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The Different Faces of Impostor Syndrome

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When I started my graduate career, I remember meeting a doctoral student. She was in her third or fourth year, and she was wearing slacks and a cute top and a jacket. She wore makeup, and her hair was pulled back in a tidy but fashionable way. She had a clipboard. She was running two different research projects, and her schedule was packed, but she looked so confident. I remember thinking, this is what a doctoral student looks like. She's put-together. She knows what she's doing. She's got it.

I imagine that in my third and fourth years I would have appeared the same to a first-year MA student. I was running two research projects and because I was collecting data and teaching I had to dress like a professional. My schedule was packed because I was teaching and running research projects and sitting on the ethics committee and had a kid (and then two) to feed. I know several of my friends told me that I'm always so calm, so put-together. From the outside, it probably looked like I got it.

On the inside? Another story, as you might have guessed. On the inside, I was constantly worried that I'd drop one of the dozens of balls I was juggling at any moment. And some weeks I was resigned to hoping that whichever ball I will inevitably drop, at least it won't be an important one, like the kids. I once had a complete panic-moment on the bus about half-way home from campus because I thought I had forgotten my son at nursery. It took me a full ten seconds to remember we had grandparents visiting and they had picked him up two hours ago. I was barely keeping my head above water.

It is this gap between feeling like you're barely keeping it together and looking like you know what you're doing that creates impostor syndrome. The feeling that you don't belong. That at any moment you'd be found out as a fraud, someone who only looks like she's got it but really isn't nearly bright enough to be a university student, let alone complete a PhD. This feeling is partly because you know what's going on inside your own head, and partly because you don't know what's going on inside other people's heads. You only see the calm facade, the fitting-in.

Lately, I've been having more episodes of impostor syndrome. I think a lot about how I'm a terrible writer. Whenever I find myself among other artists, I think mostly about how cool they are, and how I'm not cool enough to be an artist. I'm not even cool enough to hang out with these people. I'm the opposite of cool. I also have no trauma gnawing at me, forcing me to make art to express it. Hence, anything I write would be mundane and not raw enough to be considered art. Obviously.

It's funny because there's a part of my brain saying I don't want to be an artist. Artists are flaky and emotional. Unreliable. On the other hand, there's a part of my brain saying I can't even pull off being an artist because I'm not flaky and emotional enough. I'm too reliable. In other words, my brain is freaking out right now. You're doing what? Don't be silly.

But I know, in the rational part of my brain, that it's just that. Freaking out. The fear of the unknown. The fear of not being enough. So I breathe through it, and I keep going. And I'm still here.


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