Impostor Syndrome and Self-Criticism

By Doctor Comrade

In 2012, I got a tattoo on my chest that reads simply, "Searching Seeking." And like all my other tattoos, it holds several different meanings for me, all of which have emerged and evolved over time. I was inspired by We Came As Romans' song "Searching, Seeking, Reaching, Always." The lyric is "I'm searching, seeking, reaching for something more / I'll be better than before." And even taking into account my ever-increasing skepticism towards normative concepts like "better" or even the 21st-century fascination with self-improvement, something about the idea of continuing to improve has stayed with me. I think it's because I have what many grad students have: "Impostor Syndrome."

Impostor syndrome was described in 1978 as a term "used to designate an internal experience of intellectual phonies" for high-achieving women, which "[d]espite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persists [sic] in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise." Subsequent studies have shown that impostor syndrome has been reported in grad students, scientists, and people in corporate jobs, both male and female in approximately equal numbers. People who think they are impostors often fear failure; attribute success to luck, error, or charm; desire to stand out; feel that they have deceived others; and discount recognition from others.

I'm not a psychologist, I can't speak to the veracity of this phenomenon in others, and I have no interest in treating it or understanding its genesis. Rather, I have ruminated extensively on this subject, and maybe some other people will find my explorations helpful or explanatory. The more I read about it, the more I feel like I have it (confirmation bias?).

I do doubt my own abilities, while at the same time holding the dissonant view that I can solve anything, especially when I am under pressure to perform. I've had academic success at all levels of my education, yet I hold the conflicting views that I am drastically under-prepared for every class but also confident that I can "fake" my way through. I'm lazy, yet my work ethic is profuse when I need it to be. I'm a terrible procrastinator, often because I can't figure out where to start, probably because I'm afraid that I'm not an original thinker and can't generate an idea. I doubt my originality, but I feel the undying need to produce creative content (podcasts, blogs, novels, short stories, music, treatises, Skryim playthroughs, Madden superstars...). I fear that people will find out I'm a fake, yet I continue to put myself in situations where I could be found out. There are certainly days when I go to my seminars unprepared, but I don't shy away from speaking when I believe I have something relevant or salient to say. I'm less concerned about where these conflicting beliefs come from than with how they manifest in my daily psyche.

I am a "historian." But I hate calling myself that (and I usually only do either to fit in with my peers or assert my own supposed expertise on something--a way of hiding my impostor-ness). When introducing myself, either to professors or my peers who don't know me, I always describe myself as a historian of journalism, race, and gender in twentieth-century America. I don't think I'm an expert in any of those fields by any means, and I feel as if in any substantive debate I could have with anyone, I would lose on the "factual" or "empirical" elements.

But the more I learn, the more skeptical I become! I have skepticism towards my own work because the more I read, the more I believe I'm leaving something out or that I've made a terrible mistake. "Searching Seeking" is about improving, and every time I improve my grasp of something, I feel like my work is meaningless. We read about Dominick LaCapra a couple weeks ago, and his critique of Hayden White struck at the heart of the "easy categorizations" present in my work on rap and school shootings. I know this will only help my work in the future, but I also can't help but feel like self-improvement becomes an infinitely regressive loop of self-doubt. If I didn't doubt myself, then I would never strive to improve. There is something profoundly Sisyphean in my intellectual achievements.

Please don't #humblebrag me.

In the end, I'm wrestling with competing notions of being safe from criticism and failure while also having the desire to be read, heard, and respected. I do want to be a writer (blogger, podcaster, dragonslayer, etc.) yet I'm afraid that no one will read me. I want to be a musician, but I'm afraid no one will like what I make. I'm afraid every day that I'm wasting my time (as opposed to doing something productive, which I have yet to identify). But the simple truth is there is nothing I'd rather be doing than producing, making, creating, originating something. There's a reason why my Googledocs and Dropbox are full of half-concocted novels and short stories, lyrics and bad poetry, half-cocked theories of existence and examinations of time travel ethics. It's the reason why all of us have professional ambitions as well as hobbies. I don't know what I want to do when I grow up, and if I did know, I'd probably be scared of reaching a conclusion.

There is perhaps only one way to resolve these feelings: performance. We are what we call ourselves to become. I am a student: I read books, attend classes, write papers. I am a musician: I write music, I record music, I rap. I am a historian, vegan, socialist, writer, blogger, podcaster, atheist, husband, worker, archivist, teacher. And moreover, I'm a seeker, I'm searching for something more.

[Even pressing "post" for this blogpost makes me nervous. What if you, my wonderful audience, take the exposition of my impostor-hood as a sign of faux humility? What if you don't trust me, you think I'm using this as an example to boost my own position through subversive-yet-completely-transparent means?]