Overcoming or rather managing my imposter syndrome

This semester I taught a research methodology module for Master’s students and one of their assignments was to ‘blog’ about an aspect of their experience of the course, their writing or their learning. Over the next couple of months, I have the honour of sharing their writing with you. This first post is by Amina Hamidou, who is researching the politicization of black hair in South African schools.

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In the process of preparing for my written October exam, I started to second guess myself and feel a certain way. This feeling is a mix of excitement and longing for the year to end and crippling panic and self-doubt. I experienced this same self-doubt before when I was accepting my undergraduate degree. I did not feel like I had earned my degree, especially in regards to my grade, and my accomplishments felt like nothing in comparison to those of my peers. I felt like a fraud.

I came into my undergraduate already somewhat knowledgeable of what was to come and expected of me, as my mother is a senior lecturer; she gave my sister and I helpful ‘insider’ information and guidance to thrive at university. The first few months I felt lonely in the area of friends, as my twin sister and I were in different courses and only saw each other at the end of our days, but I felt confident in my work. However, this confidence came crashing down when the first test and assignment results came out. I felt like I should have done better than others because I have a parent who is an academic. So, I deduced that it was clearly me: I had all the advantages but still did not get the results I thought I would or should get. I felt like I was not good enough or smart enough and this feeling has come rushing back since I started my master’s program this year.

Is this feeling familiar? This demobilising fear of being unmasked as a fraud, filled with self-doubt, I have come to know is imposter syndrome and its quite common in postgraduate students and academics, especially women. So much so that there are counsellors that you can talk to at the University and information on this topic targeted specifically at postgraduate students. So why do I feel like a fraud? From my research and own experience, imposter syndrome can happen to anyone, but high achievers and perfectionist are more likely to suffer.

From how I have experienced it, imposter syndrome feelings include:

  1. Feeling like a ‘fake’: fearing that you will be confirmed to be a fraud or falling short of your own or others’ expectations;
  2. Downplaying your success: feeling that your achievements are not a big deal and pushing away praise;
  3. Attributing your success to luck: giving credit to everything else but your own abilities and hard work.

Imposter syndrome often drives people to work harder. But overcompensating can lead to unrealistic expectations and burnout, anxiety and possibly depression. However, I seem to do the opposite. Instead of overcompensating by working twice as hard, I decide that since my writing is not good enough anyway, I don’t have to try my best. This way, when I get my results or feedback I can tell myself, “Well, I know this wasn’t my best anyway”, which allows me to feel less hurt and inferior than I would do if put my all into my writing. This thought process leads me to become complacent, underachieving and adds to my procrastination.

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Can you ‘overcome’ imposter syndrome?

  1. The first step is to recognise it as a problem or feeling that has a name. To recognise and name this feeling is a major step. This can help you to realise that your expectations might be too high and adjust them.
  2. Talk to someone – your supervisor, mentors or friends and family about your self-doubt and ask them to help in you in setting and managing more realistic goals.
  3. Realise that there is no such thing as perfect. You have to come to terms with realising that no one is perfect and in postgrad studies, as my lecture keeps saying, “Done is better than perfect”. No one expects perfection from you or expects you to know everything. As academics, we are always learning and we never stop being students, which has helped me take the pressure off myself.
  4. Admit and own the role you play in your success. For me, this has been vital. This ties in with your academic goals. You need to look to where you want to be and realize that you need to play an active role in achieving those goals, by taking it a task a day and not overestimating yourself (or the opposite!).
  5. Take credit for your achievements and do not downplay yourself and your accomplishments. It means that someone has recognised your work and capacity. You deserve to feel proud of that.
  6. Manage your stress. For me, creating a flexible timetable and schedule has helped me keep my stress down and feelings of impending pressure; this has helped minimize my imposter syndrome feelings as well.

