This week, I have had a bad flare-up of the impostor syndrome, which got me thinking about how we view ourselves and how others view us, and if there is ever a way for the two pictures to coincide.
Over my course of my faculty career, I was interviewed a few times for the college or university news, generally on account of a grant or award. I was always disappointed with how the article turned out, with quotes out of context and me generally sounding somewhere between vapid and entirely idiotic. Bottom line: if I never give an interview again in my life, that will be entirely fine with me.
There is another thing that I now know I don’t ever want to see happen again: having my talk videotaped. A few days ago, I saw a video of my talk from one of the summer conferences. I found it very disturbing. There is a quarter hour of me taped from the back or the profile, with the camera at the level of my quite sizable butt, so you spend the talk looking mostly at my left shoulder & blade, the back of my head, and the aforementioned posterior (or, as I move, at my equally unflattering full-body profile). I am no photographer, but I can’t imagine many women who can pull off this type of shot gracefully, and there are even fewer forty-something career scientists who spawned and nursed three kids and who can make 15 minutes of an a$$-and-shoulder-and-back-of-head, with focus on a$$, something that people crave to watch. At no point do you see my whole face (just a bit of the profile), so I don’t see what the point of videotaping even was. I know this is shallow of me, but I have to say it pretty much ruined my week.
I also got to hear myself talk. I don’t sound how I think I sound. I have an accent, it’s light, but it’s there, it’s definitely stronger at the beginning of the talk when the adrenaline runs high than as the talk progresses and I relax. I like the things I was saying, the emphasis and the points I made in the talk, but I admit: I could not get over how ugly I looked and how ugly I sounded. Later I listened just to the audio and it wasn’t bad at all. I think I was just completely disgusted by how I looked and it clouded the whole experience. Now I know it’s probably not as bad as it seemed, but the effect is similar to opening your grant reviews and reading that you suck so bad you should quit your job and go work at McDonald’s. Then you read them later (much, much later), and of course the reviews say nothing of the sort; they say things like you need more technical detail, or that a task wasn’t thought out, or even that they wanted some information that was there but they could’t be bothered to read. It’s rarely a complete and utter dismissal of your entire person. Except when perhaps it is; being a member of an underrepresented group you constantly have to work against the “I don’t belong here, I don’t belong here” drumbeat in the background.
And just when I was thinking that I was starting to feel better about the whole a$$-shoulder ordeal, there was this internal workshop. Several colleagues gave talks and one of them, a perfectly pedigreed American-born scientist, gave a lovely, very polished talk and seemed quite relaxed doing it. There is this whole category of scientists who give good talks, they seem calm, cool, the talks look perfect. Do they see themselves as they seem to others? How do any of us who are not like that ever get jobs? How do we seem to people? Later that day, I talked with a couple of other colleagues and that talk came up; I asked something along the lines of how one gets to look and sound so cool while giving a talk, to which a colleague chimed in that the speaker had the advantage of speaking in the native language. I think my blood pressure went through the roof and said something along the lines that I think I am perfectly fluent, thankyouverymuch; there certainly isn’t a language in which I can discuss science better than I can in English; I don’t know what half the terms are even called in my native tongue.
Maybe the colleague has a point, and I hate it that maybe he does and that there is nothing I can do about it (English is not magically going to become my native language). And if he doesn’t have a point and I am as fluent as a goddamn ocean, then I hate him for bringing up my pervasive, multidimensional otherness yet again. And I mostly hate it that I am so utterly uncool.
The worst thing about the impostor syndrome, about feeling that you don’t belong somewhere, is that you feel so completely fuckin’ helpless about it. There is nothing you can do because your whole self is just wrong, just not what you are supposed to be.
Now I also feel like a hypocrite: I always talk about the ways to fight the impostor syndrome or make it work for you and whatnot. But this only works when you have your wits about and can actually recall that there is a good reason why you are here, when you can use your intellect to sense your way around in the dark and out of feeling like a total piece of unwanted $hit. But it doesn’t work when you are amidst being plowed by disgust and doubt, and being exhausted from weeks of working overtime does not help.
What I want is never going to happen, but what I want is for someone IRL, someone who knows the world of science and is successful in it, to come and tell me that it’s OK to be me, that there is room to look and talk and just be like me in science, that I am not a freak. That there are super calm, cool, and collected golden gals and boys, but that there can also be the likes of me. That I am not the only non-cool, non-calm, and non-collected non-golden gal out there and that others like me not only exist but thrive (and I want some examples, dammit!), and are in fact essential for the scientific enterprise. That it would be bad for science if everyone were in the same mold, no matter how perfect the mold is. That, when I see and hear myself and think that I am $hit, it’s not necessarily what others see and think too.
Impostor syndrome, of whatever you are called, you are a total a$$hole. Not only do you make me feel awful, but you take a tremendous amount of energy to combat, over and over again, just so I could go back to functioning. It must be awesome not feeling like crap. I could use all that energy to do my job insted of spending it, in perpetuity, on convincing myself that I am in fact worthy of the job.
I think the rock of Sisyphus might have been the impostor syndrome. There’s a cartoon in it, but not tonight.