Impostor Syndrome: The Dilemma between Who We Are and Who We Are Perceived to Be, Part Two

Marina Ramirez-Alvarado, Mayo Clinic and a member of the Biophysical Society’s Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women and Committee for Inclusion and Diversity, and Dwight P. Wynne, California State University, Fullerton, explore the problem of imposter syndrome in this three part series. Read part one here.

Right now, if you think you’re suffering from impostor syndrome (or even if you aren’t), we want you to do a little exercise. Write down ten statements of the form “I am a [noun].” Each statement should reflect a part of your identity, something that is essential to who you are as a person or how you view the world around you.

Some of the statements you wrote down may reflect attributes that you cannot change about yourself; for instance, “I am a woman” or “I am an African-American” (and if you’re a straight white male like Dwight, you may not even have these statements among your list, which is a whole other topic to talk about). Other statements may reflect particular values you choose to embrace: “I am a Muslim,” “I am a Republican,” or “I am an animal lover.” Still other statements likely reflect roles that you value playing in your personal and professional lives: “I am a lab manager,” “I am a mother,” “I am a musician,” or “I am a party animal.”

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Now comes the hard part: rank these statements from most central to your identity to least central. Or, if that’s too hard, just try to divide them into rough groups.

Got it? Okay, good. What was at the top of the list? Did it have anything to do with being a scientist? If not, how far down was the first science-related identity? Did you even have any statements that are related to your identity as a scientist? What about identities that conflict with your idea of what a scientist is? Where did they rank on your list?

Impostor syndrome has everything to do with identity. If you don’t see yourself as a scientist, then you’ll always feel like an impostor no matter how much success you have as one. In these instances, we have to be honest with ourselves: we’re pursuing a career as a scientist because of someone else, whether that person is a parent, friend, mentor, or even ourselves from five years ago. In some cases, we’ve lost interest in being part of our scientific community, and we’re trying to rationalize that feeling by finding reasons why we’re not good enough to be in it.

The problem is that in many cases, this lack of interest stems from an unconscious rejection by the scientific community of our personal identity. We bring all of our identities to the community, not just the scientific ones, and for better or worse, the community judges us on those parts of ourselves we show to the world.

There are two very different types of impostor pressures that accompany these judgments. In the more commonly explored case, the community judges us—openly or not—negatively based on our personal identity. Being perceived as a “real” member of the community can often be dependent on how much we prioritize our scientific identity over other aspects of our personal identity, or how well those other aspects align with the non-scientific identities of the people most central to the community. When we don’t have the same priorities or we have identities “inconsistent” with the community, we fear that every mistake we make will be marshalled as evidence confirming the community’s already negative judgment of us. Objective indicators of competence are often far less important to our self-perception as a scientist than subjective, social indicators of whether we are perceived as a “real” community member.

In the less commonly explored case, the community completely disregards our personal identity and substitutes its own idealized facsimile. In this case, we’re not worried that every little mistake will “prove” negative judgments correct; instead, we’re worried about disappointing a community that has replaced our identity with an unrealistically positive caricature. It’s the professional equivalent of being “put on a pedestal” in a relationship: we stress out about living up to someone else’s unrealistically high standards. We feel accepted by the community, but worry that the acceptance is on the community’s terms; we fear that as soon as they find out that we aren’t who they’ve defined us to be, we won’t be perceived as “real” community members anymore.

Now that you’ve explored your identity in more detail, we want you to do another little exercise. We want you to write a paragraph describing a successful scientist. What does this person do in a typical day? What skills does this person have? What experiences has this person had that signal competence or community identification? We don’t want you to focus on physical characteristics or beliefs here, but if those things are central to your conception of a “real” scientist, go ahead and add them too. Be as inclusive or exclusive as you like.

Once you’ve written your paragraph, underline everything that doesn’t match with your current identity. If you didn’t underline at least one thing, either you don’t have impostor syndrome or you have very low thresholds for success. Just about everyone with impostor syndrome will have at least one thing in that paragraph that is ridiculous or nonsensical or both.

With these ridiculous statements, we’re conflating the competence we see from others (the final, successful results) with the experience we have had (both the successes and failures).

For instance, a real cell biologist should be able to publish at least two papers per year in Cell or an equivalently prestigious journal without ever getting a paper rejected. A real electrophysiologist will get that darn electrode exactly where it needs to be on the first attempt at running the experiment. In these cases, we’re taking a baseline definition of competence – publishing papers, recording with electrodes – and ratcheting it up to eleven. Of course we don’t measure up, because no one measures up; we just don’t get to see everyone else’s mistakes. Sometimes, those ridiculous expectations are based on our own confusion about what it means to fill a particular professional role. For example, despite being in a biomedical engineering graduate program, Dwight had difficulty conceiving of himself as a “real” engineer because of his inability to correctly use manufacturing or test equipment. Other times, they come from our internalization of broken community norms. For example, Marina has never pulled an all-nighter studying, but some of her fellow chemistry students thought that only students who have pulled all-nighters before finals were “real” chemistry students. Obviously pulling an all-nighter has nothing to do with chemistry, but once the community defined competence through this experience, it became easy for everyone in the community to adopt it as part of their definition of “real.”

Go back and look at your paragraph again, but this time, try to think about who you had in mind when you wrote about each sentence. Is it a mentor? A colleague? Is the entire paragraph about one particular person? We’ve already illustrated that much of your paragraph likely is based outside of reality, but now imagine that you’re the person that inspired most of your paragraph. If everyone saw you in this light, wouldn’t you feel social pressure to live up to it? Wouldn’t you feel like an impostor if you knew that the real you could never live up to this fantasy definition?

In impostor syndrome, we worry over the ways in which our personal identity, skills, and experiences don’t necessarily match up with how we are seen by the community. Sometimes that worry manifests over confirming unrealistically negative judgments; sometimes that worry manifests over failing to live up to unrealistically positive judgments. As much as we seek out objective indicators of success, and as much as other people might point them out to us as reasons why we should feel successful, they don’t do anything to alleviate these impostor feelings. When others assess us, we are more likely to believe their negative judgments than positive ones.  We discount reasons to feel successful because they are not enough to overcome the social weight of negative judgments, or because we see them as evidence of others’ already-unrealistic positive judgments. Impersonal measures of “success” do not alleviate impostor feelings because they cannot help us calibrate how we personally believe others see us.

In this section we’ve explored in detail how the social pressures accompanying community judgments of our personal identity and experiences can lead to impostor feelings, and why objective measures of success don’t necessarily help those feelings go away. While most online resources for impostor syndrome deal with how individuals can minimize the effect of these community judgments, in the last part of our series we are going to discuss some fixes that could be implemented at the community level. After all, when a significant portion of the community identifies in some way with having impostor syndrome, it’s no longer just an individual problem, but one that must also be addressed at the community level.

Stay tuned for part three next week.

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