Academia offers a million ways to feel bad about yourself. And if you want to push the “next big thing” in your field, get ready for next level rejections. Academic work is, after all, complex, demanding and diverse – with mind-blowing innovation and also mind-blowing conservatism.
Peers, workplaces, funders and students can all be messengers, seemingly on special missions to tell us that our sincere efforts and determination are not good enough. When success comes our way, it’s important to remind ourselves of how elusive and demanding it is to achieve in academia.
However, sometimes success in academic work can lead us to feel paralyzingly misaligned; not despite the success but because of it. We can feel denial, inadequate, fraudulent, or fearful of being “found out”. More commonly referred to since the late 1970’s as “Imposter Syndrome,” this misalignment between personal success and personal feelings has been portrayed in countless articles and postings as affecting high-performing people.
In academia, management scholars Joel Bothello and Thomas Roulet argue that Imposter Syndrome is apparent in successful academics who attribute their success to luck over skill or ability – or generally downplay the success entirely. This can erode into deep existential fear of being discovered and cast aside even decades into a successful career.
The feelings associated with Imposter Syndrome resonate with many in the academy. Consequently, it is tempting to cast the syndrome intuitively as being as “real” as the emotions of shame that success has brought to many of us.
But reviewing the history of research around Imposter Syndrome, Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey shine a critical light on the very concept. This area of research commenced 50 years ago when recognition of systematic racism and classism were as absent from discussions as women, people of colour, and diverse professional backgrounds were from the syndrome’s research. Indeed, Drs. Bothello and Roulet’s paper is entirely lacking of any reference to sex, gender, or race.
Might Imposter Syndrome be unhelpful or even unreal? Just as today’s narratives around prioritizing self-care to avoid burnout can be viewed as giving marginalized people just another set of unrealistic objectives to feel bad about, so too does Imposter Syndrome cast deeply embedded systemic failures as individual psychological failings to be fixed. As Ms. Tulshyan and Ms. Burey question:
Is “imposter syndrome” just another means to make marginalized people struggling against systematic inequities to feel even worse about themselves?…(by directing) our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.’
Indeed, academic workplaces remain rife with historical and systemic inequities that wrongly cast marginalized scholars’ work (including women) as not as strong as others via systematic biases. Thus, awards for research and promotion become entwined with “count it” cultures that conflate a longer resume with superior performance or work.
How can we acknowledge and address the reality of the emotions of Imposter Syndrome with the reality of the systemic biases and discrimination that has created inequality in the academy? Both are as real.
Firstly, it is important that debates in our universities among faculty and students about Imposter Syndrome in academic work recognize links between the syndrome and systemic biases and discrimination. This will counter the compounding shame that Imposter Syndrome can have, and re-focus attention and action on addressing the systemic biases and inequities that exist in and across academic settings.
Coaching conversations with mentors or peers can encourage self-exploration on the origin of the powerful yet paradoxical feelings of fear in the face of success. Where do such feelings have their roots in individual experiences of systems and discrimination? Acknowledging and openly discussing our experiences is key.
To address the acute symptoms of Imposter Syndrome, try thinking about yourself in the third person to gain perspective on your successes and achievements. Self-affirmations can also be helpful to counteract thoughts routed in Imposter Syndrome. And of course, as we have often written, utilize your growth mindset to focus on continuous learning and personal effort, without comparison to others.
Additionally, concerted attempts are needed to continue to foster assessment practices of scholarship that do not overly privilege one kind of impact or approach over others. If we want diversity, we need conformity: in research, the adoption of the principles of the San Francisco Declaration in Research Assessment (DORA) is needed at every university across Canada. These recognize wide diversity and the importance of both qualitative and quantitative indicators of research impact.
Wherever you are in your academic career, the feelings associated with Imposter Syndrome are very real. Yet, a greater understanding, open dialogue, and recognition of the influence of the biases and inequalities in our systems will be the drivers to reduce its impact in future.