Lately I’ve noticed an alarming number of people in my personal/work orbit discussing the severity of their respective cases of impostor syndrome. I’ve struggled with this well-documented phenomenon for as long as I can remember, due as much to deference-oriented gender socialization as to the wiring I received while reared in the Texan cult of independence that holds self-sufficiency preeminent above all things. This conditioning was only augmented by the attainment-obsessed environment of higher education in which I have operated as a worker, making career-as-proving-ground the only formal professional metaphor I know.
My experience is not unique, and is far from exclusive to academic careers. Instead, it is the tip of a polluted cultural iceberg. Impostor syndrome is one of many manifestations of the submerged self-doubt that plagues (the vast majority of) people in hyperindustrialized societies, particularly the US. The experience varies among subgroups and individuals, but IMO our most universal collective insecurity is rooted in persistent terror of “failure” and the object/alleviation of its anxiety: subcultural aggrandizements of prestige. As a result, disturbing default narratives of self vacillate between success/arrogance and unworthiness/apologia.
Our existential performance apprehension is a form of violence that does little for collective or individual physical/mental/spiritual health. Directed outward it creates judgment and envy, which I have experienced everywhere from queer culture to surfing to sangha. Directed inward, it leads to the unconscious cultivation of highly specific negative myths of self, internally-spun stories reinforced by external feedback and an ongoing, conditioned interpretation of experience. Simply slot in your own narratives (“I can’t _______,” “I’m not great at _______,” “I suck at _______”) in any personal or professional context, and you have identified these self-myths. More often than not they become the lenses through which we see, and they distort far more than they correct.
The difference between clearly understanding our own strengths/weaknesses and acquiescing to a stunted sense of self is as vast as the distance between healthy fear and gnawing anxiety, and I’m writing this post in recognition of the importance of cultivating the former at the expense of the latter.
myth and metacognition
As intractable as they seem, our myths are eminently revisable. It is my experience that negative internal narratives can be deconstructed (or at least acknowledged and understood) by identifying the anxieties upon which they are based and learning to abide in the discomfort the myths are created to evade. I recently (and totally unexpectedly) managed to unlearn two of my own most persistent myths of self: the first that I can’t swim very well or hold my breath under water for more than a few seconds, the second a generalized sense of professional fraud that has haunted my entire career.
It is common knowledge that the learning process is shaped by a multitude of factors – culture, context, community, motivation, physiology, and psychology. When we learn our brains are automatic as well as intentional; cognition (thinking) during learning is largely reflexive, whereas metacognition (thinking about thinking) is volitional awareness of the process of learning. So what is at work when we unlearn? My recent experience points to a metacognitive emphasis – conscious insight into what I thought I knew/feared, how I came to know/fear it, and strategies for coming to know something new/not fear.
The fact that I ‘knew’ I wasn’t a strong swimmer and feared being held underwater since childhood might come as a surprise to anyone who knows me even slightly, because I spend about a quarter of my waking life (and about half of my dreaming life) in water or as close to it as possible… preferably the ocean. Which is actually quite odd, because ever since I can remember I’ve been terrified of it. I find that most people are to some degree no matter how inexorably they are drawn to the sea, for varied and personal reasons. The two most common fears I have observed are that the ocean cannot provide us with the element we most need to survive (oxygen), and that it cannot be controlled. We can achieve degrees of relative symbiosis with it, we can exploit it, we can disregard it, we can worship it, but all our efforts are eventually met with the magnificent indifference of that which spat us out and will swallow us again.
In other words, we are temporary and flailing and the ocean is massive and eternal. However transformative, my past maritime activities were always tinged by a miasma of associated anxiety. It decreased over the years, but core aspects remained intact: while snorkeling, I wondered more about what I couldn’t see than what I could. Swimming past the breaking waves would raise irrational sensations of undertow and current, even though I knew perfectly well what to do in those cases (relax, breathe, and move perpendicular to shore). After a wipeout, I’d expel all my breath as I hit water and fight spasmodically to the surface.
This last instinct combined with a relentless drive to improve could have killed me several times in my earliest days of surfing. Eight-foot walls of winter whitewater are no place for a beginner, and after a bicep cut in two, some broken toes, countless bruises, and a terrible ragdoll holdunder I learned a few limits. Almost two years and a lot of hard-earned skills later, however, an intractable reactivity was still causing needless injuries. A few months ago it earned me a broken nose, when, after committing the cardinal sin of hesitating at the top of a wave, I surfaced so recklessly after being tossed that the first thing I saw was the tail of my board hurtling into my right eye socket. A predictable jet of blood raised an entirely different and utterly justified set of ocean fears, and I hightailed it to shore.
Had I stayed calm, held my breath as the wave took me under, and come up hands first when the boil ended, there is no chance this would have happened. Screaming from pure, nature/adrenaline-fueled joy while rocketing over water is not a habit I wanted to lose, and two black eyes helped me see that it would take work to transform persistent, myth-fueled anxieties into positive self-preservation. Which is precisely why I enrolled a “surprise apnea” workshop with an incredibly gifted teacher named Hanlii Prinsloo a few weekends ago, a record-holding freediver who helps professional athletes from big wave surfers to rugby players change what their bodies are capable of under extreme carbon dioxide duress. Which, of course, regular make-out sessions with the ocean provide the opportunity to experience first-hand.
