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.

Best,
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.

ought experiment impostor

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Blog Imposter
Blog Imposter
6 years ago

Are there meant to be resource links in the first paragraph? I don’t see them. Maybe it’s just me. Great, now I feel like a blog-reading imposter.Report

Louie Generis
Louie Generis
Reply to  Blog Imposter
6 years ago

Speaking of blog imposters, this column is a day late because I wrote The Grammarist for advice about whether it’s spelled ‘imposter’ or ‘impostor’. I went with ‘imposter’, and apparently either is fine, but I still want Justin to delete the entire column and replace it with a picture of a ficus plant.

http://grammarist.com/spelling/imposter-impostor/Report

Christopher Hitchcock
6 years ago

John Johnson, a smart and thoughtful astronomer at Harvard, has a number of good posts on his blog about impostor syndrome in academia: http://mahalonottrash.blogspot.com/search?q=impostorReport

anon
anon
6 years ago

Maybe Imposter Syndrome is common due to the astronomical rise in power from an underpaid ABD grad student adjunct to a full-time tenure-track assistant professor. Or maybe it’s due to survivor’s guilt for being one of the few to get such a job in a dwindling market. Maybe once everybody stops pretending, there won’t be anymore imposters.Report

Demonax
Demonax
Reply to  anon
6 years ago

In the midst of all the psychobabble chatter, it’s refreshing to see someone cut through the nonsense and concisely get to the heart of the matter. Particularly the point about survivor’s guilt. The only problem is that if all the phonies (and they’re all pretenders – someone once told my mentor that he was just an ignoramus pretending to be a philosopher and he replied ‘Perhaps that’s precisely what a philosopher is.’) stopped pretending not only would there no longer be impostors there wouldn’t be very many undergrad philosophy majors or philosophy grad students, either. After all, who would willingly and with eyes wide open want to be part of a profession that sacrifices half or more of its members on the altar of capital, while rationalizing the catastrophe with elitist claptrap (amounting to ‘many feel called but few will be chosen’). Departments would be shut down due to lack of enrollment in fairly short order. Soon enough they probably will be anyway at all but the most prestigious and highly-endowed institutions. I’m beginning to think that only a dog can save us.Report

David Slutsky
6 years ago

For an illustration I like from popular culture, see the following clip from Michael Mann’s 2004 film Collateral – containing a U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor talking with a cab driver:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gskZ5mFHdnIReport

Coherentist
Coherentist
6 years ago

A couple of things that really helps me when this kind of anxiety interferes with my ability to work is to, one, listen to music that leaves me in a better mood (I have a playlist just for this — but I suspect everyone’s musical tastes and reactions differ) and, two, write down a list of things I either already feel accomplished regarding or reasons that if I screw up whatever this thing is I’m about to work on, I need not feel like I’m a screw up (things I value in my life, and so on), and, three, remind myself how many other people have felt just this way and still went on to do great things. And then if I do screw something up, watching YouTube clips of motivational speeches from the Rocky movies doesn’t hurt.Report

Misosophe
Misosophe
6 years ago

I see this as more of an example of Special Snowflake Syndrome, also known as the I’m Okay, You’re Okay Delusion. One must be suffering from some kind of delusion to simply assume that all of these (apparently) numerous cases are really instances of “Impostor Syndrome,” which implies that the people in question are not *really* impostors, but *feel* that they are due to some psychological problem; anxiety, etc. If we’re being realistic, almost everyone in every philosophy department is an impostor: they treat philosophy as a career and publish boring, unimportant crap in order to make tenure, then have the gall to call themselves “philosophers.” I think anyone who has doubts about the value of their philosophical work is probably justified in having such doubts, and to treat it as obvious that these doubts are not justified — “Oh, no, certainly your work is very, very important to the discipline, my special snowflake” — may be a good way to comfort the psychologically fragile, but it is certainly not honest.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Misosophe
6 years ago

