I’ve been thinking a lot about Imposter Syndrome this past week. It’s no surprise why: several funded positions have come up in the department recently, and the process of applying for science-related personal funding always brings out the worst feelings of inadequacy in me. All I have to do is read the ideal candidate description, with its lists of essential and desirable qualities, and the uncertainties surge up inside.
No matter how well qualified I am, I tend to feel as if the words must be aimed at someone else – someone better. In my mind’s eye, that someone is usually a brash thirty-something with a male face (even though I know from my colleagues that youth and a Y chromosome are no immunization against Imposter Syndrome). Worse, I feel a deep sense of uneasiness as I go about the process of spelling out exactly how and why my skills and experiences precisely fit the bill. It is, in fact, about the only writing task that drives this prolific writer to avoidance tactics like getting up to make a cup of tea. Penning a scientific manuscript, a ten-page research proposal – even a novel – is a doddle in comparison.
How very un-American of me, you might be thinking. And it’s probably true that I’ve been in Britain for so long that I’ve lost the ability to feel comfortable when unabashedly blowing my own horn, even under circumstances where it is definitely warranted. But there is something deeper afoot, I suspect. Some well-buried wiring in my brain – perhaps linked to an evolutionary caution against standing out, against sticking one’s head above the underbrush (only to get spotted and summarily munched by a passing tiger).
My friend, a prominent mid-career male scientist in academia, recently shared his top tip for overcoming Imposter Syndrome. He had read a few studies, like the one here, reporting that a confident posture can boost self-confidence. A bit worried about how nervous he tended to be under harsh scrutiny, and always a keen experimentalist, he decided to give the method a go during acute circumstances: an interview for a highly prestigious lectureship. Just before reporting for the interview at the relevant university, he went to a nearby loo, locked himself in a stall and tried out what looked to be the most evidence-based successful posture: standing boldly with feet wide, shoulders flung back, head high and hands on hips. After holding the pose for about five minutes and glaring defiantly at the door, he reported for the interview.
The results were remarkable. Normally quite understated, self-deprecatory and not prone to hyperbole of any sort, he told me afterwards that he was frankly surprised by the words that had come out of his own mouth. They were glib, assured and confident, and he hardly thought before he spoke. So far so good, right?
Except – some of what came out of his mouth, he confessed, was unabashed bullshit.
“Bullshit,” I asked, “in sort of an exaggerated way – like making your data sound perhaps slightly more solid than they actually are?”
“No, I mean, I have a feeling I actually made up a few things on the spot. I can barely remember what I said – it was as if I was on drugs.”
My friend was mortified at how the exercise had affected him, and vowed to never use the technique again. Even when it transpired that he had got the job. I’m not so sure, though…it sounds like a winner to me, provided that you somehow manage to rein it in properly and not spout off fibs. There must be some happy medium whereby a postural technique can impart confidence without turning you into a purveyor of fine fiction. Perhaps the dose was just too high, and a minute or two of the stance might suffice.
Somewhat coincidentally, my podiatrist recently had similar advice for me. I’m suffering from chronic postpartum foot pain, and he thought that improving my posture and gait might help alleviate some of the symptoms.
“When you walk,” he said, “imagine that you are striding down the red carpet and all the cameras are flashing. Stand tall and declare over and over in your mind, I’m Doctor Rohn!”
Just before I sent off my most recent application last night, I texted “I’m Doctor Rohn!” to my friend in all caps, stood in The Killer Bullshit Stance for exactly two minutes, and then re-read my statement. Did it, on reflection, actually look a bit wishy-washy in places? After a bit of thought, I bolstered a few of the sentences to make them sound more assertive and self-possessed. (Don’t worry, I didn’t add any fictional Nature papers to my CV.) The confidence exercises actually did seem to make a difference.
All this is just fine and dandy, but for one niggling notion. Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, goes the saying. Equally, just because you suffer from Imposter Syndrome doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re good enough, either. Ultimately, it’s almost impossible to walk the line between self-confidence and bullshit. I just think that some people are better at it than others.