Recently, a friend passed along a question from a colleague who asked for advice about combating impostor syndrome. Susan Pinker’s Psychology Today column describes the origins of the term to describe a pervasive self-doubt and minimizing of accomplishments that is often found among high-achieving individuals. Imposter syndrome is not a psychological disorder, but rather a loose descriptive term that covers a range of tendencies and behaviors. These include attributing one’s successes to external factors out of one’s control, like luck or coincidence, but at the same time internalizing any mistakes or failures as one’s own fault. This often causes individuals either to continually strive harder for success or to consciously aim lower than their true level of possible achievement so as to minimize their suffering.
To be clear: I’m not a psychologist and I don’t personally have much investment in calling this a “syndrome,” which can tend to have a medicalizing or pathologizing effect. But the term has made its way into the language of pop psychology and into our popular culture. Much of what has been written about this set of behaviors tends to locate it in the individual, describing, for instance, famous accomplished women who tend to downplay their achievements.
Moments of Transition
Academics, including graduate students, are often thought to be particularly prone to this “syndrome.” Rather than labelling or pathologizing individuals, I find it helpful to analyze the ways in which the institutions and structures of academe can temporarily encourage such misperceptions and doubts. At key junctures in an academic career, it is quite normal to feel overwhelmed by new responsibilties and roles that one must take on for the first time. Consider, for instance, the transition from writing seminar essays to writing a dissertation; from being a student to teaching one’s first course; or from being a graduate student to advising and teaching graduate students for the first time. Each of these professional milestones requires that you perform a role for which you have trained and studied, but can’t possibly have practised. You’ve never written a dissertation or a monograph until you actually do. You’ve never taught a graduate seminar until you actually do.
Even when you have passed some of these career milestones, it’s not at all unusual to feel suddenly overwhelmed by a new job at a different institution, a new administrative role, or teaching in an entirely new area or subfield. In such instances, you have to act as if you already know how to perform this new role, even though you may be learning how to do it at the same time.
Academics, of course, know very well how to find information and learn something new. But that well-honed ability can sometimes add to the sense of overwhelm or paralysis. Who hasn’t at times dramatically over-prepared for a new course or new unit within a course? Over-preparing not only usually diminishes the quality of the class, since you’re trying to fit in six hours’ worth of material into one, but also can raise your anxiety level, since each additional book or article you consult in your research suggests three or four more that you really should have read as well. It’s easy to lose sight of why you were reading up on the topic in the first place.
The same thing can happen in the early stages of a new writing project. Filled with enthusiasm about your topic, you plunge into reading the recent scholarship. Two weeks later, you know a lot about what everyone else has to say, but begin to feel like you have nothing to contribute (or at least not yet, until you’ve spent another three years learning all there is to know about the subject).
Shift Your Perspective
Think like a creator, not like a sponge. Most of us were trained to be very good sponges: we can soak up information and absorb it so that it feels like its our own. But focusing on all that you don’t know and on what other people are doing can easily overwhelm your own sense of agency. To think like a creator, however, is to always keep in mind what it is that you want to do, to build, to create in the world, whether that’s through a course, an article, or a new administrative structure.
For example: is your goal in Tuesday’s lecture to tell your students everything there is to know about George Eliot’s biography, career, and philosophy? is it to give them the historical and political contexts for Middlemarch? is it to discuss narrative theory as it relates to the novel? You can’t do it all in one day’s lecture. But it’s your class to create. It’s up to you to choose. That’s a powerful, exciting freedom we have. Remembering that by asking “what do I want to create for Tuesday’s class?” can help you sort through all the material you’ve been sponging up in your preparation and make thoughtful creative choices.
I’ve offered differently-worded versions of this advice to students and friends frequently over the years. It’s helpful for the MA student overwhelmed by a 50-item bibliography and for the new dissertation writer needing to find his own critical voice. It’s helpful for that dark day when you discover that someone else has just published a book on the same topic you’re writing about. It’s helpful for any moment when you catch yourself thinking “I’ll never know enough.”
I’m not sure that the demons of self-doubt will ever entirely disappear from my life or that of most academics I know. Like returning to the breath in meditation, coming back to this idea of being a creator is itself a practice that opens up a space of transformation. Reading it once, saying it once, probably won’t be enough. I’ve learned to ask myself each day, in a variety of personal and professional contexts, “what do I want to create here?” Shifting my perspective from the passivity of the sponge to the activity of the creator helps me take clearer steps towards my goals. When you’re in the mindset of the creator you can more accurately evaluate what it is that you still need to learn and what you can do to begin making your own contribution.
What is it that you want to create today? let us know in the comments!