Acute Impostor Syndrome

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.

18 comments

  1. Hello, I have just written a long and a little bit ranty reply, and then promptly lost it, so clearly I am an imposter web user !! Look, just to say I am reaching out to you. I’m Irish, with an accent, and a woman, and this feels all too familiar. You actually shouldn’t accept filming the way you’ve described, and as to the small voice saying you’re rubbish, tell it to take a running jump. You are clearly a competent and multi-tasking person, and wholly able to speak in your discipline. Take courage, and make contact with other trusted women who can share and support you. I can’t write more as I’m currently being an imposter in my kitchen and trying to fry eggs… you can reach me at catherine.harper@port.ac.uk or @profcathharper and hope you have a better week ahead !! in sisterly solidarity Catherine xx

  2. Hi xykademiqz. Unfortunately Science and academia in general is not very good at saying you are OK. Which is why it’s great that you’ve written this piece. It’s what lots of people feel. It’s not nice but it’s normal. Keep pushing the rock up the hill.

  3. Hi xyk….as a women scientist at a major medical school, I have also struggled with imposter syndrome. I am a native English speaker but my native speech is west coast california casual– very far from the stuffy Harvard style that people expect–and I can’t seem to change it. If I watch myself lecture on video, I am waving my hands around like a fool and using slang and (cringe) upspeak. But I have found out from a couple decades of experience it doesn’t actually matter. Scientists including students and faculty, and even (especially) the general public and millionaire businessmen and donors, are so grateful for anyone who can explain complex things clearly—-they do not really care if you sound tv smooth and erudite which often just puts people to sleep, confuses them, or alienates them anyway. And I know lots of very effective lecturerers who are non native English speakers, even with extremely heavy accents….they are highly effective verbal communicators because of their clarity of thought and presentation.

    So I think you should ignore the imposter feelings around your accent and appearance and focus instead on whether you are getting your points across. Smooth speaking just isnt that important unless you are an actor. As an interesting perspective, you can recall that at least two of our recent Presidents have had verbal tics that made them far from smooth public speakers–especially Obama (with his weirdly long pauses in the middle of almost every sentence) and the elder Bush (who rarely completed a sentence if he was speaking unscripted).

  4. Mind over matter, xyqademiqz. Mind over matter. It is all in the attitude. The world really does not concern itself with the size of your ass. They are all worried about their own (insert body part that could look more ideal), and some are just completely clueless about their appearance and the coherence of their talk. You very much DO belong – you are the generation of women that will make it easier for future 40-year old moms with accents and non-ideal body parts to feel like they belong. I am one of those too, and you help me feel like I belong. You’re a rock star, and I’ll make sure to tell you if/when I run into you IRL.

  5. While you see that one individual as calm collected and cool with a pitch perfect talk, how much were you influenced by looks, slides etc… ? When you listen to yourself and remove the bad visual, then things don’t sound as bad. So when you would listen to somebody with your eyes closed, does that change the talk quality?

    Also it is very clear that while your colleague might recognize a good talk when he sees one, he isn’t able to tell you why. Excellent talks do NOT need to be given by a native speaker. I am not one and I get compliments all the time and to the point that I get told I am better than native speakers, speakers who are excellent themselves and who have a larger active vocabulary than I do. However in the scientific world that is even a negative, since your audience is international and often can’t understand the nuances of your words anyway.

    So excellent speakers are those that have great transitions between slides. Who do never mumble. Talk to the audience. Speak with a clear voice that doesn’t sound too soft our too loud. They convey enthusiasm. I try to dissect great talks and speakers when I see them and then I try to learn from them. You need minimum language skills, but since you get high grades from your students on teaching, you might be closer to what you perceive as an excellent talk (also you don’t know how much time that person spent to put that talk together, versus the time you have … And are willing to put in).

    Other than that, yes imposter syndrome sucks. As much as I know I am a good scientist, I need the positive feedback once in a while to kick the imposter syndrome in the butt.

