Psst – don’t listen to me!
Many of us will have heard that nagging impostor voice:
“Am I really cut out for this?”
In science and academia we set out to explore the unknown and push the boundaries of what’s possible. And to be up for this task, we are supposed to gather the best and brightest minds. But this expectation of excellence and superb accomplishment – from within and outside the academic community, and above all, the expectation we hold up to ourselves personally – is a high one to live up to!
It is only natural (and perhaps honest?) to occasionally hear out the inner impostor voice. But we should have a level conversation with it and respond with confidence grounded in facts of proven skills and accomplishments, which surely cannot all be ascribed to luck. Because it is a problem when the impostor voice becomes a constant companion, when self-doubt in our skills, talents and accomplishments, feelings of guilt and the fear of being exposed become an urge to constantly prove our worth and dominate our professional decision-making.
That pressure will only hold us back from performing at our best and so perpetuate the struggle with living up to expectations, however unreasonable they may be.
Sufferers of impostor syndrome typically feel undeserving of their achievements, which translates to a sense of not belonging. Other factors that make us feel not belonging can therefore compound the impostor voice. For example, compared to their peers, ethnic minority students more often question the grounds on which they were accepted into the program, assuming it was due to affirmative action rather than an extraordinary application. This can certainly also hold true for members with other underrepresented or marginalised characteristics – be it due to gender, sexual orientation or gender identity, personal beliefs or social background – and the lack of role models intensifies the sense of not belonging. On top of that, in our academic sector, where interdisciplinary research is becoming more and more commonplace, even the background of expertise can be a source of insecurity and awaken the impostor voice.
While some characteristics may be outwardly evident, others aren’t. For example, in our international community, social background is a more hidden feature than in more heterogeneous circles. We can’t generally tell which of our colleagues and students are the first in their families to go to university or may have had to overcome socio-economic obstacles to do so, all of which can nurture the impostor voice.
Impostor syndrome can substantially impact mental health and work performance, and its voice is silent – we can’t know who struggles with it, and even if we did, their reasons may be invisible to us. But we can be mindful that it is a prevalent issue in our community, and we can do our best to be compassionate and inclusive and challenge actions that we feel undermine the sense of deserving and inclusivity of the people around us.