I’ve been given the advice to fake it till I make it many times in my life. Through both successes and failures, that advice has been given to me again and again. But I find with each success, I worry it was a mistake that I did succeed. And with every failure, it was just a matter of time before my “faking it” was outed. I have Imposter Syndrome.
Some estimate that Imposter Syndrome is found in 70% of people, and it’s even more common in academia with its not-so-subtle all-pervasive need to constantly progress (papers, grants, papers, repeat). And it’s also more common in women than men especially in STEM fields. Damn I’ve got a double whammy.
I enjoyed a talk by the amazing Isabelle Cote a year ago, and she is one of the most inspiring academic women I know. She was speaking about having Imposter Syndrome herself—this woman who has 169 peer-reviewed publications at the time I’m writing this (by the time you read this, she likely will have more), has a vibrant research lab at Simon Fraser University, and many awards. In this talk, she showed us her CV in a traditional form—that showed her various successes—and she also showed us her CV of failures. All the grants she didn’t get. The papers that were rejected. Her fears that she didn’t deserve her faculty position. The point was that even she, as successful as she is, has a list of failures as well. If she feels like she’s an imposter what chance have I got?
You’d think it would be simple to just stop these negative thoughts, but our brains are wired to get a hit of reward neurochemicals, like serotonin, when we take part in negative self-talk. Super weird, but true. You can get those same neurochemicals with positive thinking and activities that give you a mental break, but ironically it takes training. All I can do is catch myself when my negative self-talk sets in, and remind myself not to be a bully to myself. I don’t know if I’ll ever truly feel like I deserve what I have. But as a conundrum, I keep striving to have what I deserve (that means always trying for more). It’s what keeps me going even with the failures. Paper rejected? I’ll edit that paper and submit it again. Pitch ignored? I’ll reword it and try elsewhere.
We work in a field where we’re constantly being judged and challenged by our peers. Thanks peer review. So no wonder my internal dialogue does plenty of judging and challenging of myself. It’s my critical thinking that’s my best asset, but also my worst enemy when I turn it on myself. Maybe if I can leave those judgements at the door, I can leave Imposter Syndrome behind me and find my serotonin hits elsewhere.