Hanli’s pedagogy was flawless, and led me to a 360 degree reconceptualization of my own (lung) capacity and swimming ability. Believe me when I say that it’s amazing how long the average person can learn to handle the discomfort of sustaining a single breath by simply relaxing, understanding what’s happening to their body, and challenging its reactions. In the days before the session I timed myself to see how long I could go without breathing: one extremely uncomfortable minute. After five hours of training, I was up to two and a half minutes. Through a combination of yoga, stretching, physiological insight, freediving history/technique, meditative insight, dry land and underwater breathholds, and swim interval training, my myth of self as overly vulnerable in the water began to unravel.
Early ocean scares/injuries had resulted in more post-traumatic scar tissue than I realized, and once I recognized the narratives underlying my anxieties a fundamental relaxation began. Fearing the ocean is advisable, because it keeps you alive. Harboring anxiety about it isn’t, because it kills you faster than ignorance. Fear is a cognitive/instinctive reaction to danger; anxiety is a psychological/learned reaction to fear. My perception of poor swimming and an inability to keep my shit together when being chewed by a wave were mere symptoms of an anxiety manifested in physical and psychological contractions that hurt me every chance they could. What I had been describing to myself as “fear” was simple anxiety about loss of control.
Substitute ‘job/working for ‘wave/ocean’ in the previous paragraph and it still makes perfect sense – in fact, madlib any of your myths of self for the same effect. Enter impostor syndrome (IS).
I made this connection in a recent interview with Alison J. Head of Project Information Literacy, an individual and research project I respect a great deal. Interviewing in the company of Lee Rainie and Barbara Fister is both an honor and terrifying: predictably, at the outset of the process my impostor was very active. The thing is, as I developed my responses I realized that I had much to say about collaboration, advocacy, and the projects I’ve been involved in over the years. Far from self-aggrandizement, it felt like a genuinely enthusiastic narrative of initiatives, colleagues, and values.
That I’ve contributed positively to my profession is something I’ve doubted systematically since I started being a librarian back in 2006, so it was fabulous to finally experience a moment of reflective contentment. The unanticipated alleviation of my own fraud myth made me realize how incessantly I have tried to drive away self-doubt by scaling the walls of workaholism toward an unattainable zenith. The impostor delivers an ad nauseam internal critique that creates a protective counterimpulse to mask deficiencies, which leads to all sorts of related negatives such as posturing, positioning, loss of motivation, defensiveness, unease, despair, and outright panic. It holds you back from taking risks and sharing opinions to avoid being perceived as that which you are fear you actually are, in some cases a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In my experience, IS is like a professional Saturn return… you might think you’re through it, but it always seems to come back with a vengeance. It is far from an early career phenomenon, although a self ‘unproven’ is arguably likelier to experience lower work-oriented perceptions of worth/confidence. Any significant event like a new (or lost) position, presentation, class, meeting, project, promotion, interview, etc. become fodder for self-doubt and the most prevalent characteristic of IS, a sense of underqualification, incapability, and fraudulence. This is often expressed as “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Maybe you don’t, but that’s the nature of (the sea of) work. You learn, and you unlearn.
Although it is an internal vulnerability, one’s working environment has a tremendous effect on the experience of IS and can aggravate it immeasurably. My own darkest period of professional self-doubt was in a high-stakes context in which I received negative feedback to an extent that it led me to question the fundamental value of my own efforts, something I had not experienced in more positive environments. I developed a shell of defensiveness wholly contrary to the values I wanted to embody as a worker. Moreover, I started to exhibit depressive and coping behaviors in my wider life. When I changed my situation I recognized that it can take a significant move to turn one’s contextual IS tide, and that intentionality in community of practice building is essential to forming a positive conception of (professional) self.
accepting your impostor(s)
The beauty of any fear is that your relationship to it (and the anxieties it radiates) are eminently changeable. For me, what was once a near total aversion to the ocean has become a deep love and profound respect. While I still experience varying levels of fear every time I engage with it, the anxiety is in a period of reflective decline. Same with professional apprehension. My insides twist when I teach or speak, and any new undertaking or transition in my working life is a certain struggle with a rearing impostor. That said, by observing and questioning the “truth” of these experiences and understanding their origins they no longer stab quite so deeply. Moreover, they help me be more sensitive to the internal lives of those around me, just as challenging and just as real as my own. Everyone struggles with their own myths: a liberating realization.
Perhaps the most effective way to challenge negative internal narratives (be they visceral or work related) is to stop pushing them away. Step back and observe your wider experience and impact – tunnel vision is limited and far easier to foment a critical view. I have personally learned to do this through meditation (a scaffolded form of metacognition), observing my mind and emotions at work and the effect they have on my body and behavior. The fact that I have a daily practice in this regard means that, no matter what goes on in my life, there is a period of time in which I cannot evade the darker forms of what I experience. Rather, I make peace with them as they parade through my head.
Where your impostor is concerned, be collaborative. Value your colleagues even when they are difficult – we all have lives and emotions, and they too easily drag us into depths out of which we can no longer see our own behavior and/or effect on others. Lead with relentless positivity. Take courage in your career. Where your deeper negative narratives exist, cultivate experiences that rip you out of your comfort zone while still providing support. Build a community of allies and ditch out on negatrons (but take pains not to burn bridges). Be mentored and seek mentees. Understand your privilege. Labor with your heart as well as your head/hands. Challenge your perceived limitations or they will become more calcified than you could ever have imagined (and far better at masking their potential for remediation). Above all else never stop working on your shit, because only some of it – particularly the anxiety-based – is real. When left unexamined, our imagined issues far too easily prevent us from addressing actual ones.
– Many thanks to Lia Friedman for invaluable editorial advice on this essay.