“You seem to be doing so much, how do you fit it in?”
Story of my life. Since my early teens, I have been very aware of the fact that I packed out my time ‘doing’ and not much time relaxing and unwinding. Not until I hit age 29.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
There are varying degrees of imposter syndrome and it is defined in many ways depending on which article, book, podcast or video you watch. The definition that resonates with me is by Amy Cuddy who refers to it as the ‘general feeling that we don’t not belong.’
The term ‘Imposter Syndrome’ was introduced by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imet in 1978.
I want to talk about Imposter Syndrome as a South Asian woman of colour. It has been great to see emerging stories on this topic in the arts and I wanted to discuss my experiences to draw the lens closer to educators within this community.
As a young educator, I was often met with more experienced academics who had been teaching for years and I often felt out of place, like I didn’t belong in those circles or I wasn’t supposed to be there due to my age/lack of experience. This was after the “comfort blanket” of teacher training. The problem was I was passionate about my role, my students and teaching. My Post-Graduate Diploma in Education filled me with so much energy; an energy that I had wanted and sought for a long time. I found and embraced it and I didn’t want to let this go.
As I became more experienced and qualified, this sense of imposter syndrome increased. I thought to myself, ‘Was this not supposed to get better?’ I now had almost 10 years’ experience but my worry about being ‘found out’ increased! This is what led me to explore further and I found that although there were many papers written on imposter syndrome, the one I was looking for wasn’t there. I was searching for that comfort and understanding we all seek from a place where we don’t have to explain our complex dual identities. I was searching for an article on imposter syndrome written by someone from the South Asian diaspora with a focus on Higher Education. I had perhaps quite naively spent a lot of my time ‘fixing’ problems that came my way that I thought I could do the same with this via reading and application. I was wrong. Swallowing that pill was challenging.
At one stage in my early career, perfectionism had been a good friend and I was able to keep up with my own version of perfectionism. As time went on, I felt like I was falling short. Coming from a Hindu, Gujrati household, high grades and a clear profession were a given (Lawyer/Doctor). Both my parents worked hard to be able to survive and support myself and my siblings and that’s what they knew. That’s what they expected. Their parents had done the same. For them, hard work = success. Success = security. Security = happiness. As I started to walk the same path, I realised that this could no longer be the way I could operate. I could see the burnout coming. It was like seeing a storm but walking towards it instead of in the opposite direction.
Everyone’s Friend but not My Own
My love for education and helping people is what sparked my interest in academia. Breaking it to my family that I no longer wanted to practice law and had changed my mind didn’t exactly go down as well as I had hoped. I worked four jobs simultaneously closely in or related to teaching and learning to understand what I wanted. This love for lifelong learning and teaching also brought me into contact with lots of inspiring individuals, students and life-long friends who often sought my support, advice and assistance. What I was doing along the way was neglecting my thoughts and feelings and leaving these to the end of my daily lists. Since I hadn’t taken the time to understand who I was and why I was feeling this sense of un-belonging, it surfaced when I least expected it and I packed out my time to suppress the thoughts and feelings.
I am constantly ‘branded’ as an overachiever. For a long time, I viewed this as negative and resented it. I hadn’t thought about why. I compared myself to others doing the same role or a role I aspired to do. I was quick to pick out the attractive, professional qualities and skills that they had and that I didn’t have. This again led to the neglect of my talents and achievements. I was flippant and treated my qualities as: ‘Well everyone can do that, it’s nothing special.’ In contrast, I was able to identify and praise the achievements of my colleagues, peers and students.
You’re not like other Academics
I never really knew whether this was a compliment or not, but I heard it a lot. Sometimes, I’d prod the person further and usually, I received responses such as:
- You’re a lot more ‘fun’
- You are not afraid of being your authentic self
- You can have a laugh and joke but also be serious when required
I thought about this more deeply in 2020 and realised that I enjoy being myself around people. I find it gives me a good feeling to break that stereotype of not fitting into the crowd of what an academic is supposed to look like, behave like and embody and feel acceptance just by being me. So then why was I so offended initially? Was I trying to fit in so much that I now interpreted these comments in a way that made me feel insecure? I still needed to do some more work on accepting myself (regardless of what others thought or didn’t think).
