More thoughts on Imposter Syndrome

Jan 04 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I've written a bit on imposter syndrome in the past: here (this post has lots of nice links) and here. I was talking with one of my favorite junior faculty today, and she had a number of wise things to say. That's not surprising, she's in her year before tenure, and is a smart and thoughtful person.

We were talking about the levels of imposter syndrome. We recognize that lots of times we feel like we have imposter syndrome, and that the first step in dealing with it is the recognition. Not so hard. But the next step: saying to one's self "this is not real, its just something in my head", and importantly, not being paralyzed and moving on, this is not so easy. We laughed and agreed that clever people take it another step and say to themselves "well, I really fooled them, this time". That perceiving imposter syndrome and saying "I'm really good" is something for other people, people who are really good, and not me.

There was a book review in the NYTimes this Sunday about two books, Amy Cuddy's "Presence" and Shonda Rhimes's "Year of Yes" touched on these issues. As a scientist, I have trouble with Cuddy's solution to imposter syndrome, which can be summarized as "fake it till you make it", or as the book review says "fake it till you become it". From the review by

Her central idea was simple: By assuming a pose associated with power, you can actually make yourself feel more powerful before an important job interview or presentation. Somehow, power posing inspires you to be more authentic, more passionate and more present, Cuddy asserts, thereby enabling you to demonstrate your worth with ease and conviction.

Why would scientists have trouble with this? Because we are taught, overtly and implicitly, covertly and explicitly, to value truth and honesty as the foundations of what we do. Cuddy may be correct in saying that diminished self-worth sets up a loop that make us loose confidence, and ultimately (in my view) the passion we feel for what we do. I think it if you are schooled in "being honest above all else" then that bleeds into the sociology and psychology of being a scientist. The moment you use the word "fake it", a large set of negative feelings kick in, and exacerbate the imposter feelings.

Later in the review, talking about Rhimes's book, Havrilesky says and quotes:

Even in the last chapter of “Year of Yes,” in which Rhimes is engaged in an ecstatic photo shoot (of all things) set to a Beyoncé soundtrack, and she thinks, “I am on my own mountain standing in my own sun,” it’s difficult to step back and evaluate the narcissistic nature of this postmodern, high-capitalist scene. Instead, we long for our own mountain and our own sun.

And that, I think is part of the secret: finding our own mountain and sun. Mine can be generated by music that perhaps, is a bit beyond its use-by-date for millenials. But, I can remember, the night before I went on my first (asst prof) job interview, listening to Springsteen's Dancing in the Dark, and dancing in my apt, and feeling exactly the sun and the mountain. It wasn't whether I was fooling anyone or not. It wasn't whether I was even good or not. I was just alive in the moment. (And dear reader, I got the job).

2 responses so far

  • girlparts says:

    When I suffer a crisis of confidence, I find it helpful to focus on the specific demands of the task I'm doing, not on who I am. If I'm nervous about a talk to some Important People, I just remind myself that I know how to give talks, and I am knowledgeable in project I am presenting. Thinking about whether I can knock it out of the park, or whether I will come across as a smart person to the Important People is recipe for nerves. Can I be a successful scientist? Who knows, but I know I can do this experiment, and write this proposal, and...

  • chall says:

    I've listened to Cuddy and what I took from her presentation was more about "physiological changes" that happened if you stood in power stances before a specific occurrence. She recommended it in the elevator or bathroom before interviews - but fairly close in time to the actual stressor. I don't know if it would help me too much night before the interview, but maybe it does?

    I like the idea of dancing around in apt preppnig for a stressful interview, feeling great about yourself. I did "power walk & talk" in my home with the suit/clothes I was going to wear for my last interview with some extra stuff to feel happy and confident, and practicing similar things as girlparts mention above here - focusing more on the action/task rather than myself. For me this is similar to difference between "self confidence" and "self-esteem", whereas it is possible to have good confidence but bad esteem and vice versa.

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