Imposter Syndrome (Ought Experiment)

Imposter Syndrome (Ought Experiment)

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got. Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Wouldn’t you like to get away? Welcome back to Ought Experiment, where everybody nobody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. This week’s question is about imposter syndrome, and the anxiety of interacting with colleagues.

Dear Louie,

I’m a brand-new faculty member fresh out of my PhD. As with many academics, I struggle with imposter syndrome and social anxiety. I’m also fairly introverted, and it takes a lot of energy to engage with my colleagues, especially in large groups. I worry that I’m somehow making a massive fool of myself, and am radically unqualified for this job. Though this is likely not the case (see imposter syndrome/social anxiety), it’s still psychologically draining, in addition to the actual work involved in being a faculty member.

Further, in trying to find a place socially and professionally here, I struggle with the pervasive gossip and politicking—I can’t trust my colleagues with my anxieties, since I have little confidence they won’t spread what I say, or use it against me. They’re also not my friends, they’re my coworkers—though they comprise the large part of my social life right now. I try to keep my head down and just do my work, but I have these nagging worries that make even the most ordinary conversations fodder for rumination days later.

Anxious and Exhausted

Dear Anxious and Exhausted,

Since I’m the only person in the profession who actually is an imposter, this topic is near and dear to my heart.

Okay. Imposter syndrome is so common, the few academics that never feel it develop imposter syndrome as a result. Heck, a young de Beauvoir decided that philosophy wasn’t for her after measuring herself against Sartre, writing “I’m no longer sure what I think, or even if I think at all.” It’s that common. To point you toward a fraction of the many resources out there, it’s been discussed here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and especially here. It even has its own Wikipedia page. Granted, I just edited that page to read “Imposter Syndrome is the painful discovery that everyone’s on to you,” but I’m sure the page has some other helpful stuff to say.

Of course, understanding that it’s Imposter Syndrome doesn’t prevent the damage. Anxiety doesn’t work that way. It’s going to take time. Academic confidence can build fitfully, then take dramatic and decisive leaps forward, and then crumble under the right conditions. It can fail to grow even when there’s reason for it to. But there will be moments when you feel like you belong at that table. Moments when something goes so right, even you can’t help but notice. Keep a Win File where you log such moments. And reread that file when you’re feeling drained. (Turns out, you’re actually allowed to submit evidence during the mental jury trial – I looked it up, and everything!) Over time, the confidence curves will smooth out. You’ll have too much data that contradicts the narrative. Or maybe you’ll just be too stressed out by major deadlines or tenure hurdles ahead to pay attention to everyday interactions. Either way, Imposter Syndrome will visit less often, and won’t spend an entire month crashing on your couch when it does.

The fear of appearing foolish can be especially intense when you’re just starting a job. But remember: they didn’t hire you because they wanted good seats to the Career Implosion Show. They want you to succeed, and are inclined to interpret you favorably. Even if your department is toxic, you’re probably not being assessed on a sentence-by-sentence basis. It’s all too easy to obsess about an interaction long after the other person has stopped thinking about it. And thanks to the Spotlight Effect, you might be worried about the impression you’re making when your colleagues aren’t even thinking about you at all.

Besides, it’s actually okay to sound foolish. Bold, creative philosophers make mistakes for a reason. And your reputation will weather such mistakes. I forgot that I’d already made a good first impression during my on-campus visit, so I resolved to ask the first question at the first colloquium of my first year on the tenure track. And it was so bad the speaker spent a few seconds visibly searching for a gentle alternative to the words ‘elementary logic’. It was so bad that undergrads the world over who never came to class and never did the readings spontaneously realized the importance of working hard. Yet I’m still employed. My colleagues think I’m swell. When they moved my desk to the parking garage the following Monday, they made it very clear that it was only because the ficus plant needed room to breathe.

All this gets emotionally trickier if you’re in a small town, an isolated department, or are far away from family. The lines between coworker, friend, and validating confidant can blur. If you’re not sure if you can trust your colleagues with your true feelings, the answer might just be: don’t. This is one reason why I think that online, anonymous, safe spaces are important, and why the discussion threads that follow these columns are so vital. But you might want someone that knows your actual situation. So stay in touch with your grad school friends. Seek out junior faculty at your institution who are in other fields, or similar-stage philosophers elsewhere.

Dealing with the dual drain of the job and stress-about-the-job is highly individual. I can only answer schematically. Pay attention to what helps you fight, and then recreate those conditions. Put in the professional and social appearances necessary for networking, ally-cultivating, and looking sufficiently engaged, but don’t feel pressured to attend everything. Figure out what recharges you – be it an academic or non-academic activity – and then go do that thing. Take real breaks, instead of just squandering the day away. Cultivate a hobby, like writing an advice column. And then prove you’re in control of your own destiny by turning in a column a day late.

Yes, keep your head down. Keep working. But that’s only half the story. If you always keep your head down, you’ll never come up for air. Don’t let this be your whole life. Don’t let this be your only source of self-respect. When you start out on the tenure track, you’ll be tempted to make ambitious plans that you’ll never realize, grand promises to yourself that you’ll never keep. You’ll fantasize about doing everything right this time around, and then drive yourself crazy when that doesn’t happen. Find ways to remind yourself that this is just a job, and mean it by carving out time to enjoy something else. Above all: forgive yourself, and do what you can.

— Louie Generis

Do you want Louie Generis to tell you what to do? Send your questions to [email protected]! You can also follow Louie on Facebook. And in the meantime, continue the discussion in the comments below.

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