“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.
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When I was eight years old, I begged my Mum and Dad for a science kit for my birthday, shortly followed by a telescope and all the ‘how my body works’ books. After career day, I came home and announced, “I’m going to be a doctor.” I didn’t have the vocab back them for “making a difference – helping others.” There was also a status attached to wanting to be a doctor and naturally my parents reaffirmed my decision.
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For me, graduate school was supposed to be the next exciting life step after receiving my undergraduate degree, yet I could never have prepared myself for the mental fatigue and instability I would endure and continue to endure.
Since my doctoral degree began back in 2017, I have always felt like a “problem child”, whether that be in my lab, in my committee, or in my department. I typically point a finger at my imposter syndrome for making me feel this way; however, some people’s words and actions during my journey have merited considerable attention as to why I feel emotionally depleted.
What I mean by “problem child” is that I feel I cause inconveniences, errors, and unnecessary work for others simply by existing. You might also experience this, and I give a big virtual hug to whoever does. Likely, imposter syndrome is to blame. If you are unfamiliar with this term, people with imposter syndrome experience feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt continually, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. In my experience, this happens regardless of whether I really know what I’m doing, or even when I achieve awards and recognition for my work. Several examples come to mind of times I have felt like an “imposter” in food science.
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This blog is part of a special issue, released for World Mental Health Day. At Voices of Academia (VOA) we strive to make sure your voice and experience is heard. Dealing with loss is complex and an additional strain on our mental health during the academic process. The blog was recorded as part of a conversation between our guest, Jemima Thompson and Marissa Edwards (one of the VoA team) earlier this year. This is the second part of the interview.
Part 4: Identity and the Value of Past Experience
M: And you said also that you felt anxiety and imposter syndrome. Do you think that’s a result of what you went through with your husband? Or do you think that’s more just the PhD environment?
J: I think it’s six of one, half dozen of the other. I think again you have that feeling of, “I really am the imposter. Everyone else’s imposter syndrome isn’t real but mine is” and it’s that weird cognitive dissonance, isn’t it? Like, “I know that it’s a syndrome and that’s more a perception, not a real thing so I’m not really an imposter but I definitely am.“
M: Yes, absolutely.
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This blog is part of a special issue, released for World Mental Health Day. At Voices of Academia (VOA) we strive to make sure your voice and experience is heard. Dealing with loss is complex and an additional strain on our mental health during the academic process. The blog was recorded as part of a conversation between our guest, Jemima Thompson and Marissa Edwards (one of the VoA team) earlier this year. The blog is in two parts, and there is a link to the second part at the end of this post.
From Jemima: Since this interview was recorded in April, I sadly lost my father to COVID-19 the following month. In light of this devastating turn of events I wish to dedicate this interview to him and his memory, and to all of those who have experienced the loss of a loved one during one of the most challenging times in living memory.
Part 1: The Start of the Journey
Jemima (J): I’ll start in the beginning and how I ended up in academia because I think that’s an important part of the story for me. So, I’m 32 now. I came to academia quite late. It wasn’t like I went from 18 went through the Bachelors, the Masters, and a lot of people have taken that route where they’ve just stayed in academia the whole time. I’ve been in and out and done all kinds of weird stuff.
The reason that I ended up where I am now is partly because of what happened previously in my life. My PhD is in medical education looking specifically at doctor-patient communications and patient-centred care. The thing that made me feel that this is so important and why I want to do this was that my husband had multiple sclerosis. He was diagnosed when he was about 24 and he died about five years ago. During that journey and all of those hospital appointments, I learnt about all of the multidisciplinary stuff that’s going on and the complex, complicated connections between healthcare professionals and the community and hospitals and even inpatients/outpatients.
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“What language do you dream in?” is in all honesty a really cute question that I sometimes get asked when one of my friends wonders what it is like being bilingual. I do not really remember the language of my dreams, but I do certainly know which language I learn in.
In this blog, I wanted to discuss one particular aspect that, in my opinion, is sometimes overlooked in the conversation of mental health, inclusion, and accessibility in academia: language. I want to talk about how the linguistic monopoly that English has in academia affects the mental wellbeing of a large part of the student body. From feelings of isolation from your community, to increased exhaustion from studying and working all day in a language that it is not your own, language has a silent but strong effect on the daily life of many students.
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In graduate school, I honestly always thought that once I defended my thesis and was awarded my PhD, that some light bulb of knowledge would switch on in my brain and I would feel as smart as everyone else around me. In hindsight, I suspect I was able to use that justification as a means to shield myself from facing the fact that I ultimately lacked confidence in myself. As a result of this lack of self-confidence I also lacked assertiveness personally and professionally. A lack of assertiveness is not often associated with men, but we do experience it. I still struggle with a lack of self-confidence but having finally acknowledged it I am now actively working to fix it.
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