Impostor Syndrome

This is a post about being skeptical of ones own skepticism towards ones own abilities. A bit of a mouthful maybe, but something I think is very important.

Impostor Syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where people are unable to internalise their achievements and accomplishments. Anybody can suffer from impostor syndrome, but it is very common among women in STEM fields, and I shall be writing about it from the perspective of a young woman who happens to be pursuing a degree in a STEM field.

I will be honest. In starting to write this post, I was held back. Crippled by: You’re an awful writer. All that stuff you have written for Teen Skepchick over the past few months? Rubbish, thrown together out of guilt because you volunteered for this and you have to write something. All of that writing you did at high school? Yea, that stuff that got you (mostly) good grades, and some of which wound up being published in the school magazine? Rubbish, your teachers were just being nice. Crippled by: Strangers on the internet are going to think I am pathetic and whiny and being overly dramatic when I say this, and then they are going to think I am arrogant, just tooting my own trumpet and fishing for compliments.

I’m not writing this for me. I’m writing this for any other person out there who might read this and identify with it, or any person out there who might realise someone they know identifies with it. Then they can try and do something about it.

And here I am going to play the feminist card, too. Because the fact of the matter is, quite a lot of my impostor syndrome derives from how massive the gender divide is in many of my classes.

It is easy to feel like you don’t belong because a handful of people in a Computer Programming course seem to be continually spamming the whole class with innuendo-filled requests for all the “fly honeys” in the course to ring them. Which seems to be a very redundant way of going about it, as less than 20% of that class were their intended audience.

It is easy to question your own abilities when a classmate you happen to be comparing homework answers with immediately jumps to the conclusion that you are wrong and proceeds to proofread yours, then turns to his own upon finding no errors. Especially when this same classmate does this week after week after week. While my homework is usually far from perfect: It is no less perfect than his. Yet, when I happen to have a bit of a moan to other classmates about this particular behaviour, I am met by blank stares from everybody except the one other- you guessed it- girl.

It is easy to feel as though you could never possibly succeed at this, when after nearly two years at University you have yet to have one woman lecturer- and many courses have multiple teaching staff.

It is easy to be petrified about speaking up in class, because the accuracy of your answer seems to reflect upon every other girl on the class too. Xkcd has it right: This really is How It Works.

All of this leaves me in a state of continually questioning my own abilities, continually handing in assignments and completing exams expecting the marks I get back to be terrible. When they aren’t (actually, often they’re the complete opposite): I quickly write this off as the marker doing something wrong, a mix-up with the data entry, or- if I happen to have the evidence right in front of me- luck or timing. Never mind the hours of hard work I put in, it must have been a fluke. Further, any one-off case that confirms my feelings adds fuel to them. I can have 99 exemplary pieces of work, and one that just falls short of the mark and that one just proves how awful I really am.

Why is this something we need to do something about?

Lots of reasons. First off, as I mention already, it can be crippling, and make you not want to do things for fear of failure and embarrassment. Missed opportunities suck, and nobody should have to miss out on a scholarship or something of the like because they thought they couldn’t do it, when they could.

Also, this is also a self-perpetuating thing. As I mentioned, I have an extreme deficit of woman role-models in my day-to-day studies. If girls are continually seeing this, then a nice little cycle of few woman teaching staff –> few woman students –> few woman teaching staff and so on, forms. This whole cycle is very silly, because there is absolutely no reason whatsoever that girls/ women should be considered any less capable. Of course there are many other issues that contribute to this, but impostor syndrome is certainly not helping.

So, how do you overcome the Impostor?

Well, I don’t know. The first step is realising that you have this. My eyes were opened when an old teacher first mentioned (quite jokingly, actually) Impostor Syndrome to me. As Skeptics, we often need to account for our own biases. Just like one must be aware of confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance, if you are aware of the thought processes involved with impostor syndrome, that can go a long way to correcting them.

There is also another thing that you can do. It might sound weird, but you can develop a very healthy arrogance. I’d like to think (or at least hope) that I am not an arrogant person. But when Mr. Homework-Checker mentioned above does his thing, I like to say to myself: “[bleep] you, I’m awesome.” It helps.

So, dear TS readers. Don’t stand for that nonsense. You’re awesome, and don’t let anyone- including yourself- tell you otherwise.

Featured image credit: Here

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Lauren is a Maths and Physics student from somewhere in the southern hemisphere. She has an affinity for reality, and you can find her on twitter @lolrj, or Google+.

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