Honestly, I am managing imposter syndrome and not overcoming it because I think we all have a little bit of imposter syndrome in us. As much as I try to overcome it, I have come to realise that, for me, it is triggered by stress. So managing imposter for me also comes hand in hand with stress management. When I have reduced the stress in my life I feel less fraudulent and more secure in myself and my work. Nonetheless, as is life, stress comes and goes and so does this feeling of being an imposter. During times of high stress, such as the end of the year, my feelings of inadequacy come creeping back. So each day I write down two to three tasks to accomplish which help me reach my weekly and then monthly goals for assignments and writing. These flexible daily tasks have helped make my writing more manageable. When I receive my writing back from my supervisor I take two to three days to go through the comments slowly so as not to overwhelm myself with negative feelings. If this experience has taught me anything, it is that my thoughts and comments about my writing are far harsher and more cynical than my supervisor’s. We tend to be harder on ourselves than others do.

At the end of the day, I have to remind myself that I made it through undergrad and honours with a degree. As my mother keeps telling me, “Not everyone is privileged to go to university and much less persevere and finish with a degree. Having a Bachelor and Honors degree shows that you have done what many cannot and could not, you should be proud and I am proud of you”. Those words are what I remind myself of when feelings of inferiority and inadequacy want to rob me of my success and accomplishments.

Remember you have ACCOMPLISHED SOMETHING EXTRAORDINARY, you are PROUD of YOURSELF and I am PROUD OF YOU.

Book writing: Timelines, best-laid plans, and expecting the unexpected

Those who have been following this blog for a while will know that I have been working on my first sole-authored book for some time now. I am completing the final edits and corrections this week and then it will be off to the publisher for the next stage of the process. And what a process it has been. I had NO idea, in spite of reading other people’s blogs about book writing, exactly how long this process takes and how many different steps and stages there are along the way. This posts tracks my book-writing process, and I hope it may be helpful to those of you working on a large project of your own.

Photo by Bich Tran from Pexels

2015: While working on my postdoctoral research and writing papers for journals, I start thinking that my argument is much bigger than a journal article, or even a few journal articles; that I actually need a PhD-thesis/book-length project to say what I think I need to say about knowledge-building and teaching in higher education. One of my two advisors is putting together a larger proposal for a series, so I run my early ideas past him. He’s interested and thinks it could work, so he says ‘draft a proposal and let’s see’.

2016-2017: I start working on early versions of the book proposal in 2015 and by mid-2016 it’s in a pretty decent state. I even have a basic draft chapter to go with the proposal and a few other pieces of two other chapters. But, I work on contract and I have kids and bills and a life to help pay for, so teaching and consulting work takes up most of my headspace and emotional and mental energy. The proposal writing process slows way down. Then my mum gets really ill mid-2017 and no writing or research of any kind happens for a while. My advisor—now the series editor —emails periodically, encouraging me to keep thinking about the book and working on it when I can.

2018: Buoyed by the encouragement from the series editor and from peers who keep telling me how useful the book could be, I start working on the proposal again in earnest. The series editor gives me really helpful, sharp feedback, and slowly we beat the proposal and a draft chapter into a shape and form that can go out for external peer review. This happens late 2018. The wait for feedback is extended by staff changes at the publisher. I get on with other bits and pieces in the meantime, including holding texts and bits and pieces of writing and thinking on most of the seven chapters.

2019: Feedback arrives finally in February and it’s a green light. Yay! And, OMG, now I have to write the book! I work out, perhaps somewhat optimistically, that with the bits I have already done, I can write the full draft by the end of October. I do not properly factor in how much work I actually do every year between my contract teaching, supervision, consulting, parenting and administrative tasks (life and work). I also do not properly factor in how much procrastinating I do around my writing and research. On top of this, I get pretty ill in July and August and am finally diagnosed with asthma, which is a pretty tiring condition when it is not being managed. I fall way, way behind.

I have written a couple of the chapters in full, sent them to critical friends, and have some useful feedback to work with in revising these one and writing the missing ones. But there is no way I am making that deadline. I have to send the email I don’t want to send and ask the editor for more time. He says: ‘Ok, how much? Be realistic’. Friends who have written books, including Lovely Husband, tell me this is normal: nobody makes their first book deadline. I am encouraged by all of this and set a new deadline: 15 January 2020. This feels mad, but I am also really keen to not drag this project on way into 2020.

