Do you ever feel that if people really knew how much you were struggling, or if they knew how little you actually know, you’d be caught as a fraud? Do you ever feel like your qualifications, whatever they are, were somehow not really earned, and that you just got them because you got lucky or the people around you took pity on you? Do you ever feel like the people around you are all real adults, and you’re somehow struggling along as a child in an adult body?
Yeah, me too sometimes (but not nearly as much as I used to). This is called Impostor Syndrome, and it’s shockingly common. For example, one study found that the rate of impostor syndrome among executive women was 75%; other studies have found rates of 70-85%. There’s a funny story that made the rounds on the net a while back that I’ll summarize here:
Neil Gaiman (author of Sandman, American Gods, and lots more) was at a party where he felt like he didn’t belong. He ended up meeting another gentleman named Neil, and they started talking, partly because of their shared name. The other Neil said something like “I look around at all these people, and they’ve accomplished so much. I don’t belong here. I just went where I was told to go.” To which Neil Gaiman replied, “Yes, but you were the first man on the moon. That has to count for something.”1
I read a lot, and I read a lot of authors talking about the process of writing. Many authors, including some very famous accomplished ones, have suffered from impostor syndrome at some point(s) in their careers. What this tells me is that impostor syndrome is meaningless. If Neil Armstrong, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King and Margaret Atwood among many many others can suffer from impostor syndrome, then impostor syndrome is clearly not at all an indication of a lack of talent.
I remember when I was working on my PhD having thoughts along the lines of “This work isn’t rigorous enough to be a PhD” or “I just wrote this interesting program, there’s no actual PhD in here” or “The research we’re doing here just isn’t interesting enough” or “The structure of this department is so non-traditional that a PhD from here probably doesn’t count.” At one point, my advisor had invited a professor from another university to visit and take a look at what we were doing. I was one of the students who gave him a demo of what I was working on. At some point, as I was going through the demo, he said, “This is really cool. There’s at least one PhD in here.”2
Now, it would have been easy for me to respond to that with one of my standard ways of discounting positive feedback. In my case, that probably would have been “If he really knew what he was talking about, he wouldn’t say that,” or possibly “He’s just saying that to be nice.” But, this gentleman had a PhD, was a university professor, and was doing research that was directly related to the work I was doing; he clearly did know what he was talking about. And, one of the things my advisor was famous for doing and encouraging was delivering harsh or even brutal criticism as a way of toughening up his students, so “just being nice” was really not part of the culture there. These two things allowed me to believe his feedback, which was very helpful in believing that I actually had done real work that was worth earning a PhD for.
In many ways, this is just another perspective on “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”. One of the things I know about low self-confidence in general and impostor syndrome in particular is that they are justified and perpetuated by negative self-talk. Do any of these sound familiar to you?
“If they really knew what they were talking about, they wouldn’t think so well of me.”
“If they really knew who I was, they wouldn’t think so well of me.”
“They’re just saying that to be nice.”
“I really didn’t do that much.”
“I couldn’t have accomplished anything without all the people around me.”
“I just got lucky.”
“A real author wouldn’t have to struggle so much to write.”
What’s most pernicious about some of this self-talk is that there are times when, from a myopic perspective, it’s true. It is true, from a very narrow perspective, that Neil Armstrong just went where he was told to go. But, that perspective totally ignores all of the brutally hard work he did so that he could be capable of going where he was told to go — brutally hard work that many people would not be capable of completing. It’s true that I could not have gotten my PhD without the support of my advisor, my fellow students, the faculty of the institute, and the intellectually challenging environment there. But, that perspective ignores the fact that I did a lot of work in order to get there.
Whether or not the self-talk is true, it can be seductive. It’s (of course) very easy to believe the things that we think. I’ve found it crucial to have someone whose opinion and judgement I trust that I can confide all this stuff to, and who can guide me in learning more loving (and more accurate!) ways of talking to myself. I’ve talked before about the need for a coach (or someone who can play that role). The fact that I have someone in my life whose judgement I trust, who I know has my best interests at heart, and who knows everything about me has been invaluable in allowing me to (mostly) move past impostor syndrome and into self-confidence.
If you’re suffering from impostor syndrome, know that you’re not alone. Know that your mind is almost certainly lying to you. And, know that there’s a way out. It takes work, but you can get there.
- You can read Neil Gaiman telling this story himself at https://journal.neilgaiman.com/2017/05/the-neil-story-with-additional-footnote.html. ↩
- I would dearly love to acknowledge him by name and institution, but this was a long time ago and I’ve forgotten them both. If you visited the Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University in 1997 or 1998 and saw my demo, I’d just like to say “Thank you” from the bottom of my heart. ↩