An Academic With Imposter Syndrome

Brian Taylor

April 02, 2013

On the worst days, it feels as if I exist at the bottom of a deep, dark, damp hole. There are iron rungs affixed to the side, so I grab on and begin to hoist myself up with vigor. But after hours of grueling effort, I stop, look around, and discover that somehow I have been traveling farther downward. My frantic efforts to get out have simply pushed me deeper and deeper into the blackness.

OK, so that is the extreme. Obviously, having a cocktail of anxiety, panic disorders, and impostor syndrome to boot doesn't feel like a black hole on a moment-to-moment basis. But at its worst, it feels calamitous and smothering, feelings intensified by the awareness that my trial is one of my own making.

As I understand it—and more important, as I experience it—impostor syndrome is rooted in a constant fear of being discovered to be a fraud and a charlatan. One of the various effects is that I tend to externalize accomplishments and internalize setbacks. Did I just get an article placed in a top journal? I am amazed, even shocked. How did this happen? Why did they select my article?

Humility has become something of an obsession with me, although one might reasonably wonder whether my zeal for it, at least in part, reflects the feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing that so commonly accompany impostor syndrome. It is easier to be humble if I feel that I have done little to nothing to merit success, that I have yet again managed to pull the wool over everyone's eyes. The rat who imagines himself to be a cat in order to bask in the sunlight on the porch is the rat with only a short time to live.

So the accomplishment of getting published in a journal becomes merely another rung in the tunnel to the center of the earth, given that the accepted article bestows upon me the sheer terror of knowing that the wider scholarly community will now have the capacity to read my work and discover for itself the true scope of my fraud and incompetence. (Naturally, that belief is insulting to the referees, staff members, and editors of the journal.)

Every accomplishment is simply a failure waiting to be discovered. And any setbacks, of course, are just as they seem: proof of my imposter status. None of the myriad injustices that color academic life change the blinding and swift confirmation of my own deficiencies found in a vigorously negative review of my work from a journal referee's report. The fact that the academy is only tenuously meritocratic is sufficient to undermine the feelings of self-esteem that arise from my accomplishments. But at the same time that minimal amount of meritocracy is adequate to confirm every suspicion of incompetence and fraud that I feel.

Every effort to shake the negative feelings tends to push me even deeper into the darkness. The feelings of phoniness and self-loathing are so negative, so destructive, that I am motivated to do anything possible to mitigate or erase those feelings. So 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. I am not immune to the genuine pleasure that accomplishments and successes bring, but they ultimately do not ameliorate my fear. Indeed, they frequently make it worse, given that such accomplishments mean that the scope of my fraud has grown larger and more difficult to control, and my increased visibility could, in theory, lead to a wider audience of knowledgeable experts ready to point out all of the laughably elementary flaws and mistakes in my work.

All of that presumes, of course, that anyone will actually read and engage my work, a belief which my impostor syndrome renders difficult for me to accept.

The preceding is not meant in a "woe is me" kind of way, though it may unavoidably read that way.

I know I am extraordinarily privileged in a number of ways—not least of which is because I have a tenure-track job at an institution I enjoy and a respectful and generally healthy work environment. I know other scholars undoubtedly have it much worse.

And that, too, makes me feel worse: "Others do more and do better with less and in much more precarious positions." Impostor syndrome is a psychological problem that touches on the entirety of my professional self-identity, and spoils it through and through. I have felt it my entire life. One of my parents, also an academic, has experienced it for the entirety of his professional life.

I am not a mental-health professional, although I have seen more than my fair share of them (with generally positive results). With help, I have developed a number of tools and strategies that work for me, but I am uncomfortable sharing them here because I am not a professional. Nor do I wish this to resemble some kind of self-help parable.

I will say that the constant effort to flee from or conquer the negative thoughts and feelings that attend impostor syndrome does nothing so much as intensify it. Nonavoidance strategies have proved much more promising and effective tools for the management of my thoughts and feelings of charlatanism.

I have come to believe and accept the idea that anxiety, panic, and impostor syndrome are by this point so deeply integrated into my identity and sense of self that they are unlikely ever to disappear, no matter what I do. That probably sounds like despair, but actually it is quite the opposite.

It is liberating. Because it frees me from the ceaseless effort to be something that I have never been: not-anxious, not-panicked Joseph.

One of the integral features of chronic illness is its chronicity. While such illnesses come and go intermittently, many of the most highly prevalent chronic illnesses in the U.S. never truly vanish over the person's life span. Sisyphus will never escape his task of pushing the boulder up the hill, but Camus seems to be suggesting that part of the mythical aspect of the narrative is the belief that Sisyphus' efforts are nothing but torture. The push is part and parcel of the human condition, and it is, in a sense, how we make meaning of our lives.

But it still feels horrendous when that boulder goes crashing on down the slope. And so I trudge back down the hill, shaking, and try to gather what courage I possess to begin pushing anew, knowing full well that it will crush me again.

That is what it feels like to live with impostor syndrome (and anxiety and panic problems). I hope you found some meaning in this representation. Although I would understand entirely if you saw no redeeming features in it at all.

Joseph Kasper is the pseudonym of an assistant professor in the humanities at a regional public university in the South.