I was so relieved when I learned there was a name for it. For years I’ve been convinced I was alone in feeling like a fraud, in constantly worrying that every success I’d ever experienced–particularly in academia–was a case of blind luck or my ability to “hoodwink” those in charge. I still frequently experience a sense of panic when I’m sure that the jig is up, that something I’ve written or said has finally revealed to my supervisors and colleagues that they made a HUGE mistake in including me in the academic world.
If what I’m describing sounds familiar, you may be one of an estimated 70% of people who suffer from impostor syndrome, also known as the impostor phenomenon. The Chronicle of Higher Education defines it as “a cognitive distortion that prevents a person from internalizing any sense of accomplishment.” Valerie Young, who gives regular workshops on the subject, says that it causes you to “attribute your failures to a stable, inner core of ineptness. Meanwhile, you discount your successes as accidental or, worse, as just so many confidence jobs. Every positive is a false positive” (read the full article at http://chronicle.com/free/v54/i11/11a00101.htm). Lots of people experience impostor syndrome, but the incidence seems to be especially high among academics and people who’ve achieved a high level of success.
In my case, every paper that I write, ever class presentation that I give, rather than being a learning opportunity or a chance to prove my stuff, becomes instead the beginning of the end. Up until the very moment that I receive some praise and a general lack of horrified disgust I’m sure that this will be the day when my supervisors and colleagues shake their heads and gesture me toward the door. And when the praise comes I’m sure that it’s just out of politeness (even though academics as a species aren’t necessarily known for heaping polite praise on bad work).
Part of this fear stems from the fact that I exist in a profession where being “good”–even being “great”–just isn’t enough. You need to be astounding. While the work of many of my colleagues and supervisors amazes me with its complexity and innovation, I fear that my own work is just a rehashing of old ideas. It’s solid, sure, but it’s not astounding. And that, perhaps, is my greatest fear–not of failing, but of producing work that’s just “good.”
I don’t know that this fear is likely to go away any time soon, but in the end it’s a comfort to know I’m not alone. To know that the colleagues whose brilliance I’m regularly floored by probably have their own moments of panic or frantic thoughts of “They’re onto me!” So I’ll keep fooling them all for now, and maybe after the dissertation becomes a book and the tenure is secured and the folks from Nobel come knocking I’ll be able to relax a little.
Probably not, though.