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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

How imposter fear helped me (and then didn’t) [Wise Wednesdays]

My good friend James is a lead scientist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research. They’re the first to get warnings of catastrophic weather events. It’s a high pressure environment and tough psychologically. But like any frontline scientist or clinician you have to be detached.

Not everyone can or even wants do this work. Some of his top performing colleagues left to do completely different jobs even though they loved the work – they burned out.

I asked him what helped him stay the course.

He said this: one day I realised I was meant to be here and stopped trying to prove myself.

What does that mean?

He still works hard and loves his work. But he doesn’t add to the already enormous pressure to continuously generate ideas, bring in funding and advise government and insurance companies. He approaches it as a marathon rather than a spring. That mindset means his life feels more balanced and his career is sustainable.

As you may know, the feeling of having to prove yourself all the time and that you don’t deserve the role, recognition or success that you have is often called “Imposter Syndrome” (or Imposter Phenomenon as one of my clients calls is. Essentially, you feel like a fraud and minimise your success.

While imposter feelings might drive you to excel they also affect your mental health. They’re associated with overworking and lower job satisfaction leading to burnout.

A career survey of over 3,000 scientists published a couple of months ago in Nature suggested that signs of burnout at work had risen in academia not just because of the pandemic but because of rising job demands (a trend seen in many sectors which I explain in The Success Trap book). About 51% of women and 39% of men said they felt they couldn’t keep up with their work. More results from the survey below.

Chart: Annual Careers Survey 2021, How burnout and imposter syndrome blight scientific careers, Nature.

It reminded me of a turning point in my own journey with imposter syndrome. Instead of just working harder, I realised something about myself.

It was during a team conversation with a boss who wanted me to apply for a more senior role. I was flattered but “Why would they want to hire me?” I bemoaned. The look I in their eyes shook me to the core. It was something between consternation and laughter!

I had a solid CV built over more than a decade. Yet I was behaving like a schoolgirl worrying about a mid-term test. In a flash, I realised how lost I was in my anxious thinking, that I was out of sync with reality and that this imposter mindset was going to cost me in mental health, opportunities and just basic sanity.

When I looked more closely at these imposter feelings, I realised that:

1) Imposterism distorted reality

2) Imposterism had helped me achieve great things in the past

3) Imposterism had started to cause me unnecessary anxiety, poor judgement and needed to be addressed now

When I looked even deeper, I found something else. I found a sweet little girl who wanted to be accepted and loved through her hard work. It revealed the cause of my imposterism and a big (unnecessary) stress factor. It was emotional and a huge relief to understand this.

Today, if I ever start to feel imposter feelings or anxious about whether I’m working hard enough, I check in with my imposter. If I’m fully present, it always guides me back to the root issue.

  1. Do I need to learn a new, specific skill that could be fun?

  2. Do I need to clear my head and reconnect with reality?

More often than not it’s option 2! What helps to tell the difference is appreciating everything I already have – here’s a video with 3 practices to appreciate what you already have. What are your thoughts on "Imposter Syndrome/Phenomenon"? Have a good week, Amina

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