If you did not have imposter syndrome you would basically be living in your parents’ attic right now (apologies if you are in fact living there right now. I’m sure it’s nice). You cannot get rid of imposter syndrome but you can feel better about it and use some elements of it as a positive signal. When it becomes crippling then it is a real problem so we should knock heads together to avoid that.
Imposter syndrome is the pervasive sense of not being who other people think you are. In academia it manifests as a feeling that while everyone else arrived where they are by being smart, you are not smart and are here because of some vast system error which let the likes of you through. Do not worry though, as pretty soon someone will notice and you will be found out, and then – no more imposter syndrome, back to the attic with you.
Here are its key elements:
- I don’t belong here/should not be here. Everyone else knows it but is too polite to say.
- Everyone else knows what they are doing. Everything I say/do is wrong or embarrassing.
- I have an impossible mountain to climb and everything I have achieved to date is worthless.
I constantly felt the need to blurt out ‘don’t you see that I am not one of you’ for years. There are a few reasons I would like to rehabilitate imposter syndrome a little bit as I think some aspects of it are distorted features of a positive signal that we cannot live without.
Number one, the feeling of not belonging can be a good signal about where you are in terms of the social order. Maybe it tells you something about where you are and the biases that you are feeling. It can mean you have experienced a change in status (a good thing) but this comes with anomie. It can also mean something about where you are. When you have someone make you feel like you do not belong that tells you quite a bit about the institution you are in. Maybe it is not quite what it pretends to be. The hard bit of imposter syndrome is the sense of powerlessness. The institution is class ridden and chews people up because it is flawed. Generally though not belonging is good – it means you are taking on challenges and living through them.
The sense that everyone else knows what they are doing might be because you have cleverly surrounded yourself with people who you can learn from. The best way of improving and pushing yourself is by being in an environment with people who are a bit more advanced than you are. It is the main advice runners get. Run with people who are a little faster than you. That is all you are doing. Being with people who have abilities you do not is the way. Also, ‘clever’ people who make others feel small are not that clever.
Having an impossible task ahead and not being able to rely on past achievements means you challenge yourself and are driven forward all the time. Most of our ideas end up being discarded/look like washed out filler after a while because otherwise we would just do nothing forever. Artists do not paint the same paintings/compose the same orchestral works that they did when they were starting out, but they can take from early experience the seeds of something greater.
This post might read as being quite breezy, as only someone who has got past all of that could write it. Often the advice we give new colleagues and research students about imposter syndrome is a bit too much on the side of ‘everyone feels that’ which I suspect is not true, and also does not get to the heart of what it is and why it is experienced. If we see it as something deep within the human condition, but also something that might be a signal that things are working as they should, then it might be experienced more productively.