Your imposter syndrome is irrelevant

Okaaaay, so this is pretty provocative as a title, but it’s also true and can be massively liberating. I hope it is for you. 

Imposter syndrome is a very common phenomenon whereby women and men feel like the are frauds, likely to be found out at any minute, and thrown out of their jobs, scholarships, university places etc. in spite of no evidence of incompetence.

The psychological experience of believing that one’s accomplishments came about not through genuine ability, but as a result of having been lucky, having worked harder than others, or having manipulated other people’s impressions, has been labeled the impostor phenomenon (Clance & Imes, 1978).
(From Langford & Clance 1993).

Imposter syndrome is extremely unpleasant for the person experiencing it. The syndrome leads people to feel high levels of anxiety, it leads to perfectionism, and it leads people to discount praise.

However, if what you have is actually imposter syndrome, I have great news for you. It’s all in your head, everyone else feels the same, and it is completely irrelevant. 

If you did the work, took some holidays, got the results, made some mistakes, worked your networks, annoyed some people, got lucky, got unlucky (in other words, had a normal career of ups and downs)–then all we care about is whether you keep doing the work, and aren’t an academic asshole

To be honest, most of the time we wouldn’t mind much even if you were the beneficiary of some common-or-garden nepotism as long as you try to be a decent human and do a decent job. And since imposter syndrome is basically a mechanism for working hard–because you are concerned about unfairness in the system–you’ve already got this on lock. 

Imposter syndrome has to be kept a secret, because it’s a shame response. But shame and perfectionism is the opposite of trying to be excellent (as Oprah and Dr Brené Brown discuss below!)

Imposter syndrome is made up–you don’t actually have any evidence for it. You have to create the evidence for it by discounting praise, by discounting hard work, by discounting successes. This enables you to create a ‘feeling’ of being an imposter.

I’m not saying you are doing this on purpose, or that emotions and the imagination are irrelevant. But I am saying you can chose to do the opposite on purpose, and that you can chose to harness your emotions and the imagination for positivity too. This might involve talking to a counsellor or reading a book like Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection.

Once you stop focussing on whether you ‘feel’ like you belong, ‘feel’ like you deserve your successes, ‘feel’ like you are doing a good job–you can stop focussing on hiding yourself. You can start focussing on other stuff, like work, or research, or hobbies, or being well.

So, as I said: It’s all in your head, everyone else feels the same, and it is completely irrelevant. 

Feel free to ignore your imposter syndrome and get on with your research and your life. 



However, there IS a group of people who shouldn’t dismiss their feelings of ‘not belonging’ as imposter syndrome. These are people who are told, by other people, that they don’t belong; people who are told, by other people, that they aren’t good enough. 

For example, there is evidence that Women of Colour in academia feel imposter syndrome at high rates–but their feeling of being unwelcome, of feeling like they don’t belong, is probably due to the racism and sexism that leads people to say things like: ‘you probably got in as a diversity hire”.

“I’ve been subtly told by a peer that I probably got this coveted job because I checked two diversity boxes; female and Hispanic,” she explained. “It’s making me doubt myself even though I have a PhD.”
(What To Do When You’re Called A ‘Diversity Hire’)

Everyone who belongs to a marginalised group (whether due to class, race, gender, sexuality, family life, language background, health or anything else) has many stories about this kind of comment from colleagues, teachers and fellow students. It makes for a lot of grim reading. If you are looking for somewhere to start reading, I’d begin with Sarah Ahmed’s On Being Included (heavy on the theory), or Tressie McMillan-Cottom’s Thick (more accessible).

At the same time, anyone who is a student, a post-doc or an early career researcher is in a position of unequal, and often exploitative, power relations in the modern university. If you are working casual jobs, or are being bullied or sexually harassed, then you too are being told every day ‘you don’t really belong here’, ‘you aren’t welcome’.

That’s not imposter syndrome, that’s being told you are an imposter. It’s not in your head–it’s in the head of people who have power over you. Dismissing it rarely makes it go away.

Sometimes you can find a safe place to work, or a safe way to change your working conditions: change your supervisor, change departments, move to a new university. Sometimes you can find allies and advocates: most Australian universities have unions, student advocates and strong anti-bullying support structures, which may help. Sometimes it’s safer to leave.


The other group of people who need to pay attention to what we often call imposter syndrome, are people with anxiety issues. ‘Anxiety issues’ doesn’t mean that ‘you feel stressed sometimes’, but that the stress and fear makes it hard to function. This kind of anxiety is a significant mental health issue, and should be treated with the support of a mental health practitioner.

But again, the issue isn’t that you have made up a story where you don’t belong–but rather that if you found a way to feel good about belonging, your anxiety illness would just go and find something else to worry about, until you get it under control.

What’s more, your mental illness puts you up in the previous section–there is still significant stigma in academia about mental health issues, so you may well have been told people like you couldn’t ‘hack it’ in the academy. That’s a message coming from outside the house.


And so this is the final reason everyone should give up their imposter syndrome. People who ‘feel’ like imposters, but are actually welcome in the room, are taking up space and emotional energy on stressing about their own feelings of completely made-up unworthiness.

The energy and brain-space being used up on imposter syndrome actually needs to be used to combat inequality and prejudice. We need to accurately work out what is making people unwelcome in research settings, and change that.

So, if what you have is actually imposter syndrome, your imposter syndrome is completely irrelevant, and you can… let it go. 


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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