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impostor syndrome

Last week I did a presentation at a SWE conference about impostor syndrome that went really well, it was good for me to research so I want to type out a bit about what I learned here in the blog for posterity's sake. I decided on the topic last year, when I transitioned to a new team at work and had this recurring nightmare that they totally didn't need me for anything. I actually think it was one of you LJ friends who said impostor syndrome was my problem, so I vowed to do a little more googling to figure out what was going on with my head.

What I found is that a lot of people report this secret fear that they're not really that smart, and it's only a matter of time before they're "found out". Like they'd tricked their first group into thinking they were capable, but the next one might be wiser and wonder why anyone ever thought they'd do well. They attribute the success they get to dumb luck instead of talent, and ignore evidence that they're really capable. In that respect it's different from low self-esteem, where you just feel bad about your potential. Impostor syndrome is about having evidence around you that you're smart, and choosing to ignore it.

It tends to afflict people when they're transitioning, in stressful situation, just basically out of their comfort zones. I also saw it talked about a lot in certain personality type forums - for instance, introverts are so used to "faking it" in social situations where they really feel drained by all the interaction, it's no surprise that they sometimes feel like fakes in other areas as well. Intuitive types, as opposed to the MBTI "sensors", are less likely to look at facts around them and more likely to want to analyze a big picture or read between the lines: let's just call them overthinkers anonymous and move on. They're great thinkers, but can get stuck in their heads. So if you took myers-briggs and your first two letters are IN, you might be set up.

It also plagues minorities who might naturally feel like they don't fit in. Society sends us all kinds of messages on what an engineer/scientist looks like - if we go against that, a part of our brains might be prone to get nervous. You can get the same effect in smaller circles, like families that label their children as "the smart one" and "the sensitive one"... as these kids turn into adults, they have to beat those labels to be who they truly are and that can be tough.

All of these secret fears can make one want to avoid challenges, procrastinate, even miss opportunities... that's what's so annoying about it. You can be so afraid of inadequacy you actually become inadequate.

The best thing to do about impostor syndrome is to surround yourself with good mentors who can accurately help you assess your strengths and weaknesses. In my presentation I actually used Hunger Games as an example... Haymitch might have been a raging alcoholic, but he woke Katniss up to the facts that 1) she could win but 2) she had to work on some charisma. Having a mentor to help you sort out your weaknesses helps keep you from inventing your own, or assume you're just one huge weakness poised to fail.

It also helps to put yourself in other people's shoes... realistically, they probably have better things to do than "discover your secret" of not being God's gift to your industry.

And who cares if you're not God's gift to your industry anyway? Most of us aren't in our fields to be THE BEST. There will always be someone smarter than you, always someone with more power than you. The only thing you can do is be yourself. Grow, learn, and love what you do... it's okay if someone else is better at your job.

Spend your time preparing for the best, not fearing the worst. Keep a file of your successes to flip through when you're down - the nice emails from coworkers, reassurance from your family. Maybe you can even pat yourself on the back for even having these fears of incompetence, it means you're outside your comfort zone.

And finally, help others. Mentoring is a great way to learn to give honest feedback, recognize what we have to get back, and give other people the words to own what's going on with them and maybe learn some more of those words yourself.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 5th, 2013 07:11 am (UTC)
I spent most of early grad school facing imposter syndrome. It was complicated by the fact that I was way younger than all my classmates; I received my acceptance letter to the Ph.D. programme a few days before my 20th birthday. A good half of my students were older than me the first 2-3 semesters I taught, and I made sure absolutely none of them knew that.

It wasn't until while I was dissertating (or maybe even after I'd defended, I don't remember now), I was sitting in on a master's course my supervisor was teaching, and suddenly realized that I was the smart-alec sitting in the back of the class with all the clever remarks and good questions. I'd finally become the people I'd always compared myself to unflatteringly.

And after that, it went away. I haven't had imposter syndrome since.
Mar. 5th, 2013 06:12 pm (UTC)
i'm not sure if this is true for everyone, but i had this much worse when i was working as a journalist and thought i was happy but wasn't. well, ok that's not even true. i was a great paginator and designer but an awful reporter and writing stories and doing interviews was definitely where the impostor thing came up. i used to procrastinate the crap out of calling people for interviews and only finish my stories by deadline by the skin of my teeth. i had no direct oversee-er i was the boss of the section i was writing for. so no one was there to create an artificial deadline before the stuff actually needed to be in so there would be time for editing and fact checking and rewrites.

i was always terrified people were going to find out that i had such high anxiety about doing interviews that i spent most of my early week goofing around on lj to avoid doing work.

now, as a doula, i don't feel the impostor thing at all! sometimes i feel like i know more than the people around me, which may or may not be true. but i definitely feel confidence and happiness and love for my job. perhaps this stems from only having had good outcomes, which i do realize can't last forever.

but i also think its because i'm doing what i'm "supposed" to be doing, if that makes any sense. i felt impostory as a reporter because in some ways, i was!
Mar. 5th, 2013 08:45 pm (UTC)
I really like that you included things to do about it and ways to think about it. It's taken so long to figure that out on my own. I hope some of the women you talked to take away some good from that. I find it's important to check: am I giving myself enough credit for the awesome stuff I do? 'cuz make no mistake it is awesome. :)

I would be extremely hesitant of suggesting to anyone that the reason they feel impostor syndrome is because they're not doing what they should be doing. Because a lot of it is created by the people around someone being assholes and putting them down / society expectations that you shouldn't be doing what they're doing because they're minority / lower income / woman. So while that may be how you feel, thesynergizer, I would not generalize that.

Still hard to be a minority in science. Or a woman. That's just sciences but that doesn't mean sexism/racism isn't everywhere. It's just not as overt any more.

Edited at 2013-03-05 08:46 pm (UTC)
Mar. 6th, 2013 08:49 am (UTC)
Imposter syndrome: I like it. I thought it was just me.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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