The lies we tell ourselves



It was the time my wife and I call “silly o’clock” – early enough in the morning that the only traffic was from night-shift workers heading home. I was on my way to the airport for a red-eye flight to Belfast to do my very first guest lecture. Not that I felt ready for it.

To be brutally honest, I was still data wrangling: trying desperately to find some kind of shape and sense in the mass of interviews (a few still untranscribed), field notes, and survey results. I felt like the poster boy for imposter syndrome – that feeling that I was a big fraud and someone, somewhere at some point was going to find that out.

Now, as I approach the end of my PhD, I have seen so many similar cases that it is a bit sad, really. Outwardly capable, productive PhD students walk around with this nagging feeling that they really aren’t good researchers and that one day, someone will find them out.

You see it at tea breaks at conferences, where the next people to speak often look more like they are queueing up for a root canal than preparing to share their ideas with a receptive audience. You see it when people are writing papers – papers that they are sure will be rejected with more haste than PhD students devouring leftover seminar food.

But it’s a lie.

The truth is, if you weren’t capable, you wouldn’t even have started the PhD in the first place. If you weren’t doing interesting work, you wouldn’t have been invited to do the lecture. If your paper didn’t even stand a chance of getting published, your supervisor would have warned you off submitting it, for now at least.

The insidiousness of this lie is that it often gives birth to two other lies: terrible twins, if you like. Twin #1 is a sneaky, snarling thing that whispers that the only way to stop being an imposter is to work harder. Much harder. For weeks, we can end up on an endless quest to be a “good student”, sacrificing social life, sanity and family. Hours spent at the computer get mistaken for progress and suddenly happiness takes a nosedive, with productivity following behind.

This is where twin #2 can do its raucous best. This twin argues that you never will be good enough so it’s time to give up. Frustration begets sighs of resignation, which lead to social media or some other habit replacing anything that looks like research and the whole “imposter, overwork, give up” cycle starting again.

Anyone recognise those scenes? While I have never touched the depths of that cycle, I have lived through enough and seen enough of it to understand it.

It seems that there are only two ways out. The first is to see through the lies and realise that you aren’t an imposter and you are doing fine and you will make it in the end. Yes, I know, easier said than done. Often, the times when we most need to see through the lies are actually when they seem the most real. It’s a rare student indeed who can put their foot down and stop the lies at that point. We need help.

What helped me was to remove the “me” out of the equation. Asking questions like “does this analysis seem sound?”, “how did the students/audience seem to respond to the talk?” or “what are the chances of the paper being accepted?” helped me a lot as they gave me distance. Instead of measuring my performance, I invited people to help me measure the performance of a thing. If I could make it about the thing and not me for even a few minutes, I found it felt easier to see through the lies.

That led me to something even more profound. Reading books written by leaders like John C. Maxwell and Bill Hybels, I came across the idea of putting the needs of others first. When I got invited to do guest lectures, I got into the habit of making it about how I could help that university rather than how I could further my career (or ego!). Whenever I wrote a paper, I asked myself how this could help someone else, maybe by giving them a précis of others’ main arguments or opening them up to new ways to deal with ongoing problems.

It took time and I am still working on it but the idea of trying to take me out of the picture made it much harder for me to fall into the old negative cycles. I don’t worry nearly as much about whether people will see me as an imposter; I am too busy thinking about how this talk or paper could help them.

At times, it seems like academia is one big obstacle course for our egos. We can get all too invested in the words on the page or the name on the conference program. Maybe if we remembered that academia is, above all, a set of communities trying to attain common goals, there might be less time left for imposter syndrome.

Author Bio:Jonathan Downie is currently in the final stages of his PhD on client expectations of interpreters from Heriot-Watt University.