An Imposter Syndrome How-To
When I think of blog posts, I often think of "How-To" guides. How to work from home efficiently. How to stop sweating the small stuff. How to eat healthier. How to succeed. How. No, really, how? Because I struggle to trust that I have the answers to any of these prompts, despite the fact that I have been working from home, I have learned strategies for managing my anxiety, for eating healthier (sometimes). I am succeeding, depending on who you ask.
The key is: Don't ask me. Imposter syndrome has plagued me for as many years as I have been taking myself and my goals seriously. When I played the role of class clown and laughed off my poor grades, I never thought twice about being found out as a fraud. I figured, I'm young, I have time to figure out what I'm good at and work at it. And eventually I did. It took switching high schools to give myself the space to explore a new side to myself - a side that cares, that tries, that sees a future I want to build for myself through hard work.
And so, I got to work. I got good grades. I got bad grades and I cried, feeling the weight of the effort I'd put in. I kept going. I'm still going. In my fifth year of my PhD, I feel like I have built my identity largely around my academic career. I feel that I have found research that feels important and relevant to the world and I am developing my voice. But I still, in many ways, identify with the class clown I used to be.
The thing about being consistently underestimated is it can both motivate you and sabotage you. It can give you the push to be better, smarter, try harder and prove people wrong. It has pushed me to read more, speak up, prove that people with colorful hair and makeup, that don't typically "belong" in academia, can contribute to the conversation. It has pushed me to work against the persistent doubt that I am up against as a woman in a male-dominated field. But it can also dig its way down into your own sense of self. Internalized, this external doubt can become self-doubt. The underestimation can start to feel like a truth about your own abilities. If people think I am only capable of this, why do I think I can do that? What has motivated me has also saddled me with the heavy feeling of being a fraud.
Imposter syndrome is a psychological pattern of doubting one's own skills or accomplishments, peppered with an persistent fear of being outed as a fraud to others. Positive feedback on a paper or presentation? Fluke. Productive work day? It must be poor quality work. People seem to respond well to my work? They're humoring me. It's an exhausting cycle of working to prove yourself and others wrong, only to be sabotaged by your own doubts. Working hard and feeling incapable of owning your own accomplishments.
Fighting imposter syndrome will ultimately require fighting the systemic reasons why certain people are more likely to doubt themselves in this way. Marginalized voices are more likely to feel like frauds when existing in a sea of dominantly-represented voices. Women, especially racialized women, are more likely to feel like imposters in fields that are overwhelmingly white and male. When the canonical figures we look to don't look like us, it's easy to think we don't belong.
So I guess my how-to is a bust. I don't know how to "overcome" imposter syndrome. I only know how to talk about it. And that gives me some strength in itself. Talking to others struggling with the same feelings helps. And fighting the structures that keep our voices to the side helps too. One thing I trust about myself: I will continue working to prove the most important skeptic wrong.