Imposter Syndrome and How to Ignore It (or at least not let it inhibit you)

My goal in life is to be as confident as Gustave.

A peculiar conundrum that often accompanies highly successful people is the fear that they do not deserve their achievement. They doubt their intellect or skills and believe that their success is a charade. They tell themselves that they’re really not that smart or talented, but that they’ve merely managed to fool everyone into thinking they are. Worst of all, they constantly worry that they’ll mess up, and that everyone will suddenly realize they’ve been duped all along.

Such are the feelings that accompany Imposter Syndrome, something that many a graduate student will either be familiar with or have experienced. I myself have been dealing with it in one form or another since third grade. I’m not sure why it develops, though living and working in a high-achieving culture probably aggravates it. When you’re surrounded by colleagues doing great work all the time, you can’t help but wonder whether you’ll ever measure up.

It was especially prevalent at Williams, where all of my classmates were brilliant and talented. I remember thinking that they must have read the wrong application, gotten mine mixed up with some more deserving person. I couldn’t have possibly been good enough to get in on my own merits. And so on and so on.

These days, however, Imposter Syndrome doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it used to. It’s still there, but it doesn’t hold the same power over my confidence that it once did. How have I managed to control it? What changed between Williams and William and Mary?

First, I graduated from Williams. As stressful as being a student there could be sometimes, completing my degree bolstered my confidence enormously. Even more than finishing my Master’s, working as a curator for several years boosted my confidence. Museum work demands not only intellect and skill, but flexibility. You may go in prepared to write exhibition labels, but you end up giving a tour to unexpected patrons instead. Or the roof is leaking and you have to clear out a gallery of paintings. Or the electricians have come to work on the air conditioner and you have to explain why it has to be able to run at a certain temperature. For me at least, there was no time to worry about whether I fooling people into thinking I was competent; I just had to do it. And the more I worked at these different tasks, the more confident I became in my own abilities.

As contradictory as it sounds, being aware of my own limitations has further boosted my confidence. When I was a graduate student at Williams, I thought I needed to know everything, and that people would think I was stupid if I wasn’t familiar with a topic. As I learned through my museum work though, nobody knows everything. It was impossible to be an expert on every single aspect of the museum’s operations, whether it was bookkeeping, buildings maintenance, or finances. Indeed, a lot of my job consisted of finding the right experts for various inquiries, whether it was a good lighting company or an expert on Maynard Dixon paintings. I realized it isn’t necessarily your current knowledge that always counts, but your ability to research a question and find out, whether it was doing it yourself or finding the right expert.

This experience has all helped make graduate school much more manageable this time around. I know I don’t know everything, but that’s okay, I still have my own experiences and expertise to offer. So does everyone else. Someone might be more familiar with a certain theory or author than I am. Conversely, I can offer suggestions on successfully organizing an exhibition. Together, we can all learn from each other.

So what are my suggestions about dealing with Imposter Syndrome? Everyone has their own journey, but here’s what helps me:

  1. You deserve to be here: You got where you are because of your abilities and hard work. Don’t let your doubts tell you otherwise, and if they do, don’t listen to them.
  2. You’re not alone: While everyone around you may look like they have it together, they’re probably experiencing the same self-doubt you are. Opening up and talking wither others about Imposter Syndrome can be a great way to begin connecting with other people and getting in touch with their humanity.
  3. Experience: For me, a key part of getting my Imposter Syndrome under control was to get out of my comfort zones and gain experience. The more I did that, the easier it became to ignore the self-doubt because I knew I could accomplish these things. Don’t apply for a job or a volunteer position because you have all the qualifications. No one is ever perfectly qualified for any job, because we’re all fallible humans. Instead, go for the opportunities where you can learn or perfect new skills.
  4. Your job is not your life: When your dissertation or your job becomes your primary identity, there’s a lot of pressure to be perfect at it, otherwise you feel like there’s something wrong with you as a person. There’s nothing wrong with being passionate, but your work is not your life. Learning to create boundaries between your work and other facets of your life makes it easier to ignore Imposter Syndrome because you know that’s not your only means of self-expression and worth.

I still hear the old Imposter Syndrome now and then, but nowadays I don’t let it hold me back, because I already know that I can succeed.

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