The science impostor (part 2) – Beating our brain in its own game of insecurities.

In the previous part of this double post, I “helped” you realise that you are in fact suffering from a condition called “The impostor syndrome”. If you still think you do not experience any of the hallmark feelings, please refer to my previous post here so we level the plane for this reading!

Who else knows you are a fraud?

We are convinced we are a fraud. We have so far successfully managed to trick rest of the world into believing we can and know something. Now we can start asking ourselves “who else knows?”.

The nasty part of the impostor syndrome (IS) is that we are convinced that sooner rather than later everyone else realises we tricked are faking it and our world will come crashing down. We are absolutely certain our colleagues know it, our boss must know it too, the HR person at an interview knows it and that’s why we don’t get hired, or in the off chance we do get hired – our new boss and colleagues will find our in no time that we are indeed a fraud!

What are the implications of feeling as an impostor?

Aside of feeling miserable, often experiencing depression, giving in to the feelings of an IS is like shooting yourself in the foot on the way to your own success. It leads to inefficient behaviour like laying low – not taking initiatives, not expressing creative ideas, and being stuck in a loop of micromanaging insignificant tasks as a way to procrastinate getting to business with the more  complex things we don’t believe we can deal with. 

One interesting effect in science professionals is that IS is more frequently a women’s problem, and they haven’t necessarily started like that at the beginning of their careers. A research from Dr Jessica Collett showed that “more women than men—11% versus 6%—initially aspired to tenure-track highly-intensive positions but had since downshifted.” (link to an overview article in Science).

impostor women in science and tech

The graph below is from a brilliant review exploring the topic in details, by Gavrielle Jacobovitz from The Columbia Spectator. While it is normal that not everyone feels like or has to pursue a tenure-track position, the warning flags are about the practices and attitudes in the research environment which happen to fuel our own insecurities and which end up inhibiting us from doing pursuing what we really want to do. Many of these flags are equally valid for both women or men, especially at an early stage science career. 

So the outcome it that not only IS makes us feel undeserving of our achievements, but it also prevents us from doing better in the future and striving from something that we could actually exceed in.

science career women downshifting

Can you do anything to stop feeling like an impostor?

Short answer is – probably not. Such feelings are somewhat normal unfortunately. And feelings a rarely something that can be rationalized to be overcome completely. While we can trick our brain in ways so that those feelings affect our actions and our decisions to a lower magnitude, psychologists argue that one can never completely get rid of them.

It is a bit like learning to live with a disability you were not born with. Recognising it, accepting it and learning the ways around it in order to live a full life is vital to escape a downward spiral of self-pity and misery. 

emotional baggage is weighing you down

"Start doing" to overcome the impostor impairments

While we probably won’t stop feeling like an impostor once and for all, there are plenty we can do to work around those feelings. And as usual – doing nothing about it is not the way to go. Accepting is one thing, but it is only the beginning of effectively finding your way out of the impostor trap.

Take actions and ask yourself the right questions

In the first part of this twin-blog post I’ve outlined the most frequent ways we can recognize the IS in our thoughts. Now that we’ve established these, it’s time for action. Here is what we can to give ourselves a break:

train ourselves

We ought to start recognizing the impostor feelings and acknowledging them right on the spot. If you are about to start the 24th repetition of an experiment, stop for a moment and really think! Does your data really require this or are you falling prey to your own insecurities. If you confirm that it is you and not your science which demands this extra work, you will save yourself quite some effort, money from wasted consumables and time which you can either spend on more important experiments or with your friends and family.

cut yourself some slack

Catching those feelings on the spot will allow you to escape the inefficiency trap you are about to fall into and allow you to instead dedicate your time to something more important or more pleasurable (or both). 

get social

best friends

When you start feeling isolated and begin to cocoon in the thoughts that if you lay low you will buy yourself some time before people find out you are a fraud – STOP! Immediately (but safely) terminate all work you are doing and seek company you enjoy. Cook a dinner for your family, go out for drinks with your friends, go to the movies with colleagues you like. Spending more time socializing takes of the edge of the IS in many ways.

On one hand, your brain focuses on pleasurable interactions and has less time to keep convincing itself how lame you are. On the other hand, getting to know people gives you a better understanding of their capabilities and often allows you to position yourself more realistically among your peers. On top of that, you develop friendships with people who know different sides of you and you can trust them in conversing about your insecurities and get external feedback and support.

Set realistic goals and record your successes

If you suffer from IS, chances are that you are trying to do too much, all on your own and don’t give yourself the credit due when you succeed achieving what you’ve set out to do. So do yourself a favor and be more realistic. 

Trying to do everything yourself perfectly is rarely achievable so sit down and think first.

reality check

Break down tasks in smaller chunks. Psychologically this is very helpful against procrastinating and feeling overwhelmed. It requires less strain to focus properly and allows for experiencing more frequently a feeling of content when tasks are completed. Then consider if you really have to do all these tasks yourself. Is there someone whose job is to do part of these things? 

Learn to objectively delegate

In academia, very often someone else is being paid or has volunteered to do part of the  things you are struggling to find time to finish. In research teams almost always someone else can actually benefit from doing a reasonably sized chunk of your work.

The last thing I’m suggesting is for PostDocs to treat PhDs as slaves and PhDs to do the same with master students or interns. However, it is a reasonable assumption that the people earlier in the scientific professional evolution know or can do fewer things than the more advanced colleagues. So ask yourself if you absolutely have to do all those experiments yourself. The honest answer is probably “no”. So then discuss with your team and give the chance to the ones around you to learn new skills by delegating some of the tasks on your project to them. Just make sure you don’t overwhelm them, and definitely don’t give them all the brainless time-consuming tasks no one wants to do – that’s the best way to demotivate a young scientist!

Be a better team-player

Once you finally have teamed up with your colleagues and got things done in shorter time (with hopefully less frustration), give credit to yourself and everyone involved. Write down the achievements honestly and clearly, without splitting hairs. This will also help the team-spirit in your lab and will advance the work of everyone. Offer help – even if you don’t know the answer to someone else’s problem right of the bat. Chances are that troubleshooting together will bring out a solution faster than doing it alone. It will also improve the bonding and trust between colleagues.

Cut yourself some slack!

While questioning yourself and your abilities is probably be the root reason for developing a severe IS, that same practice can be also the solution. Whenever you feel anxiety about your capacities or your achievements, or you feel demotivated, take a step back and ask yourself if you are being fair in your self-assessment. Being a scientist, we should be able to rationalize sufficiently these feelings to the point that we can learn live despite of them.

If we don’t give ourselves a chance to succeed, no one else will. And if we think and act as if we don’t deserve our success, then certainly the rest of the world will quickly catch up and start feeling and acting the same way towards us.

So put some esteem in the self and objectiveness towards your own abilities and hard work. Try and allow yourself to focus those precious, very energy demanding brain-functions on something more productive than self-doubt. 

self-worth impostor

The title image is from the Chronicle of Higher Education article on how to overcome the IS.

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