Part II: The Breakthrough
In Part I of these blog posts, I shared my story as it relates to experiencing Imposter Syndrome in academia. Here, I will share what I have learned about Imposter Syndrome, its potential effects on mental health, and how to address and overcome it.
What is - and isn’t - Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter Syndrome refers to a “pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.” Basically, it is a form of cognitive dissonance, where despite evidence of your abilities and accomplishments, your feelings do not align with what you know to be true; it is a disbelief—a disassociation from belief.
Interestingly, Imposter Syndrome disproportionately affects hyper-achievers, perfectionists, and hyper-rationals, such as us—academics. The feeling - or fear - of being a fraud is not an indication that you are unintelligent, incapable, unworthy, undeserving, weak, lazy, unsuccessful, or otherwise lacking or inadequate. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Although that paradox is of little comfort when you experience it, it is, nonetheless, part of the awareness that you must build for yourself.
While a little self-doubt is normal, paralyzing self-doubt is not. In fact, that feeling of paralysis is a symptom of severe anxiety; it is an indication that your brain is stuck in survival mode because of perceived fear. Fear is not the same as danger, yet extreme stress triggers the same region of your brain - the amygdala - that engages the limbic system in a freeze, fight, or flight state—as if you were hunted by a predator. In this case, that predator is your disbelief in yourself. Your brain ceases to function in a thinking capacity, and instead is limited to functioning as a response mechanism as it relates to what is triggering your fear. The freeze response, in particular, occurs when you are reacting to a danger that you cannot overcome or run away from—in graduate school, the fear can be about not finishing your studies and also feeling unable to quit. Anxiety attacks are another symptom of severe anxiety, as are panic attacks, on the more extreme end of the spectrum; both are psychosomatic manifestations of fear.
It is important to be aware of these distinctions, as they are beyond the scope of what Imposter Syndrome is and how it can affect someone. For me, the transition from a generalized anxiety to uncontrollable attacks was the impetus for seeking a mental health practitioner. Generalized anxiety is arguably more detrimental, because your brain and body are in a constant state of heightened stress. If you experience any or more of the severe symptoms described, please seek the mental health resources available to you at your academic institution or through your healthcare provider. I am an avid advocate for destigmatizing mental health and emotional healing. It is important to normalize mental health for yourself, and to advocate for the mental health of others. Taking care of your mental and emotional health are key components of your self-care, especially as a graduate student, because graduate school is the onset for mental health challenges in a vast number of scholars.
Returning to my initial admission: Why did I feel like an imposter while writing this blog post? First, there’s the unfortunate feeling of being found out as “not a ‘real’ scientist,” because while anthropology is a science, there are many scholars in the so-called “hard” sciences who strongly disagree. Second, I only recently overcame this impostorism—through a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and professional coaching. Third, I decided to permanently leave academia, and as a result, some would argue that I am not “a real scholar” anymore. Finally, and importantly, this blog post is one of the first writing tasks that I have accomplished in several years. We will return to these points shortly.
What can you do about Imposter Syndrome?
Informing yourself about Imposter Syndrome is an imperative first step to bringing awareness to a common experience that may affect you and your peers.
As an anthropologist, I understand that culture shock is an important concept and an experience that can be lessened through preparation; I daresay that the analogy with Imposter Syndrome is very relevant.
Awareness of Imposter Syndrome allows you to recognize the symptoms before they affect your performance or become debilitating as a professional. Likewise, understanding your specific academic cultures brings awareness to group dynamics that affect your experience as a scholar; these cultures include academia, as a whole, and your specific institution, field, and department. I would be remiss to ignore that systemic gender discrimination and racism also form part of the challenges that readers of this blog can encounter, and can contribute to a sense of isolation and self-doubt that can be exacerbated in the academic context. This process of awareness is akin to learning about the culture of an unfamiliar country before you travel to it. By taking proactive steps that are more advantageous than reactive ones, you will be in a stronger position to navigate the terrain.
The next step that you can take is to integrate discussions about Imposter Syndrome with peers and mentors as part of your professional development. Create a space to talk about your individual and collective struggles. Suffering from Imposter Syndrome is very isolating; in the process of discrediting yourself, your sense of belonging to your peer group greatly diminishes. Despite how lonely it feels to be struggling with Imposter Syndrome, anxiety, depression, or any other challenge, I promise you are not alone. Vulnerability feels scary and exposing, yet it is a strength worth cultivating. By developing and nurturing peer and mentoring relationships that value vulnerability, you will build a strong support system for yourself and others.
Finally, I cannot overstate the importance of actively implementing strategies to counter self-doubt and develop true confidence. Before implementing any strategies, however, you must become aware of your recurring doubts. As in, what are the thoughts that replay in your head about your perceived failures, shortcomings, or weaknesses? What are the emotions produced by these thoughts? How do you talk about yourself in relation to your qualities, abilities, or performance? What actions do you take in relation to these thoughts? You need to understand these patterns about what you think, feel, and say about yourself, and what you do about it, because they comprise part of your neuro-linguistic programming, which can be reprogrammed!
Our brains tend to fixate on the negative data as a means to avoid future failures, which can be relevant from an evolutionary and survival standpoint, but detrimental for contexts where no actual danger exists. As a result, building a habit of positive evidence-based data to confirm your self-belief and counter your self-doubt is imperative—now and always. For example, what evidence can you use to demonstrate to yourself that you are capable and worthy as a scholar? Answering this question on a regular basis, and growing a comprehensive body of data about it, is a habit that you must be intentional in developing in order to strengthen your confidence as a scholar, and in whole, as a person. As with any new habit, it takes time to build. Be patient with yourself in the process, but stay committed!
Another strategy you can implement is to reframe your doubts as strengths. Let’s put it into practice, using the earlier paragraph about my own doubts as an example. To apply the reframe strategy, I could take the first point and assert that anthropology is both science and humanities, and, as such, it is the perfect field for a blog post on The Human Side of STEM and STEM Life. Second, my breakthrough on self-doubt may have been recent, but it took many years of challenging emotional and mental effort to overcome, and now you and I get to benefit from what I learned. Third, while leaving academia was a difficult decision and process, it was also freeing and necessary to fully embrace my calling as a professional and executive coach—and the lessons that I learned will greatly benefit others who want support in changing careers or remaining in academia (Figure 1). On the final point, writing this article is an accomplishment worth celebrating, because it represents a great deal of personal growth that allowed me to overcome a significant obstacle impeding my personal and professional progress. As you can see, this process of reframing focuses on the (multiple) learnings and successes, instead of your perceived failures or judgments.
Figure 1. The logo for Margie Serrato's company, Human Empowered, where she offers her services as a personal and professional coach.