Fear of Being Found Out

So, I promised I’d follow up with another post! Here goes…

Now that I’ve finished up my qualifying exams and I am basking in the warmth that is being a PhD candidate, I have had some time to process the past few months. With regards to preparing for my exams, they have pretty mentally exhausting. Studying for weeks is certainly exhausting. Managing your time well to get everything other than studying done is exhausting. Dealing with the anxiety and stress about such a significant event is exhausting. However, the hardest thing, I found, was dealing with feelings related to imposter syndrome.

What is that, you ask? Imposter syndrome isn’t actually a ‘syndrome’ or something someone can be diagnosed with. Instead, it is the name for when one feels as though their accomplishments are not deserved and instead are just due to luck or deceit. These feelings can make them feel as though they are an imposter and involve the fear that they will be discovered for the fraud they are. These feelings can be experienced by anyone and are actually quite normal. Even so, this can be difficult to realize when these feelings are rooted in feeling like you’re hiding the truth from others.

These kinds of feelings and thoughts made a regular appearance in my self-talk over the past few weeks. It wasn’t the literal thoughts of “You’re going to be found out” but instead thoughts like “What if I let my advisors down because I don’t know what they think I do?” or “What if they figure out that I’m significantly under prepared?”. Before I continue, let me assure you – I was appropriately prepared, maybe even over prepared honestly. I also knew, somewhere in the back of my head, that my advisors already had a good measure of how much I understood. However, sometimes my mind would ignore those logical arguments and I would start to feel anxiety over whether I’m supposed to be here – in grad school – or I would start comparing my own journey to those of my peers, thinking I was missing some pivotal trait or mindset.

So I argue; the most difficult thing about getting through qualifying exams is battling imposter syndrome. These exams are when you are finally on display and the main goal is to determine if you are fit to continue with your degree. It can feel as though this is the final judgement; you will be fully exposed, and you will be found out as a fraud. Even with your constant preparation, you can feel as though you’re just faking it, you’re just going through the motions in an effort to not be found out.

Screen Shot 2018-05-07 at 7.11.30 PMImposter syndrome feelings can come up in a variety of situations, and this is one of the reasons I claim that everyone can experience it. From a new job interview to adjusting to a new family role, or simply the responsibility that comes along with being experienced in something. While others expect you to know what you’re doing, you may feel that you don’t deserve to be there – or that you’re only there by some fluke. It won’t matter that you have a great resume for that job, or you have years of experience – feelings related to imposter syndrome can make you discount those accomplishments or justify that you didn’t earn them (even though you so totally did).

I first became familiar with the idea of imposter syndrome while working on my undergraduate physics degree. The women within my physics department started a Women in Physics club in order to formally support the women in the department and one of the first things that we all discussed were feelings of imposter syndrome. At first I didn’t understand how it was different from just having little confidence. I thought, “Well, I know that I can do well so why would I ever feel like an imposter?” However, as I watched peers of mine, other women working towards the same degree, decide that they just weren’t cut out for physics I started to realize it was more than just confidence.

Imposter syndrome was originally described as something that mainly effected women. It was noted that, as opposed to men who felt their success was inherent to themselves, women felt as though their success was attributed to outside factors, like luck. Societal influences, from labeling careers as ‘suitable’ for women to gender biases and stereotypes, could possibly explain this difference in thinking. It could also originate from feelings of needing to prove yourself to those who have doubted you, or on the other side, a need to continue to meet high expectations of those who insist you can do anything. However over the years since imposter syndrome was first described, it has become apparent that anyone can experience it. It relates to feeling isolated, whether its due to something obvious like gender or ethnicity or something invisible like education background or a mental disability.

So – can we help imposter syndrome? Yes! It can be very beneficial to lessen that isolation. Knowing that you are not alone, and others are experiencing similar imposter-like feelings, can be extremely helpful! I bonded early on with one of my fellow graduate students when we admitted to each other that we felt intimidated by the other. She had thought I was incredibly on top of my work and felt she couldn’t keep up. I felt intimidated that she had spent a year doing research abroad and felt that my undergrad accomplishments couldn’t compare. We both instantly felt more comfortable and connected when we admitted these things to each other.

