Impostor Syndrome

Dr Shellie went to a workshop on Impostor Syndrome, which is “a behavior pattern in which high-achieving individuals (particularly women and academics!) have a hard time believing in their own success and intelligence”. As you’d expect, female academics are particularly prone to IS, and Dr Shellie tacitly admits to having some impostor issues herself.
I thought it might be interesting to have a kind of impostor — a male scientist — take the impostor syndrome diagnostic quiz, so here goes:

Do you secretly worry that others will find out that you’re not as bright and capable as they think you are?
Nope — I’m pretty secure about being bright and capable. (Modest, too, no?) I bet that’s a man thing — I’ve always been praised for anything I’ve done that indicated intellectual firepower, whereas women largely don’t get that kind of encouragement. Or, to the extent that they do get such encouragement within academic circles, it’s offset by pressure from the wider culture which tends in the opposite direction, focusing on female appearance and disparaging women’s intellectual achievements — see also this post from Dr Free-Ride on women and nerdliness.
Do you sometimes shy away from challenges because of nagging self-doubt?
No. I do wonder if I’m up to some parts of the larger job — getting funding, planning a long term research endeavour, managing a team — but those are long term challenges and so sorta hard to “shy away” from. Shorter-term things like giving a presentation or picking up a new technique I’m pretty confident with.
Do you tend to chalk your accomplishments up to being a “fluke,” “no big deal” or the fact that people just “like” you?
I think I do sometimes overdo the self-deprecation thing. That might be cultural though, as I grew up in Australia where it’s much more common (to the point of pathology, see also Tall Poppy Syndrome). On the other hand, I think it’s important to realise that luck does play a healthy part in many scientific accomplishments.
Do you hate making a mistake, being less than fully prepared or not doing things perfectly?
Sure. Doesn’t everyone though?
Do you tend to feel crushed by even constructive criticism, seeing it as evidence of your “ineptness?”
Not crushed — it annoys me, I can’t seem to help that reaction, but I realise it’s asinine and I always manage to step back and do my best to learn from whatever criticism I’m offered. If someone does catch me in an error I could have been expected to avoid, I do feel “inept”, foolish — but I think that’s normal, not Impostor Syndrome.
When you do succeed, do you think, “Phew, I fooled ’em this time but I may not be so lucky next time.”
Um, not really. Maybe a little. It depends on whether I felt secure going in — sometimes I’m not well prepared (for a seminar, say), and if it goes well I do feel I got lucky.
Do you believe that other people (students, colleagues, competitors) are smarter and more capable than you are?
I flat-out know that some of them are — but I think the question is aimed at a general feeling of not being up to standard, from which I do not suffer.
Do you live in fear of being found out, discovered, unmasked?
No.

In fact, I think a resounding “yes” to any of the last three questions might indicate serious anxiety and/or self esteem issues, possibly related to depression, and I think I would suggest professional mental health support in addition to Dr Young’s ten steps to overcome Impostor Syndrome. (If that sounds like a put-down, note that I have major depressive disorder and see a psychiatrist regularly. I know whereof I speak, when it comes to living with mental health issues.) I don’t mean to suggest that Impostor Syndrome should be subsumed into other “real” diagnoses — I think IS is a real problem, and like many (if not most) such problems it overlaps with several other parts of the mental health spectrum.

One thought on “Impostor Syndrome

  1. I first became aware of Imposter Syndrome in my early twenties, when I suffered from it much more acutely than I do today, though it still haunts me.
    Richard Burton was a famous sufferer. He was convinced someone was going to find him out and take his awards away.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *