If there is one thing most of my clients, newsletter readers, and social media followers are familiar with, it’s gremlins shouting “Imposter!” at unhelpful moments. I use the term “gremlins” to personify the voices in your head, and remind you that you are allowed to ask questions about their views.
A lot has been written about these feelings. Psychologists and psychiatrists have researched it, often naming it a “syndrome” or a “complex”, terms which usefully group common presentations or symptoms, and tell you that you are definitely not alone.
As a sociologist, I am more inclined to look at structures and contexts, and have been particularly grateful to Black women academics and coaches who have highlighted the relationship between these feelings, systemic racism and sexism, and actual bullying and gaslighting. (There are good reasons some of us are angry that Twitter has been destroyed as a space for this kind of learning and sharing.)
I began to wonder about whether “survivor guilt” might be related, but was concerned about whether this might be an exaggeration or an inappropriate use of a term that has a specific clinical meaning.
One of my core values is that we are all allowed to play to our strengths and focus on the work we most enjoy doing. Sometimes not working on something is a sign.
For me, research and scanning the literature is not one of my strengths and I don’t enjoy it. I also prefer talking through things to reading all the literature myself. I hired someone to do a bit of background research for me, we talked it through and here I am. We’ve also generated a list of related topics for future newsletters.
The context is scarcity.
I first got thinking about this in relation to clients who had been awarded a highly competitive 3-year post-doctoral fellowship to work on their own research project. That led me to thinking more generally about the state of the academic labour market.
Even if you expand your definition of success in the current labour market to include longer fixed term contracts that enable you to do the work that has attracted you to an academic career, we’re still talking about a small number of positions.
- Multi-year postdoctoral research fellowships
- Multi-year fixed term academic jobs (with or without a research component)
- Open contract academic jobs (without tenure)
- Open contract academic jobs with a defined route to tenure (with or without research)
- Teaching stream jobs with a defined route to switch to research & teaching stream
The small number of available positions means they are highly competitive.
That means a lot of people are unsuccessful.
When you are one of the lucky few.
We talk a lot about how rejection is just part of academic life. There’s lots of advice about how to deal with rejection.
I want to talk about success. Imagine you are actually successful and get one of the jobs I listed.
How do you react?
How do you react in public?
You know exactly how you would feel if you didn’t get this. It’s reasonable to assume other people feel similarly.
Of course you empathise. That could have been you.
That could have been you.
This is not abstract knowledge. You know someone personally who has applied for a job or fellowship like this and been unsuccessful.
You probably know several. One or more of those people might be a close friend.
Of course you empathise with your friend.
Scarcity + Empathy = Doubt
The people who are unsuccessful in these fellowship competitions probably have really great projects. They are highly intelligent people. They have already achieved some pretty impressive things.
You have to be to reach this level. And they were unsuccessful.
It’s a very short step from empathising with those who were unsuccessful, to doubting your own success.
This is survivor guilt.
Survivor guilt isn’t just about situations where someone died. There is research that has used this term in the context of academic achievement. (Survivor Guilt a Cognitive Approach has a review & references.) And it has turned up from time to time in discussions in the higher education press over at least the last decade.
It’s normal to compare yourself to some of the other candidates. It becomes a problem when you don’t allow yourself to take full advantage of the opportunity you’ve been given.
You don’t have to be better than they would have been if they had gotten this opportunity instead.
That’s an impossible standard. Just look at the grammar of that sentence!
“would have been” + “if” = huge red flag
You have no way of knowing what they would have achieved. None.
What you think you know about them is a tiny proportion of the information needed to make such a prediction. And we are all terrible at predicting the future…
Specifically, you don’t have to use this opportunity to achieve someone else’s career goals.
Even if you decide, a year or so into this amazing opportunity, that it wasn’t as amazing as you thought it was going to be, you are allowed to change direction.
None of that is an insult to the people who were unsuccessful in that competition.
You are good enough. You do belong.
Survivor guilt is intimately connected to imposter syndrome. Some have argued that imposter syndrome is a symptom of survivor guilt.
Both are characterised by a deeply felt sense that you don’t really belong.
You are good at what you do. You had a strong application.
The people who made the decision did not make a mistake.
