Brain & Health
Imposter Phenomenon - My Story
Written by Dalmira
Academic careers can be a mentally challenging journey for some of us. Students and young researchers can develop different types of mental health problems, from imposter phenomenon (also known as imposter syndrome) to anxiety and severe depression. Therefore, mental health is a very important topic, but somehow, I’ve realised that young academics do not talk about it to their peers, supervisors, best friends, or family members. Some do not even admit that they are facing some sort of mental challenge in their life. I believe that these health issues should not be ignored. In this blog I would like to talk about imposter phenomenon in academia by telling you my story.
Imposter phenomenon is a feeling of self-doubt in one’s abilities despite evidence of success.
It all started when I enrolled for my bachelor’s at my university in my home country, Kazakhstan. This particular university is one of the most prestigious education platforms in the country whereby, even to get an offer from them is a challenging experience in itself. However, if an applicant successfully passes all admission exams and gets enrolled, then they would receive a fully funded scholarship and a monthly stipend on top of it. If only I knew what kind of path I had chosen back then! The barrier of entry was definitely very tough for the majority of students, even the best ones, and yet there I was.
When my studies began, I felt like I had only gotten into this university by sheer luck, and at that point, I started to doubt my own skills. Thus, I began to overwork, which led to an unbalanced lifestyle, lack of sleep, and frequent illnesses. At first, I tried to ignore it as I believed that everyone was facing the same challenges and I just needed to find my own way to deal with it. Although my grades improved significantly, I still thought that the good grades I obtained on exams were not due to my efforts but rather the kindness of my professors. Eventually, I finished my bachelor’s with an above average GPA, which gave me the opportunity to do internships abroad and eventually led to a fully funded master’s program. Even though I was happy to be a scholar of an international program, I could not convince myself that I had achieved all of this through my own efforts. I kept constantly torturing my mind with questions such as, “Am I smart enough to be a graduate scholar? Did I deserve it?”. Nevertheless, I continued my studies, extensively working on my research project and participating in different symposia. I even managed to publish a paper, which was the result of my master’s project. Still, yet again, I doubted all the positive feedback about my performance and instead felt not qualified enough for the place I was at. I felt like a fraud and that, at any moment, someone would reveal that I did not belong there or that I was not as skilled as my colleagues. It held me back in many ways and became a constant source of anxiety and stress.
Things got worse as time progressed, my thoughts troubled me more often. It affected my sleep, my mood, my behaviour, and increased my self-doubt. I realised that something was off, and that I needed some help. I decided to meet up with my closest friend and tell them how I felt. It turned out that she was also facing the same issues. We were both likely experiencing imposter phenomenon. Imposter phenomenon is a feeling of self-doubt in one’s abilities despite evidence of success. The best thing my friend could recommend was to see a psychologist.
Imposter phenomenon is a quite common experience, especially in competitive and high-pressure fields like academia. Nevertheless, it is possible to overcome it with the help of a psychologist, a supportive community, and the right coping strategies.
I then decided to go through therapy with our institute’s psychologist. The sessions contained transparent talks about my past and present, and my thoughts about myself. It was not so easy to open up on what you’ve hidden in your “closet” for years to a stranger. However, with every session, opening up got easier and easier. The therapist guided me and asked questions that helped me to understand myself better, break down the problems I faced, and find solutions. In fact, my therapist helped me to find some coping strategies. For example, I had to bring self-love to myself through praising techniques. Whenever I spent the whole day studying or I achieved a good grade, I should take myself on a date or buy something I had been wanting for a long time like a book or some clothes. In this way I could learn that those efforts or achievements were the results of my own work.
One strategy that was very helpful was reframing my thinking. Instead of focusing on my weaknesses and shortcomings, I tried to focus on my strengths and accomplishments. I reminded myself that I had been successful so far, and I have enough skills and knowledge to succeed further. This strategy built up my confidence in myself and my abilities. Another method that had helped me the most was to build a strong supportive network around myself. I surrounded myself with people whom I could trust, and who were supportive and understanding. This made a huge difference in coping with imposter phenomenon. These strategies provided me the support I needed to finish my master’s degree.
Now I am doing a doctorate (PhD), which is another very challenging experience for many graduate students, including myself. As a PhD student, you learn multitasking and planning, academic writing and presenting projects to different types of audiences; you face criticisms, document experiments, attend training courses, and work on different projects; and you need to do it all in parallel. Frankly speaking, I still experience the imposter phenomenon and feel anxiety and stress from time to time. However, now I know myself much better and, if needed, I can use the coping strategies that have helped me already in the past.
In conclusion, imposter phenomenon is a quite common experience, especially in competitive and high-pressure fields like academia. Nevertheless, it is possible to overcome it with the help of a psychologist, a supportive community, and the right coping strategies.
Written by Dalmira Merzakhupova; Edited by Jia Jun Fung. Featured Image: NGC/Design.