  6. Did you ask that perfect pedigreed individual whether they felt they had given a great talk? In my experience the best cure for imposter syndrome is the realization that everyone and I mean everyone feels it. Even those golden pedigreed gals and guys. “I’m only here because I got lucky and got into school X. ” “Famous professor Y got me my job, I didn’t really earn it.” “I’m only here because my parents are scientists and I knew how to play this stupid game. I’ve never contributed anything.” All sentences I’ve heard from golden pedigreed scientists. (All cases of talented people who deserve to play in the majors and who have contributed to science.) I find that realization (that imposter syndrome is universal) to be very comforting in the darkness.

    PS It sounds like the problem with the talk was the capabilities of the camera operator not necessarily the speaker. Hopefully, the audience is worried about understanding your science and not your a$$.

  7. > 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.

    I’m in the same boat as you here in that in theory I have a native language which isn’t English, but I’m actually not very good at that language. So so much so that I actively avoid talking in that language and for all practical purposes English is my native language.

    But at the same time, I regularly run into some Americans who are extremely articulate are able to speak with a level of polish and fluency that I simply don’t have. I don’t think it is a native speaker thing, maybe it is a cultural thing? Americans really are very good with speeches, presentations, jokes and so on. They’re also quick witted and funny, maybe this is what gets you dates in this country? I don’t know, but it’s definitely more than just English being their native language.

    Anyway, I’m not going to be at their leve ever and I think is this is probably, okay. At every level in my (short) career, I’ve expected to be found out. I remember thinking, “ok pch, you’ve had a good run so far but I think this is where the going gets tough and you’re going to get screwed.” And so far I’ve not been found out. People aren’t so shallow here and they seem pretty good at looking past minor flaws if you’re otherwise talented and knowledgeable.

  8. Just want to say thanks for this – though I’m a native english speaker, I feel like you are a lot like me, personality-wise. I always feel awkward, dorky, & disorganized when public speaking (well, during most times really) and the idea of watching myself on tape is nightmarish. It’s SO helpful to see similar struggles that I have from someone who is clearly accomplished, brilliant, and has “made it”. Thanks for writing about your trials and tribulations, in addition to your successes!

  9. I think you are awesome and I am so glad for the validation of shared experience that I read here. I am imagining the imposter syndrome boulder taking out a few things on its next slide down the mountain.

  10. “the effect is similar to opening your grant reviews”

    This, so much: you’re just having a flare-up. And I think you’re saying the same thing I feel: that for as many blog posts and Chronicle articles and written words that exist about Impostor Syndrome, for as well as you can identify exactly how and why you’re having a flare-up this week, I have yet to read: here is how you make it go away. Here is how you cure it. Here is how you feel better.

    It is like reading grant reviews*: immediately during that flare-up, this is just how it feels and there’s nothing to be done but wait for some time to pass and some perspective to leak in. There are no antibiotics, and no effective steroids (perhaps testosterone works, but no thanks). Just a cup of tea while you wait painfully.

    *I keep cringing every time I open my email this week because I know a set of them is incoming ….

  11. In preparing for the October session of my online seminar, I listened to the recording of the June session, and hated the sound of my voice, and some of my mannerisms. I worked myself into a funk and was sure I should stop offering classes, but I’d already collected the money… so I gave the class, and it was great, and I felt great after it. All I can say is thank god I didn’t record a video of me giving the class.

    Impostor Syndrome is hard to handle because even when you know what’s happening, it is hard to make it stop. I have two favorite ways to try to short-circuit it: (1) borrow from meditation, and notice the negative thoughts, name them, and then try to focus on something else (yes, this is really Californian of me, but it sort of works), (2) Refer to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s work on over-confidence (e.g., https://hbr.org/2014/07/the-dangers-of-confidence/) to try to focus on the positive of not being super self-confident.