Image from Pexels.com

I spend most of November doing everything other than my book, even writing a full journal article on an unrelated topic. I am hugely frustrated with myself but can’t quite seem to make myself do more than a few floppy hours on the book each week. This does not bode well. December and school holidays arrive. I cannot possibly go on holiday: I have a freaking book to write, and I have maybe got about 40% of what I need. So, I write and I write and I write. The combination of shame (I do not want to ask for more time again) and motivation (I really need and want to move on from this now) spurs me on. Having my whole family ask me about my daily word targets also helps. Christmas and New Year pass and the thing is turning into an actual book.

2020: I make my deadline and off the book goes to the series editor. We decide that asking two colleagues for feedback would be a really useful thing to do, so the book goes off to them too. While I am waiting for peer feedback, I get my year going. The coronavirus reaches us in March and everything goes off-plan. My kids are no longer in school; my colleagues’ teaching and home plans change. Feedback finally reaches me in May and it’s all positive and encouraging. But detailed: there are now revisions to really sit with and take time over. I tell myself these will be done in two weeks. Two weeks later I have not even opened the files. It takes about four weeks, but I finally push myself into my chair, open and merge the files they sent, and get started. It is hard. These are not just corrections; they are revisions. New writing, re-thinking, careful responses. I’m exhausted.

July 2020: It goes, fully revised, to the series editor and now it is his turn to read it. He reads the first two chapters and sends detailed feedback. There are a few holes that need filling and lots of small corrections and edits (commas, referencing style changes, etc.) The usual sorts of things you have to pay attention to when you are preparing a manuscript for actual readers out there in the world who will pay for your work. This is fine. But, I am tired, emotionally and mentally. This year has kicked my butt. My asthma is up and down, so some days are full of energy and others are empty of it. I pick away, working backwards from the end of the book (my favourite chapter) towards the ones he has read, making all the small corrections to psyche myself up for the big ones. After completely freaking out about a couple of more critical comments which prompt new writing and actual revisions (not edits), Lovely Husband and a good friend talk me out of the spiral and I manage to get it all done.

Late August 2020: I get an email from the editor saying there’s not much more to do now, and I’m almost there. The relief is huge. The book will be finished (for now) before my birthday, which was my goal. The first major finish line is in sight at last: a finalised manuscript ready for the publisher.

I imagine, if I had to keep going with this timelines, that September and October will be spent waiting for proofs, which may arrive before the end of the year, depending on the publisher’s timelines and their own planning. I will then have to read the whole book again, dealing with all of their edits and corrections. This is a potentially tiring thought. One of the things I did not expect was how many times I would have to actually read my own writing. Of course, every time I do, I make corrections and improve it (especially my long sentences). But, these improvements are made only after telling the mean voice that says my writing is trash to please shut up. She can be pretty loud, especially when I am already tired and over it all. So, the work now is not just mental; it is also emotional and psychological: I have to use all my resources to get me across this finish line.

This is not unlike the end of a PhD-writing and research process. Doing any kind of significant project, even with the best-laid plans, means coming to terms with unexpected delays (e.g. waits for feedback, for examiner’s reports, and even dealing with yourself and various acts of procrastination and self-sabotage that you need to overcome). It also means being kind to yourself when things go awry or just take longer than you thought they would. This book project has taken, all told, 4-and-a-bit years so far. That is a lot longer than I—perhaps naively—thought it would. There have been many unexpected delays and parts of the process I wasn’t planning on or didn’t know to plan for. But, surrounding myself with people who believe in me and in this project has helped me to stay the course. Imagining that book in my hands with my name on the cover has inspired me to keep going. You can’t do any kind of significant project alone: you need your people and your sources of inspiration and motivation to keep you going.

If this process so far has taught me anything about myself, it is that I am more capable than I give myself credit for. I can do more than I think I can if I just get out of my own way and let myself believe what my friends and colleagues tell me. I can do this, and more. I think those things are probably true for all of us if we let ourselves believe them.

Book writing: I revised my book!

In January, I had the happy task of writing a post about how I had finished my first solo book project, and sent it off to the series editor, and to two peers for critical feedback. This post is about the other side of that: the revisions.

That revisions suck is a relatively well-established truth of writing, I think. I have written about it, as have many others. They suck because, as Pat Thomson has written, they ask us for more: more energy, more time, more thinking, more reading, more writing. More. On a piece of writing that has already asked quite a lot of us, and should – really, now – be finished. I knew that the revisions were coming; the book draft was just that, a solid first full draft. And, actually, they were not huge revisions, like rewriting parts of chapters, or doing away with whole sections or anything terrifying like that. Mostly, the changes I needed to make were small: writing a new paragraph here, making a clearer explanation of a concept there, correcting an incorrect something, fixing typos, editing the omnipresent long sentences. Yet, what should have taken me a week took me more than a month. Why?

An idyllic writing scene/Photo by Peter Olexa from Pexels

Well, covid for one thing. Suddenly I am not working from home alone-with-the-cats anymore; now I am working from home with Everyone In My Space. So, there are many more distractions to catch the eye of my already gnat-like concentration span, and tempt it off course. Also, I got in my own way, and turned relatively manageable revisions into a Huge Thing. I wrote here about self-sabotage; this is a subject I consider myself to be somewhat of an expert in. I am very, very good at getting in my own way.

As Hayley Williams sings in ‘Caught in the Middle’: “I don’t need no help/I can sabotage me by myself/Don’t need no-one else/I can sabotage me by myself”. My main form of self-sabotage is doing all the small things that don’t require much thought first in the day, so that by the time I get to the big things that do require thought, I am tired. So, I then put off the big things to the next day, and repeat this format. Then, the day before the deadline for the big thing that needed a good 4-5 days worth of thinking, working, revisions, and finalising, I am in a complete state trying to get it done and hoping it will be good enough. Then, I redo the whole project in my head for several days after submitting it, kicking myself for doing a rushed job when I could have just done it ‘properly’. Sound at all familiar?

My second form of self-sabotage is telling myself the things are too much and too big and too hard, and that I am not good enough to do them. Who am I to be writing a book? The arrogance of me. Who am I to be writing a report for government? Nobody, that’s who. I can’t write at all, actually – just look at all the critique I have been offered over the years. The people who like my writing are just being nice because they are married to me, or my friends, or clearly don’t know bad writing when they read it. I am just crap at everything, so why do I think I can do any of this? I don’t always fall for this stuff: often, I can shut this mean voice up long enough to get the work done. I have gotten better at this over the years. But, even if she doesn’t sabotage the doing of the project, this mean voice makes me rethink just about everything I write, even after I have sent it off. So, battling this meanness, and believing in myself and my work and my ability is part of getting out of my own way.

A realistic writing scene/Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Both of these forms of self-sabotage and self-doubt showed up during the revisions period for the book. I couldn’t even open the files for about 2 weeks, even though I told myself every day that I should. I told myself I had plenty of time (I did not; I had a deadline). I told myself it would all be fine if I just pushed the revisions down the list day after day (it was, in the end, but doing a week’s worth of thinking and revisions in 3 days is not recommended). I told myself I did not know enough to actually be writing a book, and I should leave it to the experts (here I ended up believing my critical friends and Lovely Husband and the series editor, who told me this was untrue. I hope they are right).

Eventually, I did get out of my own way, although quite late in the day. I have realised that getting in my own way and sabotaging myself is probably not going to be something I can completely stop doing. My goal is not actually to turn myself into a different person; my goal is to start getting out of my own way faster. I would like to stop doing the Big Things at the last minute, and give myself more time to think, write, revise, get feedback, think some more. I’d like to do justice to my ideas and my writing. I would like to have less panic and stress, and more calmness around work. I can hear you chuckling, and thinking: ‘Ah, how idealistic she is. What a lovely fantasy plan’. Perhaps. Maybe calm is not a completely realistic goal – not in present circumstances anyway. But, I reckon I can shoot for more time to finish projects and less last-minute panic and stress.

