There’s an article in the Advice section of the Chronicle today, detailing one junior professor’s struggle with clinical levels of anxiety, that mostly take the form of Academic Imposter Syndrome.
Many of us express the sense that we suffer from (sub-clinical) levels of this syndrome ourselves. I know I’ve joked about it myself, particularly in grad school, with its cohort of peers and constant competition for grades, funding, and jobs. I’m not finding this kind of joking particularly funny anymore.
The author relates the terrible feelings of fear, low self-worth, frantic productivity, an inability to enjoy or appreciate his own successes and a corollary over-acceptance of any negative feedback he receives. He writes that he feels so worthless that “I work harder, produce more, revise more ferociously, network more eagerly, and present more and better papers in the hope that doing so, and the external rewards I might obtain, will help drive away the terror and isolation I feel. But of course they do not.” The author notes that “Impostor syndrome is a psychological problem that touches on the entirety of my professional self-identity, and spoils it through and through.” He writes also that that he has received therapy for this issue, and continues to use management strategies (cognitive behavioural therapy?) to control some of the worst of the symptoms — I can well see that his issue is both chronic and serious.
But for the rest of us, those legion grad students and profs who have the more self-diagnosed kind of imposter syndrome? It is very well possible to be a successful academic without the kind of internalized browbeating that this mindset produces. And that’s something we should aim for, instead of normalizing self-hatred as a great productivity tool.
Let’s not kid ourselves — there is a strand of academic culture that seems to reward this particular kind of neurosis. Constant fear of being cast out of the garden is thought to motivate us to work harder. It keeps us sharp. Hungry. This must stop.
Like an alcoholic who claims that being drunk makes it easier for her to lecture to large crowds, or the ritalin addict who claims his abuse of stimulants make his thinking clearer, to say that a debilitating psychological problem makes one a better scholar is a rationalization. Consider: do you think, if you could rid yourself of your anxiety and dysphoria, your scholarship would be worse? Your teaching? I doubt it. Would you be measurably happier, calmer, more at peace on a daily basis? Probably. It’s time to ask what our rationalizations are really doing to our lives and our careers.
You are good enough, just the way you are now. You are complete. You are smart enough. Everyone occasionally messes up a conference paper, misses out on a grant, doesn’t get accepted to their top choice grad program. Everyone also gets a glowing teaching evaluation or unprompted praise from a student. Everyone manages to place an article. I’ve been a student, a post doc, a grants evaluator, a peer reviewer, a researcher, a writer, a member of several grad admissions and scholarship committees. Believe me, there are almost no imposters anywhere in the academy. The odds are vanishingly small that you are one of them.
What if we all just took one minute of feeling like we are actually good enough–completely well-enough qualified and competent–to be placed where we are?
I’m not going to give any more air to the imposter syndrome. I refuse to let anyone convince me that fear and dysphoria produce their best work. No. We are all good enough; we belong; we can do it.