A Three-step Method to Managing the Impostor Syndrome

I don’t belong here.

This is something that probably every Cambridge University graduate student (and many other students in many other universities; and many other people doing many other jobs) finds themselves thinking at some point – and most likely at multiple points – during the course of their work.

“I know I’ve been accepted into this system, but I don’t belong here. You know what I mean? I mean, I don’t really belong here.”

We’ve all been there, waiting for the moment when our supervisors will realise they’d made a terrible mistake and kick us out of the programme; almost anticipating a letter from the university that goes “So remember that acceptance letter we sent over a couple of years ago? Sorry, that was our bad. Please go home.”, or a knock on the door, revealing a very big and frighting gentleman standing on the threshold, saying that we should evacuate all our stuff now or be physically evacuated by his very own tree-sized arms.

Everybody around us seem so brilliant and wise, so successful; in our minds, all of them totally have it all together – words just come naturally to them, ideas flow from them at the same frequency as sighs of despair do from us, they are just… better. And us? We are not enough. No, not we – I am not enough, as it is always a singular I within a sea of a super-human, uber-academic them. I am living with the guilt of someone who’s somehow accidentally made it, they all totally earned it; they are real academics, real intellectuals, and me? I am a fake.

 

funny-people-thinking-same-walking-street
Cartoon credit: A Zillion Dollars Comics

 

This feeling has a name. It’s called the Impostor Syndrome and it is very common amongst high-achievers and in high-achieving environments.

The impostor syndrome is (I am borrowing this concise and useful definition from Wikipedia, who borrow it from Langford and Clance, 1993) ‘a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments, and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”’, or (I like this one) ‘an individual experience of self-perceived intellectual phoniness’ (Clance and Imes, 1978).

But having spent four years here, I think I found a cure for this syndrome, or at least a cure that works well for me, and has made my life here (and by extension my life in general – as I’ve been feeling like that pretty much my whole life) considerably more bearable and  less stressful.

Let’s call it the “I suck, that’s true” method, or otherwise let us use more delicate language and call it the “What if I’m right?” method. Wait a moment, before you roll your eyes and click on that little x at the top of the screen that makes me disappear, just give me a chance to explain myself – I assure you, it is not a pessimistic, defeatist approach. Quite the contrary –  if you choose to adhere to it, it might prove worthwhile and enable you to focus better on your academic research and maybe even find your own elusive muse.

I am not here to tell you “hey, but you are good!”, firstly because – let’s face it – I don’t know you and I don’t know if you are, and secondly and more important – because it probably will not help you at the slightest if I, or anyone else, tells you this. I am saying this as someone who’s had well-intended people trying to ‘fix’ her for years and years by saying this, which frankly at times only made this feeling worse and left me feeling like I was a bigger fraud than I had thought: it seems like we tend to trust others less when it comes to our own worth – “they know me and my work, and still say this??” we ask, and here, instead of saying “maybe I am worth something after all”, we automatically think “What have I done? How did I manage to fool them, too?!”

Many blogs and researchers remind you that you are not alone, advise that you talk to other ‘impostorists’ and suggest that you work on your conceptualisation of self-worth, and – by all means – you are advised to do that! However, perhaps surprisingly so, I am not going to do that. I am not going to try to convince you to change your ways of thinking about your own value.

Rather, what I suggest is a (relatively) quick-fix – but one that lasts – and I leave it for you (and for people more professional than myself) to find your own ways for enhancing your sense of self-worth and positive thinking in whatever way suits you.

Disclaimer: I am not at all sure that I have the impostor syndrome. How could I be? Most of the time, I just really think I am no match for the rest of them. That is, I spend my days thinking that rather than having the impostor syndrome,  I might be a real impostor, in which case, strangely enough, I have a pseudo-impostor-syndrome (it’s just a bit too much for me to get my head around it – so… I’m imposing as someone who has an impostor syndrome, so that people would tell me I’m doing fine and won’t find out that I actually am a fake?! Wait, what?)

Anyway, you know what the good bit is? For this method, it does not matter if I do – if you do – have the real impostor syndrome or the pseudo-one. You feel like you’re unworthy of the role you’ve been allotted? Follow me in these three simple steps:

Step One – Acceptance: Yes, maybe you’re right. Maybe you are a fraud

That’s a pretty simple one. Don’t really accept it, just ask yourself for a moment – hey, what if I am right and they are wrong? What if I AM an impostor?

Well… what if you are an impostor? I mean, really, what are you gonna do about it? Have a heart-to-heart talk with your boss and tell them that they really need to let you go? Put an ‘impostor’ sign on your office door?

