An imposter among us

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A person looking at a laptop screen, eyes wide. A speech bubble says “they’re gonna know!”
Sitting around working with his brilliant coworkers, the grad student feels like he is in a lifelong game of Among Us. lee lim

Self-doubt is common, yet crippling

Many years ago, on a day when I was struggling with all the challenges life threw at me, I poured my heart out to a friend. I shared all the rough times I had been through, how I thought that things would get better over time but never seemed to, and how I never felt like I was enough.  

At the end of my rant, which my friend so patiently and lovingly listened to, I asked, “Am I the only one who feels this forlorn?” 

My friend, who has his wise moments, answered my question with one of his own. He asked, not unkindly, “If you were the only person who felt this way, why would there be a word for it?”  

On the surface this was a simple rejoinder, and yet I cannot tell you how many times since then this one thought has sustained me. If I were the only person feeling this, why is there a word for it? It must mean others felt it, wrote about it. Knowing that you are not alone in your darkest thoughts somehow makes those thoughts lose some of their power. 

This story is on my mind today because I am at a crucial juncture in my graduate program. But the situation I am facing is by no means unique to graduate students. As I sit in my research space, charged with analyzing a new problem, supported in part by scholarships that I have been fortunate to secure, one thought often rears its head. What if I am not good enough? What if everyone involved with my acceptance into the program, the scholarships, the grades, have been wrong?  

In short, I am struggling with imposter syndrome. Since there is a phrase to describe this feeling, clearly others have felt it too. Except my mind can believe, with immense ease, that all those others were wrong to doubt themselves, while I am not. 

Let us back up a bit. Imposter syndrome is, broadly speaking, a feeling of self-doubt about intellect, skills, and qualifications, especially when one finds themself among other high-achieving individuals. For me personally, it is often rooted in respect, if not awe, for my fellow researchers. I respect how good they are in their own fields, and find myself falling short in comparison. This is then followed up by a conviction that someone, somewhere, made a mistake by letting me into this group and that I am way out of my depth. Any day now, people will realize their mistake and I am going to be shown the door. 

As you can imagine, it can be hard to be productive and confident about your work while your brain is playing these tricks. Imposter syndrome is real and can cause a lot of suffering. While I still struggle with it every day, a few things have worked for me not completely cave in to it.  

Trust the experts. 

To get into a college/graduate program/job, you had to compete with other applicants. Your application was perused by people who have been doing this for a long time and know what to look for. When it is too hard to have faith in yourself, have faith in their experience and judgment. They picked you from a pool of applicants, so you could not have been completely unqualified. Perhaps there is a gap between where you should be and where you are. Which brings us to… 

Compare yourself to your own past. 

There is no point comparing yourself with others. You have not had the same experiences. Compare yourself to your own previous best. Are you learning more? Are you doing more? Do you know more today than you did before? Can you write better? In every tool of your trade, strive to get just a little better each time. And lastly… 

Take on challenges. 

Something that worked for my battle with self-doubt was to gather evidence against the charge that I was an imposter. I volunteered to present a difficult paper, or to write a report explaining a field of study, or just to read a difficult paper and convince myself I understood it. The point is, I take on challenges, and when I complete them, I have one more piece of evidence that I can in fact do those things. And if I fail, I then know why I failed and how to do better.  

None of these things are a panacea. I still struggle with self-doubt and I still have bad days. But taking my own advice, I can say with some sense of accomplishment that I have fewer bad days, spaced further apart. I guess the goal is not to be perfect, just better. 

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