I’ve been thinking a lot about imposter syndrome lately – both because of feeling impostery myself, and because of seeing others who are feeling impostery. I find it helpful to realize how common it is for people to feel like imposters – sometimes I think that pretty much everyone is using the “fake it ‘til you make it” strategy. But it’s also disheartening when I realize that people who I think are fantastic scientists, teachers, and/or communicators also feel like frauds.
There are three particular flavors of imposter syndrome that I’ve particularly been thinking about. I wanted to write a post on them but surprisingly (to me, at least) I could only picture them in cartoon form. I suspect part of the reason for that is the influence of this really great cartoon on filtering out the positive and focusing on the negative. So, here are three poorly drawn cartoons on the topic. I feel a little silly sharing them (yes, of course I’m feeling impostery about a post on imposter syndrome!), but here goes:
It seems like it shouldn’t be possible to discount an accomplishment because it came naturally and to discount another because it took too much work, but I know I’m not alone in doing this. (In discussing this with a friend recently, it occurred to me that I sounded a bit like Goldilocks.) These are both examples of the “disqualifying the positive” cognitive distortion:
And then there’s this:
I think this last one applies to lots of things – the speech bubble could be “Welcome to this year’s new graduate students!” or “Welcome to new faculty orientation!” or “Congrats to this year’s new fellows!” or all sorts of other situations. An unfortunate side effect of this is that successes can lead to someone feeling worse about themselves. (By the way, if this version of imposter syndrome doesn’t resonate with you, you might find that this post on anti-imposter syndrome does.)
Imposter syndrome is pernicious and common. It featured prominently in the discussion in the comments on the AUA post on ecology in developing countries. It’s common among grad students I’ve spoken with at institutions all across the US. I’ve had conversations with people who’ve told me about being at meetings at the National Academy of Sciences or with other HHMI investigators where they felt like imposters. Neil Gaiman has a blog post where he talks about having a conversation with Neil Armstrong about feeling like imposters. As I said at the beginning, I find it both comforting to know how common it is and also depressing — I mean, if Neil Armstrong feels like an imposter, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Given how common it is, I’d love it if there was a discussion in the comments about how people deal with their own imposter syndrome (or what advice they give others who are feeling impostery). Some things I try are imagining what I’d tell a friend who was in my situation and telling myself that – we’re often much harsher with ourselves than with our friends. I also find it really helpful to review the list of common cognitive distortions (also called unhelpful thinking styles) and to think about how different things I’ve been doing fit in there. More generally, I find cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness approaches really helpful. And, since realizing that my imposter syndrome has been notably worse lately, I’ve gotten much better about doing daily meditations.
Perhaps I should work towards adopting the view that Neil Gaiman ends his post with. Writing about how it felt to realize that Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, he writes:
And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.