I am currently in Wellington as I write this, having just spent the day at a workshop that I helped to organise. The professor who spearheaded this colloquium, and for whom I have spent the past two years working for, invited me to join them for dinner. Despite the opportunity to meet leading academics, practitioners and policy makers in the field – and to enjoy a rather extravagant three course meal (I know, because I picked the menu) – my instinctive reaction was reluctance.
I don’t want to go to the dinner because I feel like I don’t belong at the dinner table.
It sounds a bit ridiculous when I say it out loud (especially when there’s the word “dinner” in front of “table”), but this feeling of not belonging is an old friend (enemy). When I graduated from high school, I confessed to my boyfriend that I had “peaked”. I thought that I was never going to enjoy the level of success that I experienced at school, because once the goldfish bowl that I was swimming in turns into a pond… the whole world would see that I wasn’t really ever that good. Or, worse yet, that I was never actually good enough.
I was an impostor; a fraud. Things happened “to” me because I “got lucky” or because people helped me. I worked hard, but my success never felt truly deserved.
The impostor syndrome is well documented, and is particularly noted in women and minority groups.
The impostor syndrome, sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
I felt the impostor syndrome recently after receiving the Rhodes Scholarship and being subject to praise left, right and centre. The way that I react (poorly) to compliments and praise has made me understand the difference between being humble on the one hand, and being overly self-deprecating on the other. The fine line between confidence (which is OK) and arrogance (which is bad, and especially terrible if you are female) often causes me to swing too far towards downplaying my achievements and abilities and to forget that you can be both humble and confident at the same time.
My professor once told me that if I picture where I think I’ll be in 2 – 3 years time, then I probably have an accurate picture of where I actually am right now. It’s hard to overcome the gut feeling of hesitation (and perhaps it’ll stay with me for the rest of my life) but having filters like that (taking the opportunities now that I would take in 2 – 3 years, or even 4 – 5 years time) has really helped.
Time to sign off now and to put it all into practice!