#scio13 aftermath: some thoughts about the impostor syndrome.

I didn't end up going to the Impostor Syndrome session at ScienceOnline 2013. I told myself this was because it would be more professionally useful to attend Life in the venn - What happens when you're forced to wear many hats? since I have recently added a hat of my own (Director of my university's Center for Ethics). But, if I'm honest with myself, it's because I felt like too much of an impostor to contribute much of anything -- even useful tweets -- to the impostor syndrome session.

I have felt like an impostor since at least high school, and maybe before that.

I have known, since at least my second year of college, that the impostor syndrome was a real phenomenon. It was even the topic of my term paper in Psych 101. But knowing that the syndrome was a real thing, and that it involved a mismatch between one's actual accomplishments and how accomplished one felt on the inside, didn't make me feel like less of a fraud.

It probably goes without saying that I had a flare-up of the impostor syndrome in my first Ph.D. program. I had another flare-up in my second Ph.D. program (although I was maybe a little better at hiding my self-doubt). Going on the academic job market in philosophy made me feel like perhaps the biggest fraud of all … until I went up for tenure.

The frustrating thing about the impostor syndrome is that it makes it utterly impossible to tell whether your successes reflect any merit, or whether they are pure luck.

Whether the potential others see in you is real, and could somehow be converted to something of value (if only you manage not to blow it), or whether your only actual skill is talking a good game.

Whether piping up to share what feel like insights is reasonable, or whether you are just wasting people's time.

I worry that what it might take to overcome my own impostor syndrome is an actual flight from reality. I know too many smart, accomplished people in my field who have not met with the recognition or success they deserve to believe we're working within a pure meritocracy -- which means it's unreasonable for me to take my own success as a clear indicator of merit. I also know that past performance is not a guarantee of future returns -- which means that even if I have done praiseworthy things in the past, I could blow it at any moment going forward.

And I also worry that maybe I don't really have impostor syndrome, in which case, the reasonable conclusion, given how I feel a lot of the time, is that I actually am a fraud.

So, yeah, it's one of those topics that feels very relevant, but is perhaps relevant enough that I'm not really in a good position to benefit from a discussion of it.

How's that for a paradox?

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Tweets from the Impostor Syndrome session have been Storified here.

3 responses so far

  • Kelly says:

    In particular, I think I'm quite haunted by the lack of meritocracy, but the fact that our language and discussion of success - whether it's academia or freelancing or just about anything - relies on a notion of meritocracy. My experiences the last few years have shown me, very clearly, that both are anything but a meritocracy, and that and the lack of ensuing language to actually honestly discuss things like success (and effort) seem to really help emphasize that overall impostor feeling.

  • becca says:

    Ultimately, one has to learn (for yourself and a variety of others) when and how to apply a meritocracy model.

    It's really hard to feel a given action/behavior/attitude is contributing to a poor situation without blaming the perpetrator of that action/behavior/attitude. I feel like an optimally functioning human in society does not default to blaming other people for their failures. That application of distrust in meritocracy is highly adaptive. There may be times for blame, but it must be considered and delivered with the intention of the growth of the person you're talking to, not the reflexive blame we apply out of fear.

    But an optimally functioning human as an individual sometimes does blame hirself for hir failures. That application of trust in meritocracy is highly adaptive. Indeed, probably necessary to learn some of the hardest lessons life has for you. Keeping it from getting out of hand is hard. If you've figured out how to only tell someone else they're screwing it up when telling them helps them do something about it- you can treat yourself better too. It's an imperfect process though.

  • [...] But here's something that makes the analysis difficult for the students: Often it's hard to pin down the fact of the case with certainty. The scenario is described from the protagonist's point of view. It seems to the protagonist that there's favoritism in the lab group, or that it's obvious why some of the measurement turned out the way they did, or that a colleague is going to react a particular way if a concern is brought to that colleague's attention. However, my students have been quick to notice in their discussions of the cases, what seems to be true to the protagonist might be false. For any number of reasons, the protagonist may have a skewed perspective on what's going on in other people's minds, on what the issues are with the experiment, even on his or her own competence. [...]