Lately, I’ve been thinking about Impostor Syndrome and what it means. We identify Impostor Syndrome as a mindset problem – one of insecurity and self-doubt. It’s a problem that afflicts high-achievers, who are ignoring the evidence of their own success. One way we express our Impostor Syndrome is through perfectionism.
As a coach, I work with academics who suffer from Impostor Syndrome. I also work with academics who are experiencing a different phenomenon, which I want to talk about here. That’s the tendency to overachieve because of other people’s doubts.
What if we shifted our understanding of Impostor Syndrome to examine being treated like an impostor instead of feeling like one?
Our perfectionism and tendency to overachieve aren’t necessarily borne out of a belief in our own incompetence. Instead, it’s what we consider to be a reasonable response to workplace pressures. I know that in my tenure-track job, I felt like I couldn’t take my foot off the gas pedal. I had an antagonistic department chair who expressed her hostility through a cynical curiosity about how I spent my time off campus. She was incredulous that I had time for fun during the weekend. She regarded my Friday writing days with suspicion, suggesting that I should be concerned that “people” (to this day, I don’t know who these people are) might think I was slacking because I wasn’t in the office.
This pressure, combined with my own very high standards, created a suffocating perfectionism. I worked harder than I ever had, mainly to inoculate myself from criticism. Working that intensely wasn’t reasonable, however. It also never changed my chair’s mind. You can never run fast enough or far enough in a game with shifting goalposts.
While your situation may not be identical to mine, you may have felt the need to overdeliver in order to prove yourself. Let’s be real, when have you thought the following?
- I have to do extra preparation for this lecture because my students will doubt my expertise.
- My presentation slides must be perfect because I can’t get away with winging it like the guy before me did (even though I know this topic like the back of my hand).
- I can’t tell anyone I’m working with an editor because they’ll think it means I can’t write on my own.
If this resonates with you, then I invite you to participate in the free coaching series I’m hosting next week. Each day, I’ll be coaching on a topic related to Impostor Syndrome as I’ve described it in this email. If you watch the coaching live, you’ll have the opportunity to be coached by me. You’ll also receive a daily exercise or prompt (via email) to help you understand how Impostor Syndrome is operating in your own career and life. You can click here to access the training: bit.ly/letsdoless
As people with PhDs or pursuing PhDs, we’re definitely overachievers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. What IS a problem is when we give up our power over our achievements — when we achieve only in response to other’s expectations. If you want to stop doing that or make sure you never start in the first place, then join me next week. bit.ly/letsdoless