training yourself to veer away from external validation. No one should have more power to make you feel good about yourself than you—even your boss when they give your project the stamp of approval. On the flip side, learn to take constructive criticism seriously, not personally.
Right, this stops now. I absolutely can take criticism! I love criticism. Maybe. I don’t know. STOP YELLING AT ME. I’m ok, I’m ok. I always have overworked. When I was in recruitment, I would answer emails at 3 am. As an academic, I can not remember not working. The biggest issue I have is the guilt for NOT working. Play a computer game, and my desk looks at me. ACTUALLY LOOKS AT ME. So I go out, for a run, and my brain reminds me of my todo list. Fine, go to bed and just as I fall asleep:
3. The Natural Genius
Young says people with this competence type believe they need to be a natural “genius.” As such, they judge their competence based ease and speed as opposed to their efforts. In other words, if they take a long time to master something, they feel shame.
These types of impostors set their private bar impossibly high, just like perfectionists. But natural genius types don’t only judge themselves based on ridiculous expectations, they also judge themselves based on getting things right on the first try. When they’re not able to do something quickly or fluently, their alarm sounds.
- Are you used to excelling without much effort?
- Do you have a track record of getting “straight A’s” or “gold stars” in everything you do?
- Were you told frequently as a child that you were the “smart one” in your family or peer group?
- Do you dislike the idea of having a mentor, because you can handle things on your own?
- When you’re faced with a setback, does your confidence tumble because not performing well provokes a feeling of shame?
- Do you often avoid challenges because it’s so uncomfortable to try something you’re not great at?
To move past this, try seeing yourself as a work in progress. Accomplishing great things involves lifelong learning and skill-building—for everyone, even the most confident people. Rather than beating yourself up when you don’t reach your impossibly high standards, identify specific, changeable behaviours that you can improve over time.
I am glad to at least skip one section on the list. This is not me, I am not naturally good at anything. I always worked hard and just kept working. I would love to be naturally good, but I just do not have it. I have always considered myself distinctly and totally average. However, this in itself, is destructive. I once turned in a 9000-word report for a midterm assignment. Not only was this 7500 words too long, but my obsession encouraged others to follow suit. My mania directly impacted on others. The end result was that I and my friend both got 92%. I had spent three weeks on it, he had spent a day. I had written 9326 words, he had written 1890. I was an idiot, he was not.
4. The Soloist
Sufferers who feel as though asking for help reveals their phoniness are what Young calls Soloists. It’s OK to be independent, but not to the extent that you refuse assistance so that you can prove your worth.
- Do you firmly feel that you need to accomplish things on your own?
- “I don’t need anyone’s help.” Does that sound like you?
- Do you frame requests in terms of the requirements of the project, rather than your needs as a person?
This one is more complicated. Now I ask for help, it’s like being wrong, it’s painful but useful. But this came with age and experience. I am, at 34, considerably more secure in myself, secure enough to say – ‘err.. what?’ My entire academic network is based on taking the chance to reach out and say ‘help me?’. I have been to conferences, published papers made youtube series, and felt confident to come out about sexuality – all because I said help me. You should try it: for practice, you could sing along to this!
5. The Expert
Experts measure their competence based on “what” and “how much” they know or can do. Believing they will never know enough, they fear being exposed as inexperienced or unknowledgeable.
- Do you shy away from applying to job postings unless you meet every single educational requirement?
- Are you continually seeking out training or certifications because you think you need to improve your skills to succeed?
- Even if you’ve been in your role for some time, can you relate to feeling like you still don’t know “enough?”
Do you shudder when someone says you’re an expert?
Of all of them, this is the one that sticks:
I have a PhD, a Masters, a First Class honours, a degree in research, qualifications in recruitment, certificates in suicide prevention, publications, teaching experience, my own consultancy, people seek my advice, and I was offered to undertake an MBA. I am a specialist in my field and have years of experience in so many areas, and do you know what it all means?
Nothing! Every time someone asks me for my opinion, a voice in my head yells ‘HE’S AN IDIOT DON’T LISTEN!’ Recently I was asked by a friend why I felt I could call myself a suicidologist? During this conversation, two things happened:
The analytical rational part of my brain outlined the followings:
- I have been researching and studying suicide for 3 years
- I have published on suicide in history
- I have given talks and taught on the history of suicide and mental health
- I have been training in suicide prevention and awareness
- It is my passion and is very personal to me – so much, so I am working with charities and organisations to prevent it from happening to others.
While the other part of my brain screamed:
I do not really do nerves. I have always been able to walk into a room and just ‘go’, however, I do obsess afterwards. It’s like present me is super confident but retrospective me just wants to cry in a corner, and quite often have a stern chat (and a cup of tea) with present me. Why can they not be friends?
The point is here, that impostor syndrome is actually very serious. We all work so hard to gain recognition and rise above, yet even if we get there, more often than not we glance around and feel that we are the lowest of the barrel, that we tricked our way in, that someone is going to come and say – ‘er sorry mate, we made a mistake, you actually are about useful as a rotten banana peel on the inside of old tire, tied to the back of a 1983 Lada estate’.
When I teach, I expect that someone is going to pull me out and tell me to sit down in the class. When I give a paper or get called a specialist, I think I’m going to be laughed at. I make jokes all the time, but that is just a defence mechanism, if I am directing the laughter, I am in control of it.
However, I think the lesson to be taken from this is to actually embrace our impostor syndrome. Impostors are those who do not belong but attempt to anyway. Think about Leo in Catch Me If You Can, based on true events, or Jodie Trust Me. Confidence is key. Often half the opposition to your ambition is your own self-doubt.
Now I am not saying go out and try to fly a plane or medically treat someone, however, instead of thinking everyone in that room knows better, or is judging your writing, or is already dismissing you; play the role of someone who knows they are in the right place and the right person. Let’s not go mad and shout ‘IM EPIC’, strip off, and chase the keynote around the round (different conference, a story for another day), but take charge, and take stock of yourself.
Mental health in academia, and indeed in the world of professional work beyond, is at breaking point lets not add to that.
Hi, I’m Dr Simon Harold Walker, and I’m an impostor.