Constantly doubting yourself? Have a sense of self-disbelief? Can’t believe how or why you are doing your degree/career? Racked with fear that somebody will find out you’re bad at what you do (even if you’re awesome)? Frequently deliberate over whether your life is heading in the right direction? Join the club…
If you have felt one, or unfortunately all of these, on a regular basis, chances are that you suffer from Imposter Syndrome. First I must clarify – although Imposter Syndrome is a form of anxiety, it is not to be confused with short-term anxiety. The majority of people have short-term periods of anxiety, doubting their academic skills and life choices etc. These are not only natural, but are crucial in motivating us.
Imposter syndrome is a far more-deep seated anxiety, which although can be short term, sometimes is persistent for far longer. It is nagging, constantly on your mind, even when not at work or university. Like anxiety, it is a syndrome based around worrying. Another similar example is hypochondria.
How do I know so much about this, you may be asking yourself? Well unfortunately, it is something I have and continue to struggle with. I am a first year PhD student, working in Molecular Microbiology. Now I can’t speak for other academic areas, but I find the Biosciences very intimidating. I have previously written about my experience of academic intimidation and starting new academic years, in “Starting a new academic year (I have no idea what I’m doing…)”. That entire article is a snapshot into just one of the problems that Imposter Syndrome has caused me.
So let’s go in-depth into what Imposter Syndrome is. It is a form of anxiety that revolves around what you do for a living and who you are (your self-identity), making you doubt yourself in various ways. You feel like an imposter: like you can’t or shouldn’t be doing your degree or job, constantly worrying you will be exposed as some-sort of fraud, having crises of confidence. Like I mention in my previous blog post, for me it was a recurring issue when starting new academic years. The pressure of moving up an academic level got to me, and I was convinced each year that I had reached my academic limit, and should quit. Making the bigger jump from undergrad to PhD made me even more anxious. I also have issues with this when working with a new/unfamiliar technique in the lab. Part of my degree and academic path involves me presenting work at conferences, so of course this is a prime opportunity for Imposter Syndrome to strike, making me doubt that I can present my work, that I’m going to embarrass myself and my department. The scariest form of self-doubt it caused me to have was actually doubting that I had anxiety, that I was depressed. I began to question everything about my mental health, feeling like I was pretending – that I was an imposter. It took me a long time to convince myself that I was in-fact suffering badly with anxiety, and needed help.
One of the biggest problems about mental health conditions is that they complement each other, and many people can have two or more separate mental health disorders that interact. Personally I have had issues with anxiety and depression since I was a child. I learnt recently from a trip to the University’s counselling service that being anxious can make you more depressed, and likewise, being depressed can make it easier for anxiety to be an issue. Going into even more detail, those suffering from anxiety are more likely to suffer from multiple subsets of anxiety. Again using myself as an example – as well as general anxiety and Imposter Syndrome, I also have hypochondriac anxiety.
However, and this is VERY important, just because you have one form of mental health disorder, does not mean you will have the others. It is more likely, but by no means a certainty. People who suffer from Imposter Syndrome, like all mental health disorders, can overcome it. It is also possible to suffer the milder, more ‘normal’ form of anxiety, in-between bouts of Imposter Syndrome anxiety.
I want to end this article on a positive note, because there is hope for those who suffer this form of anxiety. If you identify with what I have said in this blog, then talk to somebody about it. This could be a close friend, a sympathetic academic or a family member. Even if this only makes you realise that you have Imposter Syndrome (or not), it is an important first step. Then I would recommend seeing someone at the University’s counselling service, also on Twitter: @Sheff_UCS. They will be able to guide you on the road to beating Imposter Syndrome!
Just remember, if you are thinking of quitting your job or degree because you are persistently doubting yourself, first take a long hard look at your situation, and ask yourself – “Do I have Imposter Syndrome?”.