Triumph/giphy.com

In the end, I have revised my book. I am very proud of it. It represents about 10 years of research, thinking, reading, writing, feedback and revisions. It’s a significant chapter of my life, personal and professional, that this book is, to some extent, bringing to a close. It’s a pretty triumphant moment. So, I am revelling in it, and I’m not rewriting this one. There’ll be time for that, after all, when the proofs arrive…

Publishing and thesis-ing: finding the courage of your convictions

Lovely husband and I have been talking lately about a group of new research students he is working with. He observed yesterday that part of their struggle with writing up their research projects is that they lack confidence in their claims. This got me thinking about making arguments in academic writing, and putting ideas out into the world. A great deal of the advice out there has to do with how to do this, and why we do this – craft persuasive, well-written, well-substantiated arguments. But, in this little post, I want to reflect a bit on a less written-about aspect of publishing writing, whether in paper or thesis form: finding the ‘courage of your convictions’, and being confident enough to stand by these. 

A friend and colleague who works with postgraduate students has a lovely saying: she says that a big part of writing at postgraduate level and beyond is being brave enough to ‘put your hands on your hips’ and make your claims with that level of conviction. This is a lot easier than it sounds. With a group of writers I worked with late last year – postgraduate and postdoctoral scholars writing journal articles for the first time – the issue of confidence came up in one of our sessions on argumentation. One of the scholars commented that it’s hard to know if you are saying the right kinds of things, and if people will agree with you. He added that writing at this level feels risky, and scary. I am sure this feeling of fear, and trepidation, is familiar to any of you who have had to write for a supervisor, or peer reviewer, or lecturer who will judge your work. You know that, pretty much always, some aspect of your work will need revision, further work. You(r writing) will be found wanting, to a greater or lesser degree.

I try to see this as just my writing that needs work, but the truth is, my writing is always personal. And critique of my writing is personal, and it feels like it is me who has not measured up. After all, those papers contain my thoughts, my convictions, my take on what is interesting and important to my field. And when a reviewer says ‘nope, not quite there yet’ – even nicely with constructive suggestions for improvement – it hits my confidence. I lose some of the courage of my convictions, my hands slide off my hips and I wonder: ‘how did I get this wrong’?

My initial reaction, because I am me, is always to go to the extreme: they hated it, it was a terrible paper, no one likes my ideas, I should not be an academic. Then after a day or two I calm down. I moderate this mean voice in my head, and see that, actually, the reviewers did not hate the paper, and they don’t think my ideas are rubbish. Mainly, the reviews I have received thus far, even the most negative ones, have pointed out positive aspects of my work, and have given me food for thought and revision.

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But getting back up again takes a while, especially when the reviews seem mean, and ask for a lot of extra work in getting the paper on track. It’s hard to keep those hands on my hips, and believe that my argument is valid, and interesting to others, and necessary to have in print. It’s too easy to just give up, shelve the paper, and wallow in the sense that my ideas are boring (and, of course, that I am too).

I think, therefore, that a significant part of writing for publication, or writing a thesis at postgraduate level, has to include confidence-building. Supervisors and reviewers need to be aware of this in their feedback, and focus on phrasing feedback in ways that indicates clearly the need for revision and further work without breaking the writer’s confidence so much that any further work feels impossible. Writing courses need to include discussions that recognise, openly, how difficult writing at this level can be: not just technically, but emotionally and psychologically.

Putting yourself on paper – which is what every argument is – and putting that part of yourself out into the world for others to read, critique and argue with takes courage. If you are new to publishing, or have a shaky supervision situation where you don’t get useful or encouraging feedback very often, it is even harder to be brave. And more than that, to believe that you have something worthwhile to say, that other researchers and readers in your field will want to know about.

