That’s one of those faux-medical terms for a very real thing: you feel like you don’t really belong, you aren’t really qualified, and at any moment someone is going to find out and your whole life will come crashing down. It’s related to perfectionism in that it’s about not believing you are good enough. It prevents you from taking past success as evidence that you are good enough, because you attribute it to a mistake.
You are good enough.
I’m sure you are. No one made a mistake hiring you. No one made a mistake publishing your book or article. And no one made a mistake citing your work.
You might be an impostor anyway if …
- You have pushed away that thing you really want to do and found “safe” topics to research and write about.
- You write in ways others expect and get published, and cited, and you get tenure, promotion, funding.
- You teach the way that seems normal and acceptable even though you have ideas about other possibilities. Your students do just fine. Your evaluations are fine. But there is this feeling.
- You keep your administrative ambitions quiet because your colleagues are suspicious of anyone who would want to be a head of department much less a dean or something.
Are you acting the part of what you think a successful academic looks like? Even though the costume chafes a bit and the role doesn’t really feel like what you thought it would? Your challenges are often fitting in and figuring out what others expect so you can do that. However, the things they want aren’t really the kinds of meaningful challenges you enjoy.
What if you ARE an impostor?
The academic you want to be and would love being, would do this differently. Not completely differently but something is significantly different.
If you stopped trying to play the part you think you’re supposed to play what would happen?
What would you do differently?
Why is that important to you?
What kind of academic does that make you?
You may have trouble hearing the answers to those questions. The part of you that would do these things has been locked away. Their voice may be tentative. The gremlins will be shouting about the doom that will descend if you do this, drowning out the quiet tentative voice of the academic you really want to be.
Try to hear the voice. Write down what it has to say. Do not let it die in the dungeon you’ve locked it in. In fact, if you let it live and speak more loudly, and you do what it says, you may find that the gremlins are wrong. At the very least, they exaggerate.
And maybe, just maybe that sneaking feeling that you are an impostor will go away.
Navigating Imposter Syndrome on Our Own Terms by Hyeon-Ju Rho has some excellent tips, including what to do instead of trying to be someone you are not.
If You’re So Successful, Why Are You Still Working 70 Hours a Week by Laura Empson in the Harvard Business Review talks about how employers create cultures that create this problem by recruiting insecure overachievers. Based on research with accountants, lawyers, and other professionals it is worth reading.
shortly after I wrote this post I came across Where Self-Esteem Comes From by David Cain. He poses the question in a very interesting way “Do I like who I am while I’m doing this?”
On valuing your work engages with some ideas from an artist
I’ve also written about The Importance of Your Vision as an alternative to being guided by external forces
And there is a series on confidence which begins with Where does confidence come from? Part 1: meaningfulness