Friday, 25 July 2014

Post 25: The Impostor Syndrome

Okay, so I just wrote my last post mentioning the Impostor Syndrome, but realized that I haven't actually written about it before.

The Impostor Syndrome is a psychological phenomenon (not an illness or disease), whereby "people are unable to internalize their accomplishments" (thank you, Wikipedia.) It's oftentimes linked to the Dunning-Kroeger Effect, which I've posted about a little bit, here, right at the beginning of my blog. I've now convinced myself that the Dunning-Kroeger Effect is the positive, wonder-full closely-related flip-side-of-the-coin to the Impostor Syndrome, because when I'm feeling positive, and on top of my game, I really feel inspired and excited by recognizing that there is so much out there to read and learn and be exposed to, and so much that I don't know. Hundreds of years of other people's ideas and expressions and arguments and lessons and wisdom. It truly is an amazing time to live in, with the internet and interlibrary loans and blogs and journals, and being a part of academia. And then, when I'm feeling the full brunt of the Impostor Syndrome, all of that wonder kind of falls away, and instead those people or ideas who I admire, become unreachable, and become objects of terror and interrogation, because I might not be fully understanding them, or might be getting them wrong, and those are skivs that can be dug into my identity, my sense of being, and can be used as objects to prove that I don't belong where I am: that I am a fraud who doesn't deserve to be at this institution.

That is the Impostor Syndrome: that cycle of thoughts that tells you: You don't deserve to be in the program that you are, to have the position that you got, to earn as much as you do, to get the funding that you did, etc. And you feel like somewhere, someone is going to call you out for it, is going to embarrass you, is going to show the world that you really don't belong, and didn't, the entire time.
While discussing the sometime crippling tendencies for perfectionism in her awesome workbook for grad students, Laurie Waye employs the useful metaphor of the Cinderella Syndrome: "where you're at the ball (i.e. graduate school) but you don't really belong there. You're worried about being found out for who you really are..."

Reading on the Wikipedia page, I am not surprised to see that it was women (Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes) who first began to do research on this phenomenon (their article was published in 1978), and showed that high-profile, successful women exhibited this phenomenon, believing that they were over-evaluated by others, and were not intelligent (Wikipedia).

Since then, a number of high profile people—not only women—have admitted to struggling with this phenomenon, including an actress and humanitarian who I highly admire: Emma Watson, who was recently named to be the UN Women's Goodwill Ambassador, and others like the formidable US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and the writer Neil Gaimon. Other common demographics of people affected by it include (surprise!) graduate students, the beneficiaries of affirmative action (who think that they are chosen because of these 'exceptions', instead of their skills or abilities), and generally, successful folks.

Now, the tough part is that there is no 'cure' or solution for the phenomenon. The best thing to do is to talk about it, and be aware of it. To identify it. I know that I am grateful that it was discussed and mentioned by the staff person from Counselling Services for the graduate student orientation that took place right before the official start of my program here at UVic. I had never otherwise heard of it before, and certainly never felt it as strongly as I have over the past few months, during undergrad. One suggestion was to write actively about one's achievements, and while I don't think of it that way, one of my motivations (when I was writing excitedly about the Dunning-Kroeger Effect) was to keep track of all the wonderful things I get to do, experience, be a part of, during this graduate degree. Some of that includes marvellous things that are celebration worthy, like receiving great funding, and attending amazing conferences, and getting to spend time with brilliant colleagues and professors and ideas.

So, we need to be gentle with ourselves, and supportive of others. We need to take the positive side of competition, which is to help us become better people, and in this case, budding academics. Cheers to positive learning!

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