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BUT: you do have something worthwhile to say. You(r efforts) are valuable. Finding, and holding, the courage of your convictions is not always easy. But, it is worth the effort.

On celebrating achievements and marking milestones

It was this blog’s 3rd birthday on Monday. I planned to put up this post then, but the day got away from me and then my son became ill and yesterday was a write-off. So, I am trying to get this out today. All this busy-ness and missing this milestone has had me thinking about why and when and how we should mark milestones during a PhD or similar process, and celebrate our achievements, both big and small.

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Milestones 

There are a few particular milestones during a PhD (or MA) that should be celebrated. There is getting into the programme of your choice—big box tick there. There is having your proposal approved—definitely cause for champagne or a celebratory beverage of choice. Or cake :-). Then there is the über-milestone of handing in the first full draft and then the copy for examination and then the final meisterwerk to be lodged in the library ahead of graduation.

But there are also smaller milestones along the way that may not be celebrated or seen as cause for celebration in quite so obvious a way. Here, I am thinking of completing chapter drafts, even before your supervisor tells you this draft is finished for now and you can move on to the next step. I am thinking of writing 500 words in a week where you have a thousand other things to do and time is at a premium and your brain is tired. I am thinking of getting a lovely comment of praise on your writing from a supervisor or a critical friend. These are, I would argue, also milestones or significant steps forward in your research journey or process, and thus deserve a form of recognition and celebration as well.

Rewards (and punishment)

When you make time to recognise these steps forward, even if they seem small in comparison to big leaps like proposal approval and finishing a full draft or final thesis, you are saying that you have done something of value. You have written 500 words you are happy with or you have battled through a difficult patch of life and work and still created a draft of a chapter that you are proud of. Whether or not external recognition from supervisors is forthcoming, you need to be able to see, and reward, your progress. 

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I didn’t reward myself during my PhD as much as I think I could have, though. I think, far more, I berated myself for not making enough progress or for not writing an even more amazing chapter or 500 more words. Instead of consciously rewarding myself, I tended towards punishment. As in ‘you haven’t written enough this week, so no weekend for you!’ This was, as you might imagine, counter-productive, as the more I punished myself, the worse I felt about my PhD and the more I felt resentful of its intrusion into my down time. This led to paralysis and fear of the PhD and the writing and this just made me (and everyone around me) miserable.

Rewards can be big or small, but they need to be meaningful to you. They need to create the impetus for you to push forward to the next reward. When I did give myself a reward or praise, these were things like giving myself a weekend off and buying a new book to read, going out for a coffee and a slice of cake, or giving myself permission to binge on a favourite show for a weekend. These things were small, but they made me feel supported and encouraged. They were my way of saying ‘well done!’ to myself. I still use most or all of these rewards to motivate and cheer myself on.

So, to celebrate…

minions-celebrating

I thus want to argue, here, that you need to be celebrating yourself, your writing and your achievements, big and small, throughout your PhD. You need to be your own biggest cheerleader, recognising what to others may seem like a very little step—ONLY 500 words?—as a pretty big step in a slow week full of meetings and sick kids and school events and so on. You need to be celebrating these small but significant milestones (or yardstones if you prefer), rather than punishing yourself for not doing more. If you are a part-time student with a full-time life, the small steps are big and they keep you pressing on (as long as they are close enough together to create momentum and motivation). 

I now reward myself regularly for what I regard as my writing achievements. But, I have to make the reward the same size as the achievement. If I have finished a paper and sent it to a journal, I can have several episodes of favourite show and cake. If I wrote the introduction of the paper, I can have an evening off and time with my novel or knitting. If I make the reward too big, especially if it includes time away from writing and reading, then I tend to struggle to get back into it and the reward works against me continuing on with the momentum. So, you need to be realistic, and measured and have your eye on your goals, your timeframes and your levels of energy and motivation as you plan your down time, your rewards and your celebrations. But, celebrate yourself you must! To steal a line from L’Oréal: ‘You’re worth it!’