Monday, March 9, 2015

The Impostor Syndrome

Diane von Furstenberg, creator of the wrap dress, recently wrote of her semi-retirement and subsequent career. She says that after some time off, she knew she needed to return to fashion. But she was scared, having been absent awhile. Her fears were that “the fashion world would not take [her] seriously, or that a second attempt would fall flat [making her] early success seem like a happy coincidence” (Chicago Tribune, Business page 5, March 1, 2015). This, from the woman on the cover of Newsweek in 1976!

Furstenberg’s fears correspond with those of the Imposter Syndrome (IS), something that up to 70% of us experience at least once in a lifetime (Warrell, Forbes). IS entails having negative thoughts, particularly that others will “find out” how inadequate we really are, even as we accomplish much. Historically, the syndrome has affected more women than men, but now, nearly as many men are affected.

(slide found at flickr - part of presentation by Julie Pagano at Open Source Bridge 2014)

This condition often afflicts college students. Carolyn Law, NIU’s Thesis Advisor, felt such fears herself while attending graduate school. She looked for a book on the subject but could not find one. So she created one called This Fine Place So Far From Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class (Temple UP, 1995). Many who undergo IS are first-generation college students, but the syndrome can affect anyone.

I, too, have faced IS. When I began my English graduate studies, I offered to help a colleague move. Another graduate student, in process of writing his dissertation, also helped. When I asked him about his work, he replied: “[Insert esoteric language here] … Emerson.” My immediate thought was, “Emerson? Of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer? (the band) Boy, I don’t belong here.” That was the beginning of my experience of IS, and for those who feel or have ever felt likewise, we have found some tips.

First, let’s remember that this condition only happens to effective people. Caltech’s counseling center says that the “syndrome is associated with highly achieving, highly successful people.” Kyle Eschenroeder, in a blog on this topic, points out that many “famous people” have suffered similar thoughts, and he lists 21 steps to overcoming this syndrome. But some of us may be in danger of having these thoughts inhibit our degree completion, so let’s think through this condition further.
Caltech tells readers to question such negative “automatic thoughts” and come up with a more balanced assessment of abilities. Warrell advises us to “reset” the bar to a more realistic level. She cautions people not to be so highly driven as to be “forever striving [and] feeling inadequate,” saying not everyone is the “Einstein” of his or her field.

These are good tips for those of us writing a thesis or dissertation. We don’t have to author THE BEST study that ever existed. And we are competent scholars, so we can do this! Remember that others are or have been in the same position, and contact our office anytime for help. If anyone has ideas to offer, please feel free to comment below!

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