You do not have all the information they had when making the decision, so it is impossible for you to check their workings – even if that was a reasonable thing to want to do.
Rest assured, it was a very difficult decision.
They wanted to give out more fellowships. Or hire more people. They definitely argued about those applications that were “close”. Some of the decision makers would have preferred someone else got it and you didn’t. Some of them made a strong case for why you should be successful.
You deserve this.
You also have a history.
The recent evidence of your worthiness to have this opportunity is one data point in your head.
You also have the evidence of all the times you were unsuccessful in equally competitive processes. Your gremlins remember those. Unfortunately.
In one of the articles I looked at, there was a really good point that it is worth quoting at length.
I asked my mentor why, in his opinion, did he think my data was demonstrating that women tended to suffer from higher levels of survivor guilt compared to men.
“Why wouldn’t it be men suffering more from survivor guilt, since they’re more often the survivors, the out-performers?” I queried.
He gave a sly answer — “I’ll tell you why” he began, “From the time we could speak, let alone write, we were told we were exceptionally brilliant, and we were promised we’d grow up to be productive, leader-type men. So when we end up successful, when we make more money than anyone around us, why would we feel guilty about it? It was expected.”
This might be an appropriate point to say “not all men” (and not just women). Because race, class, family educational history, and a whole bunch of other things are also important.
You are probably aware of the evidence that success rates for fellowships and academic jobs are not evenly distributed.
That objective, statistical evidence, gets added to all the times someone told you to your face that you weren’t good enough, or were being too ambitious.
If the voices in your head are telling you you don’t belong, it’s probably because they are echoing real voices telling you you don’t belong. (This is one of the things I definitely learned from Black women on Twitter. It’s come up multiple times.)
Who’s interests does your doubt serve?
There are people who do not have survivor guilt about this kind of success. You might not know any, but they exist.
The evidence of this competition doesn’t contradict their previous experiences in the same way.
- Maybe they have won similarly competitive awards before.
- Maybe they are similar, in multiple ways, to the kinds of people who have been getting these opportunities for generations.
The voices in their heads probably echo real voices that told them they were destined to do this kind of thing, ideally suited to it, or that it was something they should expect.
Some of those people are also empathetic. They see the problems with the overrepresentation of people like them. They see how qualified some of the people who were unsuccessful are.
Survivor guilt and imposter syndrome are insidious like that.
But there are definitely some people who expected to get this kind of opportunity, or who expected someone other than you to get this opportunity, who will be upset that you got it.
Some of those people will tell you that to your face. Some of them will say it behind your back in an attempt to undermine you.
Some of those people will do things to make it harder for you to take full advantage of the opportunity you’ve been given.
Some of the voices in your head echo people who have an interest in you not succeeding.
Don’t give them more power.
The people who never expected or wanted you to succeed don’t get to decide whether you deserve this opportunity.
Start by believing that the people who gave it to you, made a good decision. Even if you have to write that on your bathroom mirror with a dry erase marker so you can read it while you brush your teeth every day. Believe it.
Find other people who also believe you deserve this opportunity. Even if they are not in the same department or institution.
Stop trying to prove yourself to people who will never believe you belong. Stop believing the stories they tell about how much power they have. Ask yourself if they are exaggerating. And why.
Learn how the institutions you work in actually work. Go to training sessions. Talk to other people that are more like you, but further along in their careers. Talk to the people you’ve been warned not to believe or talk to by people who will never believe you belong.
Enjoy this amazing opportunity.
It’s normal to feel conflicted about your success. Being able to name the source of your feelings can help you get them in perspective.
At the end of the day, you have been successful. This fellowship or job gives you a measure of security, even if it’s limited. It gives you resources. It enables you to do some of the work that makes academia attractive to you.
The friends and colleagues who were unsuccessful will be happy for you. Their anger, frustration, and disappointment are directed at the system, not you.
Don’t let the broken system steal your joy. Do the work you most want to do.
Allow yourself to focus on the things this opportunity enables you to do. Get what you can from it.
This post was originally sent to my newsletter on 15 September 2023. This post has been lightly edited since its original publishing date and added to the Spotlight On: Imposter Syndrome in November 2023.