Monday, February 03, 2014

Impostor Syndrome

“I am a fraud and they will soon find out.”

I have always wanted to research more about impostor syndrome (a psychological trait in which people do not believe in their accomplishments). This is because I know that I secretly suffer from it. It is a fear that comes on accomplishing something, that perhaps it was not deserved, and perhaps someone made a wrong judgment, and soon, everyone will find out that you are not as bright as they think you are. There is abundant literature about how women in higher education feel it all the time. It often comes from not having enough self-confidence, sense of worth, or mentors and role models who are like you (racially, gender-wise, etc.).

Although I suffer from it, I am now consciously aware of it, so that whenever such thoughts cross my mind, I make an effort to dispel such fears. But that was not the case few years ago. When I first moved to the US, it was to study at a top-ranking university in my field. I have always believed that I was perhaps not their first choice, and someone must have decided not to move to Seattle, and hence I got admission. It may or may not be true, but that is not the point. It shows how I never had the conviction that I could be somebody’s first choice.

Then when I got another acceptance for a PhD four years later, in a public ivy school very well known internationally, I had the same sinking feeling once again. I thought that they saw my previous school’s credentials and assumed that I am good, but they do not know that I am not that competent. I write this with a lot of sadness. I struggled through the fear that someday, my adviser would find out that I was ordinary, and be utterly disappointed.

I finished my PhD in 3 years. In 33 months actually. This shows that it had nothing to do with my mediocrity or luck. It was all hardcore hard work and dedication. The problem is that I did not believe enough in myself.

I have often wondered why I had such fears. Interestingly, I never had that fear in India. It started when I moved to the US. Also, I have this fear only with things related to my career. For my personal achievements, I don’t give two hoots about success and failure. But when it comes to career achievements, I feel that there is too much at stake. I wonder when and how I developed such a uni-dimensional trait. Think about it, I have achieved everything based on my abilities, and not any backing. I had no Godfathers in the field. Every college admission, every job I got was because of my own abilities. My advisers wrote me recommendation letters, but none of them used their contacts to get me a job. I have often asked myself, “Then why?

With time, I grew conscious about it. So every time I would see myself achieving something and belittling my achievements, I would check my thoughts. It might have to do with personal identity. In the US, I never had role models who are like me. What do I mean when I say, like me? I mean, single, Indian, immigrant female. When I met immigrants, they were not single. When I met single women, they were not immigrants. And if they are single and immigrants, they are male. Your personal identity goes a long way in shaping how you see, or do not see yourself. I wish that instead of feeling what I felt, I told myself that yes, I deserve to be here, in this field, succeeding and making a name for myself, and I am not going anywhere.

So why am I writing this? Because I did the same thing today. My dissertation has been selected as among the top three in the US, in my focus area. I was not expecting it at all. So my first sub-conscious thought when I read the congratulatory email was, “They must have sent me the email by mistake.” Immediately, I checked my thoughts. I realized that once again, I was letting myself be a victim of impostor syndrome. None of the selection committee members know me personally, and it is impossible that they are doing me a favor by giving me this recognition. I have been selected in the top three, but they give only one award. So next month, they will let me know if I won it. It is a big honor. Yet momentarily, I forgot about all the hard work and dedication I put in my dissertation. I forgot how I strove to be the best, and produced a quality manuscript. Writing a 300 page document was no fun, but I forgot all about it. Instead, all I thought was, “Perhaps they sent me the email by mistake.” Later, I was pretty mad at myself for feeling that way. The conscious, saner side of me was rebuking the darker side for belittling my achievements all the time. It is as if I am my own enemy, seldom recognizing that I am capable of reaching professional milestones.

So this is for all of you like me, who suffer from impostor syndrome. Believe in what you achieve, and do not attribute your success to anything other than your own hard work. And learn to celebrate your success. It is so important, although I am guilty of not doing it. 

On a different note, I always felt bad that I do not have an "Awards" section in my CV. I have never really won any awards, barring winning a science quiz in the sixth grade (that I participated in because I had a crush on one of the boys), and a Sanskrit calligraphy competition in the seventh grade. I often eyed the awards section of my colleagues' CV with greed. You can imagine, being selected the top three was equivalent to winning the Miss. Universe crown for me (and I did not even have to lie about how I am going to save the planet, and donate all my money to the needy).  

They will let me know next month. If I win, I will be presenting my research at the conference in a few months. And even if I do not win, I get to start a new “Awards and Honors” section in my CV, and add a line there. I’m almost tempted to do a happy dance as I write this.



kinminsworld said...

This is an awesome achievement, congratulations!! :) I can't even imagine the magnitude of this, and all I'll say is you should be really proud of yourself for where you are today!
Regarding the impostor syndrome, your post made me think if I've experienced something like this.. I think it's hard to dissociate self-doubt and other factors from this syndrome but I'm going to analyze my behavior in the future! I recently saw a TED talk that I really liked ( It talked about body language and also touched on the impostor syndrome, you might find it interesting!
And finally, I read this post today after reading your post!

Argentyne said...

Thanks for this article! I have this too! And I never knew it had a name!!!

Ritu Raj said...

Many congratulations Sunshine !! What an achievement and well deserved.

Akanksha said...

Feelings nicely captured :)
Congrats for being in top three & hope to read the big news next month :)

Ruminating Optimist said...

Made me think about similar thoughts in my own mind, and perhaps gave me a phrase for what I think of myself. And hopefully, will force me to come out of this syndrome. Not a great feeling when you get to know that you are associated with a "syndrome".

sweetyshinde said...

Congratulations. What was Dissertation topic?

Perhaps we fear to acknowledge success is bcos it means one achievement under the belt; another peak beckons . So instead of a sigh of relief, the rising expectations weigh down?

sunshine said...

kinminsworld, thank you for the link. :)

Argentyne, it is very real, has a name, and has had substantial research done on it.

Ritu, thank you. :)

Akanksha, thank you, and fingers crossed for next month. :)

Ruminating optimist, a lot of us suffer from this. Well, it is what it is.

sweety, thank you. :)