I have already refused to say that you were great at what you do, and I am also not saying that you are terrible at it of course. I’m just asking that you ask yourself – what if I’m right? What if I am a fake?

I think there’s not much you can answer to this, and not much you can do about it. And I think it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Step Two – Let it Go: Let others decide whether you should keep doing what you do

Did you ask yourself the question from step one? Did you find it as unanswerable as I have? Now, unless you feel like you are utterly unhappy in the job you do (in addition to or as a consequence of not feeling good enough at it) and are planning to resign, I suggest that you now leave it for other people to decide whether or not you are capable of doing it.

I understand that you think you are worthless, or at least worth less than others around you. But do you think the same of those in charge of you? Give them some credit, will ya? Trust them just for now that they know what and who they want to work with at the moment, and that if they are making a mistake in letting you be there it’s their mistake, right? Additionally, if they feel like they’ve made a mistake, they will not compromise because, hey, it’s them, remember? They are the worthy ones, and as such they get to decide whether you are in, or out.

And if they get to decide – we return to a question asked in step one – what can you do about it?? Nothing, really. You can just do your job and let them decide whether you can do it.

Step Three – Stop messing around and do your job. Do it the best you can.

Now that we’ve established that there’s nothing you can do about it… well… start doing nothing about it. I mean, stop doing that – stop asking yourself whether you’re good enough, because it leads nowhere really. Or ask yourself this question, but know that it just doesn’t matter at the moment whether you are good enough.

I am not saying that you should not give a damn, or that you should ignore some working standards or aspire to less. No, no, on the contrary – now that it does not matter anymore, go ahead and think of what you would love to do if only you were as good as they expect you to be around here… if you would love to do something new and courageous that requires practice, practice! If you need to acquire new skills, go for it! Learn. Teach. Be. Since you don’t get to decide what they think of you, why don’t you just do your job? Yes, that job that you came here to do, and do it the best you can, as if you really are exactly what they are looking for!

If you are an academic – focus on your ideas, present them to your supervisor, write articles and submit them to great journals, think about this edited volume that you want to publish someday. If you are a musician – practice, do auditions, compose your own or work on playing your favourite pieces. An animator? Try that new technique you’ve always thought of ‘someday’ trying. Whatever you are, just reach for the top – make a list of what you want to achieve and – bit by bit – fulfil it. Work hard. Practice A LOT. Dream. And for crying out loud – enjoy it.

Bottom Line:

Whether or not we are meant to do what we are doing is not exactly in our hands. We get decide upon two things. The first one – do I WANT to be here? And the second, If I want to be here, how do I do my job THE BEST I CAN? Yes, you hear me right. Just the very best you can. Whether it’s the best in the whole wide world does not matter.

I found that once I started clearing this space of ‘but what if they know I’m not good enough’ thoughts from my mind, many barriers just vanished. I used to think about it so much that there was only little room left for me to think about the more important things, aka my own research. However, at some point I realised that come what may, I cannot change the decision made in the past by those wise people, who somehow decided to let me be here. I can only work the best I can, aspire to be better for them and, indeed, for me, and hope that they would not regret their choice. I do not know if it’s changed my sense of self-worth(lessness), but it definitely reduced the amounts of time I spend worrying about my place in this big beautiful university.

So back to you now: ask yourself for a moment – what if I’m really not good enough? Asked? Great. Now, go back to work, focus only on your own work and on doing it the best you can, not on whether the best you can is enough. Believe me, if and when it is not enough – someone else will bother telling you this.

The reason why I called this post ‘managing’ impostor syndrome rather than ‘overcoming’ impostor syndrome was that I don’t know if this accounts for ‘overcoming’ it. If you follow these steps, I cannot assure you that you’re going to stop asking yourself whether you belong in wherever it is that you’re at. Every once and again (or maybe every day) you’ll still get that tiny voice in you that squeaks out “what are you doing here? You are not good enough for this place! They will figure it out! You suck!”.

When it does come to that, though, calmly smile at this inner voice and reply “Do I? Ah, alright. You know what? Yeah, I suck. But right now, I’ve really got some work to do…”

 

Let me know in the comments if you found this method useful, or if you have any additional tips for (pseudo/) impostorists!

 

**

I wish to thank Alina Senchko from MouseHousebyAlina for letting me use the picture of her beautiful hand-made bookish mouse as my logo.

** This post is dedicated to A for his graduation. You’ve always belonged here, even when you thought you didn’t. Congratulations! x

Author: Avital Rom

I am a PhD student in the department of Chinese Studies at the University of Cambridge, and an amateur Celtic harp player. In my blog I aim to explore creative processes and how to untangle them (a completely selfish venture, but if it leads me somewhere I would love to share!)

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