Recently, I told my best friend I suffered from impostor syndrome less than another friend because I was more self-confident. She pointed out that we both expressed the same anxieties over and over again, and that neither of us was any less out of the hole than the other. After that reality check, I started reflecting on how ambivalent I still am about my capacities as an academic.
Many highly-skilled people, especially in intellectual fields like academia, live in constant anxiety to be discovered as impostors, and that no matter how highly respected they or their work are. The Wikipedia entry for Impostor Syndrome gives an excellent definition:
Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Notably, impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women.
That last sentence–about high-achieving women–refers to a 1978 study by Clance and Imes. The authors argue that women suffering from the syndrome can be classified into two categories. In the first, a girl is born into a family in which a sibling or relative is branded as “the bright one”, notably because they do not need to study or work to thrive academically. As a consequence, the girl grows up to believe that she is necessarily the “dumb” one, no matter how successful her own accomplishments are. In the second category, a girl is on the contrary praised for everything she does and often hears how talented she is. When she grows up and fails at certain tasks, she becomes doubtful about the image of herself her parents created. As a result, she doubts every one of her accomplishments.
Now, I hear your cries: it IS a very old study and this argument sounds like a good ol’ either/or fallacy that cannot accurately represent the issue. True. But I identify at least partially with the second category: in my family, I am the “bright one” (first-generation college student, first to go into graduate school) and I was told repeatedly by my parents about my great early reading skills. I do suffer from periodic anxiety that others will find out that I actually have not read enough to claim to be an English PhD student, and I have a recurring tendency to rationalize positive feedback by internally arguing that it is the result of luck, good timing, others’ benevolence, and/or pity. In fact, my second reaction to any positive recognition of my work (after pride & joy) is suspicion and rationalization (“he is only praising your work because he doesn’t really know your field” or “the American award culture is vain and meaningless” [that last one may be a little true]).
Overall though, I rarely doubt my abilities and recognize that I am an intelligent and highly capable intellectual. But these realizations have come to me after a lot of work identifying these logical fallacies and developing self-confidence. With the help of my advisers, I have worked hard to stop apologizing, to take confidence in my ideas, to drop needlessly hesitant turns of phrases such as “I think/believe that,” and to acknowledge that these anxieties are unfounded.
The thing about impostor syndrome is that it hides a very simple truth: no one cares about you and your work as much as you do**. It is a hard reality because it means that anxieties like mine that positive feedback is disingenuous are partially true. The purpose of feedback is to produce hopefully productive criticism, not to bless you with approval and praise. Reviewers and professors cannot care enough–enough for your desire to be acknowledged as an expert–that feedback can be entirely satisfying. In other words, the ratio of time, energy, and effort you put into any piece of work cannot be matched by the ratio of time, energy, and effort a reviewer can put in their feedback. Therefore, you are perpetually unsatisfied.
But this truism also gives me relief, because once you start acknowledging that only you can give yourself the approval you crave, life gets easier (most of the times). Since no one cares about me or my work as much as me, it only depends on me to do that work as best and I can and to accept the fact that I will never get the approval I need from others. Another thing I’ve come to realize is that there is no point in time where you will be crowned an “expert,” for if that was the case tenured professors would not suffer from impostor’s syndrome (which they do, of course). Just like actors who win the Oscar don’t stop trying to get next year’s Oscar, there is no point in your long academic life where you will stop reaching for the best–and that’s a good thing.
**I learned this fact from my adviser, Pamela Cheek, at the University of New Mexico.