Imposter syndrome and nurturing work envionments

I’ve heard discussion of, and read some articles about,  ‘imposter syndrome’ with a fair amount of interest as I am someone who has suffered from regular feelings of inadequacy in all aspects of my life for all of my life so far.

Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.” Harvard Business Review, 2008.

Imposters! Not even wearing  underpants on the outside can make these people superheros …. extra points if you know any of the undoubtedly special and beautiful nerds in this picture.

I really thought that I’d developed robust strategies to overcome my low sense of self worth, by focussing on my practical achievements and learned capabilities while also fairly acknowledging my weaknesses and developing strategies to improve, or deal with them. Also my innate interest in, and dedication to, my job and its activities is pretty helpful, as my will to do it well often over-rides my insecurities, allowing me to perform the tasks required of me in a professional and acceptable manner, no matter how I might be feeling inside. Actually, I believe a degree of self doubt is a positive asset in the process of scientific inquiry, so I tried not to consider it a ‘problem’, but instead frame it as an opportunity.

Then, one day this imposter feeling went really bad and un-fun.

I was giving an important presentation, in front of many colleagues and friends. Being in front of people who knew me, I should have felt supported, but instead, I was convinced they had turned up out of sympathy for me – it felt like they knew I would fail, and that they were there out of pity for me that I was about to be exposed publicly. I was convinced that I was a total fraud, incapable of doing any valuable scientific work or teaching, and that this was clear to everyone. In my mind, they would all be wondering how I even got to where I am now, and I felt overwhelmingly embarrassed for them that I was putting them in this position to have to be awkwardly embarrassed and show up for a pity, when they knew I’d fail. A defense klaxon was ringing in my head and I had to force myself to be able to make eye contact with anyone that day. I felt so isolated and worthless that I had not asked anyone for help or support, I felt I had no one I could ask for that. Despite all my previous experience of feeling inadequate, this was a different level, and made me realise what imposter syndrome really feels like and how it must utterly prevent people who feel it regularly from making their valuable contributions. This time round, it was not possible for me to reason myself out of this deep-rooted sense of doom, nor shift my unhappiness and intimidation about being inside these feelings. I literally could not reach my practical, positive voice, and could not use my brain to resolve this situation. I was mentally crippled by the imposter syndrome. Uh-oh.

So, in the spirit of learning from, well, everything in life, I have gone back to basics and addressed some of the causes of the discombobulation that contributed to this experience. In addition to that, I decided that from my perspective developing a work-environment culture in which people are accustomed to receiving both positive and negative feedback in a supportive environment might go a long way to offsetting imposter syndrome, because it lets you experience trust in both your own and others opinions. There are many ways in which people can become vulnerable to impostor syndrome, and some people have experienced truly wounding situations of being belittled or otherwise devalued, or abused, but whatever the cause, I want to fight against people feeling this way about themselves. Life is short and sometimes challenging enough – there is no time for additional imposed misery. I will work towards myself, my colleagues, and everyone else feeling valued, and able to make their contribution in a secure and respectful environment. As a start to this, I began my new role as Assistant Professor at the University of Innsbruck with a team exercise for the Ice and Climate Unit to identify our shared priorities and values about the kind of work environment we want to co-create. In doing this I was inspired by the ‘Lab Book’ (“living manual of our values, guidelines, and protocols”) of the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), which is a feminist, anti-colonial lab specializing in monitoring plastic pollution (thank you!). I have much to learn in terms of strategic development of nourishing work environments, but I am on the road, and have a great team with which to share the journey.

About lindsey

Environmental scientist. I am glaciologist specialising in glacier-climate interactions to better understand the climate system. The point of this is to understand how glaciated envionments might change in the future - how the glaciers will respond and what the impact on associated water resources and hazard potential will be.
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