So a couple of months ago I got an email from a stranger. He’s a radiation oncologist from the USA. He is “really impressed” by the research I’ve been doing and wants to connect and collaborate. I did what every academic worth their salt does.
I Googled him.
First, I discovered that he’s a Professor, with “over 30 years experience, countless awards and has published over 200 papers and book chapters” and that he is “recognised nationally as one of the top doctors in his field”. I then Googled for an image of what he looks like. He’s a tall bearded man in a white coat. I’m a diminutive female who has certainly not published “over 200 papers and book chapters”. When people describe me, the word “cute” often pops up. I felt a very familiar knot in my stomach.
I psyched myself into emailing Bearded Man back, and after a few emails we settled on a Skype call. Bearded Man was incredibly nice. I liked him immediately. We talked about our research interests and background. He was saying the words “I’ve read what you do and I really like the work you’ve done”. And at that moment, during that Skype call with Nice Bearded Man, a voice inside my head said:
“Oh. Well. He’s clearly talking about the wrong person. There’s been a huge mistake.”
Fortunately, my Lovely Psychologist had briefed me about the different parts of me that I should start to notice. This was Critical Me. This was Impostor Syndrome.
Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is “a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a `fraud'”. I’ve suffered from IS for years. It strikes me in many aspects of my life. I used to feel like an impostor mother. (“I have no idea what I’m doing here” when trying to calm a crying baby). I have Impostor Syndrome in my clinical work (“What is that rash? Why can’t I diagnose it? What is wrong with me? I know nothing”). And most of all, I have Academic Impostor Syndrome.
At that point, I managed to say to myself, “Why, hello there. I thought you had gone”. But our habitual thinking strengthens the neural pathways that lead to neuroses like this. It doesn’t take much for something to trigger IS and then Wham! I descend into an ocean of self-doubt.
But the noticing, the work with the Lovely Psychologist had clearly not been in vain. I kept my composure and carried on talking with Nice Bearded Man. We exchanged ideas. We agreed. We disagreed. We ended with a plan. We were both excited.
I spent a lot of time reflecting after that episode. It kind of clicked when my mother (bless her soul) sent me a WhatsApp message about a conversation she had with her periodontist. “I am afraid I was boasting about you” she said. “I told him you have three degrees. You are a triple doctor. He was amazed!” And it’s quite true. I have a medical degree. A Chinese Medicine degree. A Masters. A PhD. I hold senior leadership positions. I am a GP. I have toilet trained two children. When am I going to feel like I am worthwhile? When I’m a Professor? When I grow a beard? What if I get to Professor and start comparing myself to the other Professors in the room, thinking “I don’t belong here”? Why can’t I believe my dear mother and Nice Bearded Man?
So I decided that I’m done with Impostor Syndrome. I’m done with this because:
– I’m no good to anyone if I don’t believe in myself. What’s the point in being so self-deprecating?
– I’m disrespecting other people’s judgement by not believing in what they say. My boss, for example, constantly gushes over how wonderful he thinks I am. I have always put this down to him being an absolutely nice guy. But isn’t this disrespectful to him? Surely, being the Director of an Institute, he’s quite capable of evaluating his staff!
– The energy I spend on my misery could be translated to becoming even more awesome!
– I should just accept that lots of successful people have Impostor Syndrome and they survived. Like Albert Einstein who said “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease.”
– if I avoid promoting myself, I only let others who are less deserving get ahead of me.
Of course, I’m all for recognising where I can improve. I don’t want to end up with a false sense of security and supremacy. But the story of my life so far has been the opposite – a lifetime of never being satisfied with what I’ve done, always pushing for perfection, setting the bar higher and higher.
So I’ve decided that what’s good enough for Albert is good enough for me. I’m enjoying this new collaboration with Nice Bearded Man. And it’s great to feel that my lack of facial hair, age, the Professor title, the 200 publications and a white coat doesn’t mean that I can’t contribute meaningfully to a collaboration.
There’s a lot I can bring to the table as Small Woman with No Facial Hair and Only Ten Publications.