What did I do?
Upon taking reflection and reflective practice more seriously, I started to un-do (and still am un-doing) the learning that happened for the last 30 years (both personally and professionally). Mainly, I worked on un-learning ‘your job does not define your worth.’ My first port of call was to understand imposter syndrome and what this is. I become more comfortable having conversations about how I was feeling and learned that it was something I’d have to work on every day for my own growth.
Every time I watch Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on ‘Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are’ I see myself in a different light and experience a new learning point each time. Amy’s book ‘Presence’ has also helped me in taking the first step in accepting myself. I was first introduced to Amy’s TED Talk by the person who is now my brother-in-law. I was new to a city and I desperately wanted to practice a presentation and interview I had coming up. Now Amy Cuddy’s video is my interview ritual and her advice has not let me down!
Celebrating my achievements
So where am I at now? Up until 2020, I was a fairly risk-averse person. I didn’t change too many things at once because deep down, change frightens me. I like a plan and more than that, I like to stick to it or at least all the versions of the plan I have thought out (and yes, there are many!)
I decided pretty promptly in July 2020 that I was going to start my consultancy, coaching and tutoring business. I handed in my notice, worked a 3-month notice period and started working on a plan to achieve this. The plan was to do this alongside Doctoral study. This meant change. A lot of change.
November came round quickly and there I was, no structured schedule, no marking, no session planning. Everything was now on my terms, my time and my choice. It felt pretty scary to have all this freedom. At the same time, it felt like a weight had been lifted. A weight that I had been carrying for so long of cultural, deadline and personal pressures, some of which I had created.
I am not saying that now all my imposter syndrome has now vanished. I took stock in 2020 and started to think more about me, who I want to be, how I want to show up and started embracing myself, my talents, my qualities and my skills.
I started my doctoral journey in January 2021. This has been a lifelong dream and it feels surreal to be doing it. I know it is going to bring many challenges as well as those blissful moments but I feel ready to approach it one step at a time.
My Learning Points along the way
Over the years, I have become more comfortable with my sense of being and being okay with not being amazing at everything. I have put the focus back onto me and looking after myself. I learned that success and security does not bring happiness. Here is what I have learned:
- Enjoy nature, your health will thank you for it.
Starting to prioritise myself took me a long time. I now do at least one form of exercise a day. Some days it is really difficult for me to mentally part from my work, but I am always glad when I am outside. It’s breaking that barrier that I had initially put up myself and making space in my life.
- Reading brings joy, Netflix doesn’t
Okay, so maybe sometimes Netflix helps but if you are like me, you go down the rabbit hole of watching five-season boxsets in one month you will start to feel it. I have now set myself a target to read one book a month (for pleasure not for my EdD). So far so good! Being lost in a story helps me to feel calm and not think about work.
- Minimise exposure to others who always have an opinion on your life
We all have friends and family who give unsolicited advice or offer up their opinion without a filter. I have now set boundaries. If I can sense the conversation is drifting to that space that I don’t want to go into, I don’t continue and I carry on with my day. I feel better for it.
- Embrace your hobbies
I enjoy photography and painting but I neglected them for a while. It now makes a regular appearance in my life and I immerse myself in this when I can feel like I need to spend some time with myself. I display my art here.
I hope this post helps you to see your own self-worth to lead a life where you feel like you can be yourself.
A quote that I am now living by: “It doesn’t matter what others are doing. It matters what you are doing.”
Kelly Trivedy is a Professional Doctorate Student in Education (EdD). Kelly’s project involves understanding critical thinking in Higher Education. By conducting this research, she hopes to strengthen how critical thinking is developed and delivered across undergraduate education. Alongside part-time study, Kelly works as an Academic Consultant, Coach and Tutor for Higher Education and HE in FE institutions. She also shares her research experience on her blog: MrsProfDoc. Kelly is the author of ‘Plan your Research Project’ and has experience and expertise as a lecturer teaching on Law courses and Education programmes (PGCE/PGCAP and APA). She is passionate about academic development across the sector.