I’ve noticed that there are a broader range of terms used to talk about feeling like an imposter these days. Whatever you call it — syndrome, complex, feelings, or something else — it is a real thing that stops you from doing the work that you want or need to do…
Imposter feelings are about belonging.
There are many reasons you may feel like you don’t belong. Sometimes those stories of not belonging reach back to things that happened a long time ago. Sometimes it’s because there are people saying you don’t belong. Sometimes directly to your face.
Even the people who are trying to help you succeed may do that in ways that implicitly remind you that you have to counter the assumption that you don’t belong and aren’t good enough.
Imposter feelings are getting in the way of you doing your best work.
You are spending time and energy managing those feelings. You might be doing more work than you really need to to “prove” yourself. You may be putting a lot of effort into motivating yourself to do work that feels “safer” and not doing the work that feels risky.
I’ve written several things over the years about imposter syndrome: how it presents, what’s underpinning it, and how to address it so you can do your work and live your life.
This Spotlight brings those pieces together in one place. Many of the posts in this Spotlight contain practical strategies for addressing specific manifestations of imposter syndrome.
Belonging, Shame, and Courage
Back in 2016 I wrote “Do you suffer from Imposter Syndrome?”. In it I suggested that, perhaps ironically, you might be trying to be someone you aren’t as a reaction to the narratives telling you that you don’t really belong. “Are you letting fear drive your decisions”, is a variation on this theme.
Some of the structural features of academic work can trigger your imposter feelings, as I noticed when I was writing about Peer Review for my Short Guide series. “Shame, vulnerability, and academic work” summarizes some key points from the work of Brené Brown, on shame & vulnerability, and Carol Dweck, on mindset.
I returned to the topic more recently with a specific focus on ‘survivor guilt‘, which is a form of imposter syndrome experienced by those who are successful in highly competitive situations, like the academic labour market. It includes a whole section on the ways in which your feelings are in some ways rational responses to your past experiences.
Neurodivergence can affect how imposter syndrome impacts you in the workplace. As I was preparing this Spotlight, Daniel Sohege wrote a thread on Bluesky & Twitter about their experience of Autistic Imposter Syndrome and has given me permission to republish it as a guest post. Importantly, they connect this sense of not-belonging and shame about being perceived as lazy to overwork.
“On valuing your work” quotes extensively from a blog post by an artist about the ways our mentoring strategies can inadvertently reinforce the sense of not belonging. There are ideas here for practices that might support your students and mentees’ ability to develop a sense of inner confidence about the value of their own work. (And we can always use those on ourselves…) “Risking doing the work you find meaningful” is a variation on this theme, looking at both how choosing “safe” topics leads to problems of motivation, but also the potential benefits of having the courage to be yourself.
How it shows up specifically
One of the ways imposter syndrome shows up is in that feeling that you haven’t read enough. “There will always be things you don’t know” reminds you that this is a feature of this kind of work, not a personal failing. You know things other scholars don’t know. You will always be learning and expanding your knowledge.
Thinking you should have outgrown this by now is a variation on this theme. “Experienced writers vs novice writers” was prompted by a social media conversation in which someone admitted that their frustration was based in a belief they should have outgrown the need for some of the strategies they teach their students. I address the way that feeling impacts your ability to estimate the time projects take, and value the progress you’ve made in a particular writing session, in “The work you wish you didn’t have to do”.
In addition to making you question how you do the work and whether you are qualified to do it, imposter syndrome also appears when you are deciding what to research or what to publish. “You don’t have to find a gap in the literature” reframes the role of the literature review. “Sneaky ways your gremlins try to get you not to actually publish” addresses a situation in which this kind of doubt crept in much later in the process.
It’s not just your writing and research. “Taking on a leadership role” is a moment in your career when you are doing something new. It’s unsurprising you may doubt your ability at this point. That doubt is often reinforced by unhelpful narratives about the kinds of people who would even want to take on these roles, or the value of management and leadership in academia.
In your teaching, it can have an insidious effect on policies and practices about extensions. “What if you need an extension?” considers your own feelings about asking for extensions for your writing commitments and conversations about the value of granting extensions to students, especially in the light of disability accommodations and equity concerns.
Those feelings about extensions also affect your ability to manage your workload, adjust your plans in the light of new demands or new information that make the original timelines difficult or impossible. In this situation, Imposter Syndrome can appear as a feeling that “real” academics would be able to stick to deadlines, or make better estimates of how long things take, or write faster, or …
What you can do about it…
The opposite of imposter feelings is confidence.
That’s a whole other topic about which we will create another Spotlight at some point, but the post “Confidence Tricks” has some useful and practical tips for feeling more confident in the face of these feelings.
I have mentioned before that “Risking doing the work you find meaningful” is an alternative to pretending to be someone you are not. That post is part of a whole Spotlight called Meaningfulness Matters which can help you understand how the things you find meaningful are important to your work and your personal sense of belonging. The risk you are taking may feel like jumping off a cliff. I invite you to consider whether you might be like an eagle. Alternatively, “What would your Fairy Godmother help you do?” is a fun journaling prompt to help you figure out what that meaningful thing might be.
“How to stop writing for your harshest critics” has some practical tips for replacing the unhelpful voices in your head with voices that remind you other scholars will read your work. There may even be scholars waiting for you to publish this thing that feels really risky.
There is more to say about imposter syndrome. I hope that this Spotlight has reminded you that these feelings are common and often a reasonable response to present and past experiences. And that some of the strategies make things 5-10% better.
In some cases, seeking professional mental health support may be appropriate. This may be difficult to access for various reasons. Being on a waiting list is better than not being on a waiting list. I hope you get the support you need.