Screen Shot 2018-05-07 at 7.27.36 PMIt is also very helpful to hear from other successful individuals about their own experiences. In the past few years, I have actually been on both ends of this. I attended a conference for undergraduate women in physics three years ago and found it inspiring – I felt all of the women on the panels were great role models and their stories of how they got to where they were helped me envision myself in their shoes. Later, just this past winter, I got to attend the same conference as a volunteer – where I talked to undergraduates about my experiences. It gave me a unique sense of confidence to be able to share both my achievements and failures and see myself like the women I had looked up to three years before. It made me feel like I belonged – failures, doubts and all.

Even now, with an exceptional performance on my qualifying exams, a paper finished and submitted to an academic journal for review, and high grades in my graduate classes all under my belt, I can still have thoughts like, “What if they just asked me easier questions than everyone else?”, “Maybe they just didn’t read my paper very closely” or “That just sounds cool, it’s not actually that impressive” invade my mind every so often. Feelings of imposter syndrome don’t magically go away with more accomplishments. Instead they are helped with sharing your feelings and experiences, realizing that you’re not alone and reframing your self-talk to focus on how awesome you are.

3 thoughts on “Fear of Being Found Out

  1. I find I’m surprised learning that you have been experiencing impostor syndrome . I didn’t know that what it’s called, but have felt some of those feelings my self. But I never dreamed you would have them…You’re so smart and cool, so confident ( or so it seemed). Anyway thanks for sharing and explaining. I hope your future will be free of the syndrome.
    Love you and so very proud of you and all of your accomplishments. hugs and More HUGS

  2. First of all, love the graphics. 🙂

    I find I fall within the light green area of the pie chart of people who get Impostor Syndrome.

    I still deal with it at my age… I’m glad we now have an understanding of what it is and also realize there are ways we know we can lessen it. That minimizing isolation and sharing how we are feeling can help us realize we DO deserve to be there. You most certainly do. 🙂

    I’m really proud of you for your hard work and determination and all that you’ve accomplished so far! You are awesome.

  3. Now turning the tables, how many of your examining committee people experienced a flutter of imposter syndrome symptoms just before going to the exam, arriving there, and beginning to participate with the others? How many of them feel this way as they begin to put together a whole new course, or even step into the classroom each day to teach a segment of one of their warhorse courses? How about when they submit to journals? How about when they participate in faculty meetings? When they participate on review committees for journals? When they advise undergraduates or graduate students? When they receive awards? When they need to deliver a commencement speech? When they sign their names adding a Ph.D. after their name? ( You will get to do that soon! Have you even thought of that yet? You’ll get a chance to decide whether to add those three letters and the two periods after each and every signature you ever write by hand or type, FOREVER, and at that moment imposter syndrome can pop out from totally nowhere, plus all sorts of other associations. I haven’t thought about the neurophysiological and overall physiological concomitants of imposter syndrome, but I’m thinking flight or fight correlates, for starters. I am wondering what imposter syndrome looks like to other people observing someone experiencing this in the moment, in terms of weird body language fluctuations that are noticeable, including breathing, tone of voice, word choice, etc. Generally it’s something that happens in private, though. Here’s an idea: to help corral this puppy and to get feedback on your specific musings, you could ask a couple of your examining professors 1) whether they were giving you soft balls, and 2) if indeed they had or had not closely read your dissertation proposal or whatever it was that they were reading. Then you can reprocess your thoughts based on new information and not speculation. Unfounded assumptions based on faulty or incomplete information lead to logical errors, and I think that parsing out imposter syndrome into its various wrong assumptions can go a long way toward dismantling it in any specific area, although then it can reappear like a gopher someplace else, popping up in the blue, green and yellow sections of one’s life.

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