In which we ride the imposter rollercoaster – again

We often think of our personalities and tendencies as being immutable, fixed, typical. But the older I get, the better I know myself.

And what I know is that I’m often no more in control of my perceptions of self than that beetle in my three-year-old’s Pyrex specimen jar, being shaken and examined with a wide blue eye.

Gratuitous picture of Joshua with his scientific specimen

What I’ve especially noticed in recent years is how quickly my feelings of worth can change. One minute I’m riding the high of a great experimental result, revealed to me slyly by one of my talented team, or I’m emerging from a leadership workshop still tingling with the after-effects of eight solid hours of pep-talk. Or I’m opening an email to find that an application has been accepted, or that I’ve scored another source of funding. The next I’m laid low by a difficult conversation with a superior, or by a scientific set-back, or just generally overwhelmed and demoralized by how many academic responsibilities I have and how little time there is to devote to each.

When I get to this point, I start waking in the middle of the night sick with anxiety and a galloping ectopic heartbeat, wondering what might happen to my family and my mortgage if politics shift and my tenuous position is suddenly no longer supported. (As a matter of biological interest, since being put on beta blockers for cardiac arrhythmia, these episodes at least are not nearly as distressing as they used to be. But that’s fodder for another blog post altogether.)

A sleepless night feeds the blues. But then, of course, something good happens, and it starts all over again.

Today I’m still mired in a low ebb. I have decided that I’m an imposter, and that I have no right to attempt something positive – yet scary – that I’d finally psyched myself up to do. The aftermath was a queasy mix of relief and shame. Mostly relief, because I didn’t even remotely have time to do it anyway, with a full docket of teaching nibbling, as always, into all corners of my working hours. This is how you always feel when you are nearly a full-time equivalent on teaching duty yet you are judged almost solely on your research output.

You can, actually, never win.

Tomorrow is another day. I’ll probably have a chat with my post-doc or one of my students first thing, and get energized by a ravishing image or rock-solid graph. I’ll be more clear-headed. I will manage to plough through more of the nearly 500 essay questions that I still need to grade, enough to ease the growing sense of panic. I’ll finish preparing that talk for the Retreat, and that other talk for the Board meeting of the company that’s funding my nanocapsule therapy project, and writing the job applications for the two new postdoc positions I’ll be advertising soon. (There are another 25 items on my list, equally urgent, that I won’t bore you with.)

Soon I’ll be headed for the top once again.

But for now, I’m thinking of the quiet of the house, of my son asleep with flushed cheeks in his bed, of my husband upstairs tapping at his computer. And I’m wishing that everything else would just go away.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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5 Responses to In which we ride the imposter rollercoaster – again

  1. Henry says:

    I’m now convinced that Imposter Syndrome has long-term, damaging consequences. At the grand old age of 55 I suspect that I could have gone further and done much more with my career had I not been plagued with consistent feelings of self-doubt.

  2. Thanks Henry. I know everyone feels this way a lot of the time. I just wish I could THINK my way out of it.

    Turns out it’s not so easy.

  3. rpg says:

    I agree with Henry.

    I don’t think it actually helps when senior people who by all apparent measures *have* made it start wibbling about suffering from imposter syndrome, though. It’s surely a problem for mid-career people like Jenny, who need that confidence.

  4. Anita says:

    I often try to imagine what it’s like being someone who never feels like this – we’d be totally unstoppable! (or, in a moment of global angst, would we be Trump?)

  5. Frank Norman says:

    I see what you mean Richard, but if they felt that way when they were mid-career and (apparently) still made it that might be construed as an encouragement?

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