Befriending the Impostor Syndrome

 There I was, finishing the third year of a very competitive postdoctoral scholarship from NASA, getting ready to present an invited talk at a giant international annual geoscience conference about the international project of which I was one of the leaders… and in all this, regularly crying in my office because my work was going too slow, because my IDL and Python programs were not efficient or beautiful, and most of all, because our programmer Jim was an order of magnitude better programmer than me, and because my colleagues Andy and Margaret produced several papers a year while I struggled to finish only a second publication in the 10 years since I started my PhD. And yet, for some reason, my advisor, a world-renowned scientist kept saying that he would be happy to work with me, and hire me into his team, should I choose to continue working in science. And the colleagues whom I met at the conferences thought I had something important to say on the subject of my research.  The things didn’t add up for me. I clearly was not a good scientist, and all the facts were not convincing me, because the hard work that I knew I put in, was heavily spiced up with luck, good timing and general personal likeability, which had nothing to do with being a scientist.

You see, my understanding of what made a real scientist was a dramatic combination of 1) very hard work, 2) living and breathing your science (this was important), and 3) this internal scientific genius, almost like a superpower, which makes you understand the scope of a research paper, helps you write beautiful IDL and python scripts, and of course makes doing research easier and more fun for the Real Scientist than for the “non-scientist” rest of us.

Just to put this into a little perspective, at that time, I was a new mother of three – my third child was just born a few months ago. Not only was I too distracted by actual life to live and breathe science, I was also too exhausted for full-time hard work, and by no means found any superpowers which made research enjoyable, especially compared to my colleagues who made it seem so much easier and faster. So I concluded that since I was not a good scientist and I saw no point in being a bad one, I had to find an occupation, which would align with my internal interests (live and breathe, remember?), would let me use my natural skills (hence seem like a lot less effort than this science thing), and would let me live the busy mother-of-three life while working it. If these parameters aligned, I was willing to put in the hard work required to succeed in it. 

So I set on a path to finding the new career. I diligently searched for answers inside and outside of me. I uncovered my daily interests and deep values, I inventoried my skills and talents, I put together puzzles and took mental notes of what I did to later teach it to others. I discovered that I am a born manager and a coach who could help people solve problems, realize that every problem has a solution and help people find their own best solutions. I set on path to mastering this new profession. And 3 years, hundreds of hours of theoretical and practical coaching education later, I found myself in the situation where I felt this old familiar feeling… 

It was at a picnic that I was talking to my colleague and friend about professional development matters, and she mentioned impostor syndrome, how it affects the most capable, brilliant, and well-trained professionals. We talked in passing about the possibility of creating a talk or a training about it for professionals. While I was excited about the new opportunity, and knew something about this phenomenon, I caught this thought – “who am I to talk bout it? I am no expert on this”. 

As I went home and started researching more, I realized that impostor syndrome was a lot closer to my life than I ever thought. In the last few months I was diving into studying the concept of the Good Girl, and how we, grown up, successful women are still functioning from inside this energy-sucking and overwhelm-producing old mind trap. I realized that Impostor syndrome was very similar to this Good Girl phenomenon, where you work hard and try to show the best side of you to be noticed, praised and rewarded by others, but your inner belief in yourself and your self-worth do not measure up, and you are stuck agonizing over this difference. 

And this is where it clicked – this difference between what you want the world to see vs how you see yourself is exactly what defines the impostor syndrome. Tools and tactics to bridge this gap is what I was learning and applying in my own life, and practicing to teach others from the Good Girl perspective, so yes, I am qualified. 

Besides, one of the tools is to understand, that the overly dramatic definition of the position you are in (like a scientist, or a coach in my case) is just that – idealized and dramatic mental construct, which, when brought down to earth is not about some superpowers and living and breathing science (or CEO functions, or distinguished professorship). Filling this position about being a real live person, who knows and uses his\her talents, works with and through their difficulties, to do something important enough to work hard for it. No, not live and breathe it while ignoring the other aspects of life, but do a good quality work while also leaving space, time and resources for family, rest, nature and other important parts that fill your life.

My friend Kristen recently shared a part of her journey, which described exactly that. She said “When I was promoted.. I froze.. I didn’t celebrate because I didn’t feel like I earned it, like I could actually step into that role of being a leader. And sometimes I still struggle with that, but I freaked out because now I thought I had to step up and do this and that. But what was fascinating, was that once I “reverted” as I call it, and looked at it, I thought ‘Damn, girl, you are doing that stuff already! Why did you freak out? Just because the title scared the crap out of me! Because I thought I had to do something different than what I’ve been doing, when actually what I was doing was actually what got me there, and if I kept doing it, I would have gotten further, kinda funny..”.  Indeed, this understanding that you got to where you are by doing what you are doing can be a very sobering thought. 

This, and changing the definitions of what it takes to be in the position you are in, along with shifting your perception of your talents, difficulties and achievements. 

There are other hacks, tools and strategies, which I learned while doing my Good Girl and Impostor Syndrome research, which help me be bold and take initiative and step into leading my life. Just because I realize that if I got this far, there is a good reason for it, and I am free to celebrate and own it.

I would love to share what I learned from my experience and research about impostor syndrome in the webinar on September 10.
The replay of the webinar is available here:

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