Impostor-Shaped Hole

19 Dec

Over on Laurian Vega’s blog, she shares a story about a student who undervalues her own work because of Impostor Syndrome. She writes the student a letter in which she gives her support, recognizes her accomplishments, and suggests practical remedies for her situation. All these things are great! Laurian is clearly a compassionate and thoughtful teacher with useful advice to offer.

There’s just one problem: this response can easily be incorporated into the internally consistent narrative of feeling like a fraud. The student can easily conclude that they’ve just managed to fool this particular teacher as well. Now the stakes for keeping up the facade are even higher! What was meant as a loving and supportive gesture instead adds to the weight of self-deprecation and fear. Saying things like “You alone are going to hold yourself back from a great career” only makes things worse. Now you’re not just an impostor, your feelings of being an impostor are going to make you fail no matter how hard you try! The only thing worse than anxiety is meta-anxiety …

I say all this with some confidence, because I have had conversations of precisely this sort. Yes, friends, I have spent much of my life feeling like an impostor – and it really, really sucks. On the other hand, my experience led me to do research on everything from attribution styles to feedback types, and the way I’ve dealt with this problem in my own life helps me help my own students more effectively.

I’ve never sat down and distilled my approach into a letter, but here are the things I try to help my students understand.

First, I make sure they understand that I take their feelings seriously, and that I don’t simply expect them to stop (especially not through the magic of “trying harder”). The goal of the conversation is to pay close attention to the feelings of fraudulence, not to try to avoid or suppress the feelings. When you pay that close attention, here are some of the things you can hear. And hearing is half the battle!

If I could only do X, I’ll stop feeling like an impostor.

Try harder. Learn more. Understand everything. Be as good as a particular other student in the class. The first thing to understand is that none of these things will actually help. You will never know everything there is to know in the world. If you manage to achieve the goal you’ve set for yourself, it’s so easy for your mind to set itself a new one. This is especially true because, in my experience, the goals are often nebulous. (“Try harder” may be my least favorite phrase in the English language.)

The trick here is to take the essence seriously – yes, there probably are things you need to  learn, so how can you acknowledge that truth without triggering your impostor feelings? It helps to make the goals specific, and to make them goals worth achieving even if they don’t make you feel better. (Because without unpicking the rest of the impostor feelings, they probably won’t.)

If I could only do X, no one will ever find out I’m an impostor.

This one is far more poisonous than its predecessor. It doesn’t even hold out hope that you can stop being an impostor. If you can try hard enough, though, you can fool people into not recognizing your fundamental unworthiness. My approach to this one is also to meet it head on. At some point in your life, you will run into someone who thinks you are an impostor – no matter what you do. You can spend your life trying to avoid that moment, or you can acknowledge that it’s inevitable and prepare yourself for how to handle it. As with the previous belief: doing X, for basically any value of X, will not work.

The goal here is to let go of the notion that you can control what others will think about you. If you can let go of this ineffective strategy, the door opens for considering other ways to solve whatever the underlying problem may be.

If someone finds out I’m an impostor, that’s a terrible disaster.

This one also has a corollary: if someone believes I’m an impostor, it must be true.

The thing to recognize is this. If you are doing something worthwhile with your life, at some point someone will call you an impostor, or worse. (Doubly so if you ever expect to be on the Internet.) You may, particularly if you are a woman, have been raised to believe that other people’s opinions of you are Very Important. Get used to the idea that they are not. People can be completely wrong about you. They can be misinformed. They can be Internet assholes. They can be completely right, but also powerless to affect your life in any meaningful way. They can be right, and make you see yourself differently because of their insight. None of these are the scenario that this particular toxic belief envisions.

You are going to need to learn to tell the difference between people whose opinions matter to you, and people whose judgments just don’t count. If you let everyone’s opinion matter to you, you’re letting a whole lot of random people set your life’s agenda. You should be very choosy about who you let into your agenda-setting circle. My circle includes a small group of friends and colleagues, and an even smaller group of people who have decision-making power that affects my life and my future. That’s it – and if you’re not in my circle, I’m only going to care about your opinion insofar as it’s useful to me. Want more power? Great, but first you’ve got to earn your way in.

It’s not as easy as just changing your mind about this, of course. Fortunately, there are concrete things that my students can do – and ones I can help them with!

Specifically, I ask my students to take risks in my class. I promise them they will have the opportunity to fail, and that it will not be more than they can handle. This is practice for when someone they cannot trust will tell them that they have failed, that they are not good enough, that they can’t hack it. They will have had the experience of failing, and it will have pulled the teeth of that fear.

I promise my students – all of them! – that I will not judge them for failing, and that in fact I will be proud of them for having the courage to try. I make it clear that it is an honor for me if they accept my input as valuable, and that I don’t expect them to do so just because I’m giving them a grade. Their respect for my opinion has to be earned, and I work hard to earn it.

The details of how I foster risk-taking, and how I show my students that even a professor’s opinion doesn’t automatically define who they are, is probably a whole post in itself. It’s also still a work in progress; I like to think I get better at it every year!

Feeling like an impostor is a very bad thing.

Feeling like an impostor is not nearly as bad as the contortions you will go through to avoid feeling like an impostor, or to avoid anyone finding out you are an impostor, or to avoid being criticized because you might come off like an impostor, or, well, you get the picture. The feeling is not necessarily the problem.

For one thing, feeling like an impostor will keep you honest. If you let go of your fear and avoidance, it can actually help you be more realistic about your own capacities and about the norms of the field. Let the feeling spur you to know what your community thinks is important to know – and then let go of the feeling when you’re making your own judgments about what to accept and what to ignore. Let the feeling show you what you might kind of already know about your weaknesses – we’ve all got them! But then let go of the notion that you have to fix them. The most creative work comes from people who work to their strengths, not ones who try to be perfect all around.

But here’s the other thing. People who do original work? We’re all impostors. We make up the rules as we go along. We invent new techniques for solving problems. We design new types of play. We solve problems no one else has even seen. If you aspire to do that kind of work, then yes – you are an impostor. And your mission in life is to find the particular impostor-shaped hole you can fill. Your work is out there waiting for you, no matter how you feel about it.

For the final project in my introductory games class, I ask my students to design games that only they could make. The goal is to let go of the notion that there is a right way to do things, and to instead ask, “What is my way to do things? What tools, techniques, and talents can I marshal to accomplish my vision?” Because the very notion that you’re an impostor implies an outside judge, one that knows more than you do. Find your problem, find your work, and suddenly you can be the world’s greatest expert. And then who’s the impostor, and who’s the judge?

I don’t know that I’m able to help every student with this approach, but I know I’ve helped a few. Considering the amazing work my students go on to do, I’m calling that a big win.

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