If everyone is aspiring to be the next Aristotle or Aquinas, perhaps the overwhelming majority of philosophers are imposters — but, as it turns out, even Aquinas in the end thought everything he had written was like straw. I think one lesson of the earlier post, on unsung heros, is that stepping into the classroom is stepping into the opportunity to make a difference in your students’ intellectual lives (at least I feel that’s what many of my professors have done, and it seems like quite of few others feel the same way). Which is to say by way of illustration, while there are certainly some negative features of contemporary academia, there is much that is valuable in what many academics do as well, and we can acknowledge this without being dishonest.Report

Nonymous
Nonymous
Reply to  Misosophe
6 years ago

In my experience, actually, almost everyone with a tenure-stream position in a philosophy department is extraordinarily intelligent. In fact, I’d say they’re typically exceptional even within academia, let alone within the vast world beyond it. Of course, very few are first-rate philosophers even when judged by the rather depressing standards of today’s profession (as opposed to the more exacting standards of the tradition, as Kathryn Pogin suggests). But I have only encountered a few people who seemed to me as though they really didn’t belong in the positions they were in. That’s not to say that they got the position because they deserved it or were clearly the best candidates; frequently the other candidates were just as good, and plenty of people perhaps deserve a position — on some conception of desert, anyway — but don’t get one. Otherwise put, your special snowflake objection would apply only if the folks in question were imagining that they were special within the profession, as though what it meant to tell someone that he isn’t an impostor were that he’s the equal of Quine or Rawls. But failing to be an impostor does not require being a Quine or a Rawls, provided that one is not pretending to be any such thing. And it goes without saying that people who suffer from impostor syndrome do not typically suppose that they are the equals of Quine or Rawls. It’s rather as if a snowflake were to begin doubting whether she was made of snow at all. She pretty obviously is, and if anything is going to melt her it will be her own self-doubt.

This question really has little to do with whether or not the profession as a whole privileges “boring, unimportant crap.” I could accept that judgment and still think that most of the people writing the boring, unimportant crap were still perfectly competent professional philosophers. A legitimate criticism of the field does not entail a legitimate criticism of the qualifications of its practitioners. After all, many of those practitioners agree with your criticism of the field.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

Are academics particularly unkind? It’s often seemed that way to me. I know few people–even in fields where knowledge and confidence are critical for the respect of others–who are as beleaguered, beaten down and outright paranoid as academics. Why do we fear each other so much? Two other environments are described in the way academic departments are–high school and Hollywood. I have no big picture advice but one thing that’s worth doing is taking a step back and observing the self-hate and neuroses that are driving others around you–and try, the best you can, to avoid those. It’s quite possible the personality and character disorders that make others victimize us (or make us fear they will) are passed on via the academic culture. People get damaged and damage others in turn. I realize that doesn’t make sense to you now–but empowering yourself now by doubting the value system that produces such interpersonal toxicity will make you less likely to be part of the problem in the future. The world should be such that people lack the arrogance that would make them label others imposters, for example. In other words, you can’t protect yourself from people that suck but you shouldn’t make yourself a slave to whatever it is you think they want from you.Report

Josh Parsons
6 years ago

I like the spirit of what Misosophe said (and I’ve heard it said before) but to someone who’s far gone in imposter syndrome it can sound like just another reason to beat themselves up (Why am I feeling so bad? It must be because as well as being incompetent, I’m so arrogant as to think that I’m the next Wittgenstein [punches self in face]). Here’s a way of putting it that I like a bit better: imposter syndrome isn’t a difference from normality – it’s just how it feels to not be a narcissist. _They’re_ the ones who irrationally believe that they are geniuses who are always right and ignore all evidence to the contrary. You, on the other hand, are a normal, rational, person doing a very difficult and stressful job, involving a lot of responsibility, for nobody can be fully prepared, and naturally finding it stressful.Report

AverageSnowflake
AverageSnowflake
Reply to  Josh Parsons
6 years ago

I think there’s some middle ground between believing oneself to be genius, and having imposter syndrome. I mean, we can belong in our jobs even if there are a ton of other people who would belong just as well. What we’re doing takes some talent, creativity, and hard work, sure. But it’s not like those of us who are lucky enough to get our checks signed by a university are frauds unless we’re super-duper-extraordinarily-special.

Okay, I think I just made the same point twice. And for all I know, it’s been made upthread as well. So I guess, just have a great day you normal, non-special, but thoughtful and competent people!Report