Imposter Syndrome

Looking at my life, I am: an Eagle Scout, a PhD, a published author, and a 2nd kyu aikidoka (who has helped many who have bypassed me in rank, up to nidan). I have completed three “50 Miler” trips in Scouting—two in canoes, one on foot. I have traveled to four countries on three continents. I have presented papers to some praise at more than a few conferences.

Still, I feel like I have no clue what I am doing in teaching, writing, tutoring, and aikido (and life in general). Even when I say, or more commonly write, “I’m damn good at my job”, it feels like bravado in some ways. Secretly hollow. Like someday, someone will figure out I have no idea what I’m doing and all the above accomplishments will be empty.

It is always a strange feeling when someone “likes” something I’ve written. Or cites something I published. Or says I have been a great tutor-instructor-mentor.

I always wonder if they mean it, or if they just don’t know I’m winging it.

I’ve never done well with praise, usually deflecting or minimizing it. I was praised a reasonable amount by family, mentors, and grad school advisors, but not overly so, I think. I don’t think it’s overpraise or under-praise.

So, I’ve wondered off and on for years about Imposter Syndrome and its causes.

My first thought is that it may be an introvert-dominant thing. I say “introvert-dominant” because I don’t think anyone is 100% intro-/extrovert, rather that we’re all a mix of both. Most, if not all, of the imposter syndrome sufferers I know are introvert-dominant. But, that could also be an effect of my population sample (mostly English PhDs/MAs, with a couple in other fields, but all with advanced degrees in arts, humanities, and social sciences).

The degree thing could be an element too, I think. At the Masters level and above, I’ve found people become acutely aware of how little they actually know. The more we learn, the more we realize how much more there is to learn out there. Yet, in grad school we’re taught (directly & indirectly) to project confidence, particularly those of us who taught or presented at conferences. Maybe knowing that confidence is a facade, an act, contributes to the sense of being an imposter.

The knowledge and learning side, I think, enhance a nagging feeling that we could be doing things better. There’s that constant, conscious or subconscious, knowledge that there is always room for improvement. There’s always more to learn, more to know.

For myself, there is also knowing that even as I exceeded quantitative measures at work (ex. library shelving quantity & accuracy, inventory control objectives, also quantity & accuracy), I have always held back. Even holding back and not being my most efficient and effective, I have always exceeded the expectations and metrics set by supervisors. That may also factor into a bit of my own imposter syndrome.

I’m not sure if any of this helps me deal with the issue myself. But, writing always helps get thoughts out of my head and organized. So, there’s that at least.

3 comments on “Imposter Syndrome

  1. Calmgrove says:

    I’ve more than an inkling about how you feel, Brent: I enjoy praise (for example if I’ve accompanied a singer or instrumentalist sensitively at a recital) but am also embarrassed by it as I know there are others way better than me at it.

    I’ve found a couple of ways of managing the feeling. One is an intellectual one: I’m praiseworthy (I tell myself) because, when I try my best, I’m a person with my particular mix of accomplishments who has achieved a result—no one else I know who is a niche musician / retired teacher / happy autistic husband / book blogger / artist (etc) in quite the same proportions is doing as well or trying as hard. That concept of my uniqueness as an individual is one I’ve found helpful, even as I’ve known I’m never the best in any other given circumstance.

    The other approach I’ve found useful is in having genuine support from critical friends: those who help keep my feet on the ground by saying what I’ve done well but also what I could improve on. Without them I, along with many another isolated individual, fall prey to the chatterbox aspect of my self-esteem which is constantly analysing the negative sides of my attempts and belittling achievements — my equivalent of imposter syndrome, I suppose.

    Don’t know if any of this helps, though I’ve no doubt none of it will be new to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a fascinating and frustrating phenomenon, to be sure.

      Pretty much everyone I knew in grad school had it to some degree. There were two notable exceptions, one of whom was, frankly, a creepy narcissist enamored with his own greatness (who, ultimately, failed out of the doctoral program by failing all three qualifying exams because “they wanted me to remember things I read months ago”).

      At least half the grad faculty talked about it too, people who were PhDs, mostly tenured, who were well established as experts in their field. One, who later became a dean, told us he kept (metaphorically) looking over his shoulder through 20 years of teaching, publishing, etc. waiting for the higher ups to rescind his tenure, fire him, and retract his degrees.

      In my experience, it seems to be highly prevalent among talented/skilled, knowledgable, and/or educated people.

      Like

      • Calmgrove says:

        I think you’re absolutely right, Brent, in your final paragraph: such people seem to be more self-aware — of their faults, their failings, their relative ignorance compared to some of their peers — though sadly less aware or disparaging of their successes and strengths. Rather that than the narcissism you mention, the crass self-promotion and the denigration we too often come across.

        Liked by 1 person

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