Self-doubt is a bitch to deal with. No matter how much you study, how hard you work, how many words you write, how many articles and books you read, that nagging sense of self-doubt persists in the back of your mind.
It whispers, “You don’t belong here” in your ear as you’re sitting in class. It taunts, “You’re not good enough” as you’re trying to complete your next assignment. It murmurs, “You’re a fraud” repeatedly as you toss and turn desperate for a good night’s sleep.
As I hit the mid-point of Year 2 of my PhD program, the struggle is real. Imposter syndrome is real. And I know I’m not alone. The American Psychological Association writes imposter syndrome was first described in the 1970s as a phenomenon that occurs “among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.” Well if that doesn’t hit the nail right on the head.
The APA goes on to say it’s not uncommon, but we just tend to suffer in silence. We don’t talk about it because we’re afraid we’ll be found out. This is exactly why I decided to write about it today. The first step in overcoming a problem is admitting you have one right? Now, like a good student, let’s do some research.
Apparently, imposter syndrome hits minorities the worst. This is no surprise. Whenever you are different from most of your peers, it’s easier to fall into a sense of not belonging. And that’s where the self-doubt comes in. Interestingly, the APA cited a study conducted in 2013 at the University of Texas at Austin and found Asian-Americans were more likely than African-Americans or Latino-Americans to experience imposter syndrome and women are more likely than men to experience it. Embarking on a huge endeavor such as a PhD program is definitely something that can trigger it.
So how do we deal with this? I mean, before it becomes a serious mental health issue? I certainly don’t want to continue to spiral downward into the pit of depression and I’m sure you don’t want to either. This is where I depend on my strengths as a teacher and give myself the same pep talk I give my students.
First, I’m going to give myself permission to be human. I acknowledge the fact that humans are imperfect beings and I am no different. A rough draft is exactly that, a rough draft. It’s a work in progress, so of course it’s not going to be perfect. Just hit the damn submit button and wait for the feedback.
Second, I’m going to continue to work on reframing how I view myself in the academic world. My background is in communication, but I decided to enter the strange and wondrous world of linguistics. I am a complete novice here. But, as my PhD supervisor told me just yesterday, the advantage of coming from a communication background is it gives me the ability to take a step back and look at everything from afar so that I can answer the question “so what” about my study. In this case, being different is a complete advantage.
Third, I’m going to remember to keep a sense of humor and not take myself so seriously. (Enter Twizzlers commercial here). Honestly, I can do this. I served in the U.S. Marine Corps for goodness sakes. I am a cancer survivor. I did a TEDx Talk. Now that was scary. I mean, really, how many people will be able to say they are a former Marine cancer survivor TEDx Talker with a PhD in English Language & Applied Linguistics? I just may put that on a business card.
Lastly, I’m not going to let this PhD define me. It’s an absolute bitch of an undertaking. I spend a lot of time reading and writing and staring at data. But there is still much more to life than what I’m looking at on the computer screen. It’s important to acknowledge the other parts of me that are equally as awesome as, but even more important than the nerd part. I’m a mom and a wife and a friend (note to self: my people will not love me any more or any less whether I have the title “Dr” in front of my name). I have found getting up from the desk and spending time with them does more for the soul than anything else.
In the end, my goal for writing this is twofold: 1) to remind myself that imposter syndrome is not uncommon and that I’m likely going to struggle with it for a while longer and 2) to remind you that imposter syndrome is not uncommon and that you can get through it too. We can do this.
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Jennifer Furlong has 25 years’ experience in the communication field and teaches communication and public speaking courses in the Savannah area. She earned a B.A. and M.A. in Communication from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. She currently resides in Richmond Hill, Ga. with her family of canines, felines, and humans. Let's be social! Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter. Just look for Professor SpeechLady. See you in cyberspace.
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