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Transcending Imposter Syndrome

A few years ago, I was talking to a professor's son, who had just been accepted to his dream undergrad program. He was in absolute disbelief about it, to the extent that there was a part of him that truly could not believe this was accurate. I asked him if, after he was notified of his acceptance, he had about 1-2 minutes of true happiness, immediately followed by something akin to horror at having duped the acceptance committee. I asked him if he was expecting a phone call or email almost any day to say that there had been a mistake; that someone else was supposed to have been accepted, but they had sent it to him instead. I asked if he felt bewilderment about what he had done "wrong" that had led this committee to conclude that he was actually right for this program.

His mouth dropped open more and more as I said these things. He had experienced them all. I told him about Imposter Syndrome and how it emanates. It was a brand new concept for him, and while I do not know if our conversation fully reassured him, it did help him understand that these feelings were not unique.

Learning about Imposter Syndrome truly changed my own perspective towards academics and helped me realize that I am unreliable when it comes to evaluating my own worthiness. Imposter Syndrome is the belief that any successes we have in life are the result of flukes or mistakes. It keeps us in a state of constant agitation that the people around us will discover that we are frauds pretending to be capable and worthy of the privileges that others have earned and we faked our way into receiving. Most importantly, we think we are the only ones who feel this way. When combined with other feelings of inferiority that could be fostered from a lifetime of negative programming (such as through discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or sexual identity; lack of support from parents or teachers; an inadequate level of finances, education, or experience; or through personally damaging thoughts), Imposter Syndrome can seem like a welcome explanation for successes we don't quite trust or understand.

Imposter Syndrome is hard to avoid in academia, especially once entering the upper stages. Academia can be strangely isolating, especially given the communal setting of classes, cohorts, and departments. Inasmuch as it is important to have a community, peers and classmates can often heighten the sense of being subpar. My most potent example came in my first year of PhD studies, when I enrolled in Classical Japanese courses. I had been speaking Japanese for years by this point, but I hadn't studied it formally for a long time (and even then, my studies were sporadic). The majority of my classmates had been admitted to study Japanese literature. Several of them had already studied Classical Japanese and/or Chinese or were from backgrounds where they had been fluidly using and reading these characters for years. To say that I was out of my comfort zone was an understatement, and the anxiety that I was feeling made my class performance suffer even more. I stuttered when asked to read aloud, and my mind went blank when asked questions. The constant state of raw nerves made me extra sensitive to perfumes and scents around me, resulting in multiple asthma attacks and being physically relegated to the corner of my classroom, since my instructor's perfume affected me the most. I felt like the class dunce. I told myself that it was lucky I had not been admitted to work under either of my Classical Japanese teachers, as I was sure that I would have been kicked out in the first semester.

It's been years since then, and I clearly survived the experience (both literally and academically). My asthma is back to being completely under control, including around perfumes. And I use Classical Japanese on a regular basis now for my research. In fact, the extremely detailed notes and quick reference guides I made during those classes continue to serve me, and have even become popular among friends and colleagues (including a few former classmates whose proficiency used to intimidate me!).

I still remember those feelings of anxiety and inadequacy, though. To some extent I've gotten over them or at least realized that they are no reason to give up. Recently, though, I had an exchange with a newer graduate student who was feeling the same level of insufficiency compared to her classmates. She asked how she could compete with the classmates who were so much better at the topic than she was.

I told her that she couldn't.

It was a revelation to both her and me. Of course she couldn't compete with them. She wasn't specializing in the subject matter the way they were. It was useful to her studies perhaps, but it wasn't the reason she was there. Meanwhile, her classmates had been working on that topic for a longer time and in a more dedicated setting than she had. It was essential to their studies in a way it wasn't for her. Moreover, if they had tried to take the courses most relevant to her research, they wouldn't be able to keep up with her, either.

I realized that while I still had an internalized sense of inferiority with my language fluency, I had more or less accepted it and just decided to move on. The main reason I had been able to continue on with my studies without collapsing into a pile of nerves and anxiety was because I had detached my accomplishments from those of my most immediate peers. I had to focus on my studies and my journey, which meant blocking out the accomplishments and capabilities of others around me.

Imposter Syndrome is fed by constant comparisons to others or by measuring oneself against an imaginary standard of "good enough." It is exceptionally easy to maintain in classes, because sources for comparison are constantly available, whether from classmates, the instructor, or the subject matter itself. It does not help that this is the manner in which most of us have been taught throughout our lives. We are one individual within a group, our class, and our progression is tied to one another. We are like playing cards, where our numbers and suits affect our success rates with the subject matter. If we are a four of spades, we may do well in spade-themed classes and yet fail at anything tied to hearts. We look at the nine of hearts and we envy them, ignoring the fact that there are still circumstances in which we succeed. It doesn't help that there are always those few royal cards, who seem to do well no matter what.

But that's not higher education, at least not at the graduate level (or at least not in my experience). Here, we transform from students to scholars, from playing cards to players. The cards in this case are the classes that we assemble for ourselves to give us a winning hand at our work. How I compare against my classmates in Classical Japanese does not actually matter. What matters is that I learn the topic in order to do the research that I care about. Comparing myself to others is pointless. They are busily assembling their own winning hands. And they aren't trying to win against me, any more than I am trying to win against them.

Yes, grades do still matter, as they are important to staying in the program and being competitive for external grants and jobs. That said, they do not matter in relation to one's classmates the way they may have in a lower academic setting. And yes, there are occasions where we will be competing against our peers for jobs and fellowships. That said, if your focus is on other people and their work instead of yourself and your work, then you aren't actually competing anyway.

Returning now to my professor's son, it has been several years since our conversation, and stories from my professor indicate that he is flourishing beyond belief at the program. I do not know if he still has any of those feelings of Imposter Syndrome, or if he even remembers us talking about it at all, but his accomplishments since then would suggest that he managed to work through them at the very least.

Perhaps that is the biggest takeaway with Imposter's Syndrome. It might always be there to varying degrees, ready to tell us that we aren't "good enough" or that we tricked our way into our successes. However, that's no reason to keep us from moving forward. After all, even if everything those negative voices say was real, it still means you made a heck of a case for your suitability. May as well see it through.

Disclaimer: Advice and suggestions are based upon personal experience as a student, applicant, and administrator. Listed content may not be fully comprehensive or applicable to all situations or circumstances. All content is original, but it is not necessarily unique and may bear similarities with others' suggestions. Content will also grow and adapt as I gain more experience.

Anyone making use of the resources and suggestions listed here are encouraged to seek out additional recommendations to build their own personalized approaches to navigating the often intimidating world of academia.

©2020 by Abigail I. MacBain