The ruse is up: Dealing with impostor syndrome
I feel stuck and I don’t know why.
Everything is telling me that I should be having the time of my life.
I’m going to my dream grad school. I’m working in a discipline that I love. I’ve successfully survived my first year. And terms such as “intelligent,” “smart,” and “successful” have been used to describe me–to describe my life. I mean, I suppose if I were to look at my CV I could maybe shrug in agreement…
But I don’t feel it.
I don’t see it.
And here I am… stuck. Anxious. In a rut. And scared that my life has been a horrible mistake. That I don’t really belong here. That I’m an impostor.
Impostor syndrome is common, and affects people of all types, and in all occupations. It manifests itself as feelings of inadequacy. It appears as thoughts that repeatedly tell you that the successes you’ve accumulated in your life were undeserved. And, probably the worst symptom – it presents itself as the fear that one day, someone is going to realize that maybe you’re not as smart and competent as you’ve led them to believe, and you will be seen as a fraud. As a liar. The ruse will be up. And then what?
Have you experienced this? Are some of you nodding your head as your read these words, wondering how I know? I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few of you said yes. At least not anymore. After posting about anxiety in (grad) school during my first year of blogging, I learned very quickly that mental health in academia is a huge, stigmatized mess. Mental health in any context is still such a taboo topic that it’s almost pathetic. Because that means that thousands of us end up hiding these very common problems. We isolate ourselves and put on a happy face and unhealthily pretend that nothing is wrong, despite the fact that so many of our peers are going through the exact same thing. Don’t ask, don’t tell… right?
I’m going through this right now. A bout of impostor syndrome mixed with my all too-prevalent anxiety issues. It’s a recipe for lying on the floor, unmoving, wondering why I ever decided to come to grad school. It’s a recipe for wondering why I ever thought I could become an amazing scientist. And it’s a recipe for anxious stomach-churning at the sight of any work-related emails. I feel crippled by the pressure to be successful, to publish, to win that fellowship and to understand topics that people have spent years of their life researching and it really just sucks.
I can keep reminding myself that I’m just starting out. That I was admitted into my program for a reason. That people who compliment my abilities aren’t just saying it out of politeness. They see something in me. But it doesn’t always help. And sometimes the tides roll out and I get lost in my own head and despite being someone who might be deemed successful, I feel completely and utterly under-qualified.
But, you know what, that’s okay. It’s a work in progress and though I’m having a rough time right now, it’ll get better. It usually does. Besides, if I’ve learned anything at all, it is that whoever said “fake it till you make it” was definitely onto something. After all, getting to a point where you feel proud of yourself and confident in your own abilities is something that must be constantly worked on. And if nothing else, I can proudly say that I’m trying to become the best version of myself.
And really, what else can you ask of yourself?
Krystal Vasquez (@caffeinatedkrys) is a PhD candidate at the California Institute of Technology in the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. This story was published on September 18, 2016, on Krystal’s blog, Caffeinated Confidence (available here), and has been republished here with her permission.