  12. Much as I hate it, being in my forties has made me realize that sometimes that infuriating voice telling me I’m an Impostor is just the voice of my wacky mid-forties lady hormones. It enrages me to have to confess this, but the hormonal swings seem to be more extreme and less predictable than in the rest of my adulthood. Sometimes I can step away from the crazy once I remember that the crazy is really just chemical.

  13. I’ve read your blog for ages; you are a role model for me. This is very timely. I’ve struggled with imposter syndrome for years (well, forever), but it has peaked again in the last couple of weeks. I’m an assistant prof at a major research university. I’m also an underrepresented minority, first generation born in the US, working class parents. My department is currently starting a search for a new assistant prof, and I’m on the search committee. At our first meeting, the chair made the point that we are looking for superstars…but if there is a minority applicant that isn’t a superstar on paper, we should still consider them. I was hired without a glamour mag pub, without funding of my own, so I can only interpret this as meaning that I was a sub-superstar hire. I went home and cried. I hate crying, and I never cry. I’m a diversity hire. On the bright side, they’ll probably have to give me tenure.

  14. @anony- For what it is worth, I don’t think there is any shame in being a “diversity hire.” It doesn’t mean your work isn’t as good as the “superstars.” It means that due to structural discrimination at every stage of your career, you are less likely to have the CV bullet points that usually recognize excellent work.

    In my experience in hiring (in industry, not academia), the hires that people considered “diversity hires” were among the strongest when judged on their ability to do the actual job. Their resumes were just “weaker” by our usual ways of assessing them, both because of the aforementioned structural discrimination and because frankly a lot of the usual ways of assessing resumes are themselves biased.

    Bottom line: I’ll bet you are a damn good professor now, and that’s what matters.

  15. To anony – as Cloud suggests, the key phrases are ‘on paper’ and ‘consider’. We look more closely at candidates from underrepresented groups, knowing that what’s on paper may not fully represent their talents. But that just gets you consideration – if they offered you the job, it’s because your talent shone through when they considered you properly.

  16. @anony- no need to cry…even if it might be true that you were a diversity hire, just think of it as an opportunity. People get advantages for all sorts of reasons that are not directly related to their professional abilities (charisma, superstar advisors, happened to be at the right place at the right time, a mentor who likes you and will pull strings for you, etc). So whatever. They all somehow bamboozled their way there. Just do your job and be awesome.
    By the way, in my department (at a major research university), we always put a minority candidate on the short list, but never hire them. Someone always argues that the white guy is so much better, and he went to Harvard and worked with a Nobel prize winning advisor.
    We cannot force the crusty old white guys to change their views, not easily anyway. They will say that they support diversity, but they will still not do anything to actually support it. What we can do is to suck it up, take the opportunities, be awesome and be role models for the next generations so this kind of crap would stop happening.

  17. @anony

    A couple of years ago, we had a recruitment with a strong applicant pool out of which we interviewed 6 people, 4 were great junior candidate, one was a senior candidate who would have been good but I thought he was just trying to get a competitive offer to raise his salary where he was (turned out I was right, and the committee who thought he really wanted to come were wrong—luckily he withdrew before we had finalized the decisions), and one was a “meh” candidate. The department argued long about which of the junior candidates to hire, as each one had different strengths and would interact with different existing faculty. Of the four, 2 were men, 2 women, and one of the women was also an underrepresented minority. All were great, and we really wanted to hire all four, but only had one slot.

    What we ended up doing was hiring two—we used the minority status of one of the candidates to finagle an extra slot out of the administration. So was she a “diversity hire”? In a sense, yes, because we would not have had the slot without that extra status, but in another sense, no, as she was one of the four roughly equal candidates. We would not have been able to get the slot for her (even with minority status) if we had not had several faculty from different departments saying that we had to hire her for her research.

    There are often nearly random decisions made in choosing between well-qualified people, and factors that should be nearly irrelevant (who you worked with, minority status, minor press coverage, bumping into someone at a conference, …) often make a difference. If the dice happen to land in your favor once, be glad of it, because more often than not someone else is the one who benefits from whatever irrelevant factors get included.

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