An open letter to the ultimate imposter

Belinda Cash - smallBelinda Cash is a social worker with a background in disability services and clinical mental health. She completed a Master of Mental Health in 2009, which began the adventure into research as a tool for social change.

Belinda is in the final stages of her PhD researching the experience of choice for older spousal caregivers. Her research and teaching interests include mental health, ageing, social policy, service provision in rural areas, and informal caregiving.

She works full-time at Charles Sturt University, teaching in the social work and gerontology programs. Belinda tweets from @pinkbellee.


Image by Bernard Laguerre | www.flickr.com/photos/aldor

Image by Bernard Laguerre | http://www.flickr.com/photos/aldor

Dear You,

I had the good fortune recently to work with you in an academic training workshop. Just for the record, I thought you were great.

I guess that’s why I was so surprised on Day Two to hear you hadn’t slept well.

You said to me, “Whenever I present in person, my head likes to spend all night chewing over every little thing I stuffed up”.

Wait… WHAT?!

Were you even THERE while I watched your smooth crowd control (academics are a seriously hard-to-wrangle bunch)? Did you not hear your seamless presentation of interesting and engaging material? Did you miss the artful way you navigated relentless and tricky questions?

As all of this was about to spill forth in a vain attempt to allay your doubts, I stopped. Suddenly, I recognised something all too familiar.

Of course, you don’t see any of that. You felt every tiny moment of hesitation acutely. You noticed every less than perfect word choice as it slipped out. You felt your mind whirring ahead of itself, desperate not to stuff up whatever was coming next, unable to enjoy the moments of success as they passed.

It made my heart sink. How could you, a fabulously accomplished presenter who has travelled the world for your work, still experience this? Then I realised I have seen it before. Too often. In my favourite professor, who lowers her head and brushes off compliments of her talent and success as “just experience”. In the colleague, who uses the word “luck” to describe a successful grant outcome, earned after countless long days and nights spent perfecting the application. In the highly experienced educator, who struggles to value her gift of time and knowledge to students, in an environment where publications are valued above all else.

It is pervasive: that doubt at the sincerity of compliments; the hypercritical self-talk that plagues professional interaction; the doubt-riddled inner turmoil that constantly compares self to others, in a way that self consistently fares second best.

The feelings of a fake. An imposter. Someone who is simply not worthy of their lot.

We later laughed off our feelings over a cuppa. Eyebrows were raised that I could possibly feel this way, with all my visible, outspoken bravado. Even ultimate imposters won’t allow me into their camp! It’s something to do with my sunny disposition and general inability to be quiet, I think. People take that as confidence, which somehow precludes me from the nervously quiet imposter scene.

It was so interesting to chat about this, to reflect on how differently it manifests in each individual along the imposter continuum. Reluctance and self-doubt can mean missed opportunities, but bravado comes with high stakes. There is a balance somewhere in there. Taking those tiny steps out of our comfort zones, to test new boundaries. To take on opportunities to challenge our self-doubt. To demonstrate our competence and abilities.

I’m still not sure though, at what point do we realise the façade is no longer a necessary mask to wear? When do we know we have “earned” our place in this crazy world of academia? I don’t have the big answers; after all, I, too, am a fraud, an imposter, a faker. Some nobody girl who one day woke up to find she had gotten lucky and landed the dream academic job.

My inner social worker wants to confront that narrative. To re-story this in a way that recognises the hard work, sacrifices, the resilience to keep bouncing back after adversity and failure, the stubbornness and determination to succeed, and the external bravado that holds up when the inner turmoil takes hold.

And while I work on me, let me work on you, too.

Yes, you. You ultimate imposter.

Just for a moment, close out that nagging little voice in the back of your mind.

Sit, just for a moment, and think about the achievements, the successes, and the positive forward steps that you have made throughout this day, this month, so far this year. Consider the journey of your career. Put the hiccups and detours aside, just for this moment.

Maybe in this moment, you might see what others do. That you are strong, gracious, and generous. That you are creative and innovative, and making such a positive impact on others around you.

Maybe, in this moment, you will hear the words of praise and know they are genuine. You will know that as an expert in your field, you are the perfect person for what you do. That you have worked hard and deserve to be where you are, and further. Maybe in this moment, you can stop and celebrate the small wins. To honour the hard work and progress. To be here and now, rather than looking ahead to the next grant, project, paper, or teaching session.

Maybe just for this moment, you will see the ridiculous internal dialogue for what it is: ridiculous…and a tad destructive.

Maybe if you take the time to do this often enough, one day you will see what others see. That you are not an imposter. Not a fake.

You are the real deal.

Sincerely,

Me (The Master Faker)

7 Responses to An open letter to the ultimate imposter

  1. Cristina Aponte says:

    Thanks for this post. I will certainly keep it at hand to read it every time that little internal voice starts being too loud.

    Like

  2. Beth Smits says:

    Belinda, this was a beautifully written and spot-on post. I’d like to know if you were writing to a woman, because I think this speaks to us (yes, I’m generalizing!) more than our male counterparts.

    Like

    • Yes, Beth, to a female colleague. It is a funny thing, I have often wondered if gender does play a role, I certainly see it much more evidently in female friends and colleagues. It would be wonderful to hear a male perspective on this, maybe men are just conditioned to hide it differently?

      Like

  3. Such a good post. I agree where you are coming from. I’m planning on doing an imposter syndrome blog post in the near future. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

  4. Some changes in the specific details and you could have been speaking directly to me. I thought we had come such a long way since I was a child in the 50’s, with all its not-so-subtle messages about appropriate female behavior and keeping quiet about your own achievements so someone else (father, husband, whoever) could bask in the glory. Thanks for your clear and pointed words. On my bucket list is to realize that I am not an impostor at all, but a genuinely good and competent old lady!!!

    Like

  5. Pingback: Best Industry Transition Articles Of The Week For PhDs (April 10th, 2016) | Cheeky Scientist® | Industry Training For Intelligent People

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