The Lies We Tell Ourselves

Jonathan Downie is currently in the final stages of his PhD on client expectations of interpreters from Heriot-Watt University. Jonathan is a long time contributor to the Whisperer – his most popular piece was on parenting a toddler. This time Jonathan has some good words of advice for the PhD journey. You can read more about Jonathan and his work on his blog Rock Your Talk.

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 11.55.02 amIt was the time my wife and I call “silly o’clock” – early enough in the morning that the only traffic was from night-shift workers heading home. I was on my way to the airport for a red-eye flight to Belfast to do my very first guest lecture. Not that I felt ready for it.

To be brutally honest, I was still data wrangling: trying desperately to find some kind of shape and sense in the mass of interviews (a few still untranscribed), field notes, and survey results. I felt like the poster boy for imposter syndrome – that feeling that I was a big fraud and someone, somewhere at some point was going to find that out.

Now, as I approach the end of my PhD, I have seen so many similar cases that it is a bit sad, really. Outwardly capable, productive PhD students walk around with this nagging feeling that they really aren’t good researchers and that one day, someone will find them out.

You see it at tea breaks at conferences, where the next people to speak often look more like they are queueing up for a root canal than preparing to share their ideas with a receptive audience. You see it when people are writing papers – papers that they are sure will be rejected with more haste than PhD students devouring leftover seminar food.

But it’s a lie.

The truth is, if you weren’t capable, you wouldn’t even have started the PhD in the first place. If you weren’t doing interesting work, you wouldn’t have been invited to do the lecture. If your paper didn’t even stand a chance of getting published, your supervisor would have warned you off submitting it, for now at least.

The insidiousness of this lie is that it often gives birth to two other lies: terrible twins, if you like. Twin #1 is a sneaky, snarling thing that whispers that the only way to stop being an imposter is to work harder. Much harder. For weeks, we can end up on an endless quest to be a “good student”, sacrificing social life, sanity and family. Hours spent at the computer get mistaken for progress and suddenly happiness takes a nosedive, with productivity following behind.

This is where twin #2 can do its raucous best. This twin argues that you never will be good enough so it’s time to give up. Frustration begets sighs of resignation, which lead to social media or some other habit replacing anything that looks like research and the whole “imposter, overwork, give up” cycle starting again.

Anyone recognise those scenes? While I have never touched the depths of that cycle, I have lived through enough and seen enough of it to understand it.

It seems that there are only two ways out. The first is to see through the lies and realise that you aren’t an imposter and you are doing fine and you will make it in the end. Yes, I know, easier said than done. Often, the times when we most need to see through the lies are actually when they seem the most real. It’s a rare student indeed who can put their foot down and stop the lies at that point. We need help.

What helped me was to remove the “me” out of the equation. Asking questions like “does this analysis seem sound?”, “how did the students/audience seem to respond to the talk?” or “what are the chances of the paper being accepted?” helped me a lot as they gave me distance. Instead of measuring my performance, I invited people to help me measure the performance of a thing. If I could make it about the thing and not me for even a few minutes, I found it felt easier to see through the lies.

That led me to something even more profound. Reading books written by leaders like John C. Maxwell and Bill Hybels, I came across the idea of putting the needs of others first. When I got invited to do guest lectures, I got into the habit of making it about how I could help that university rather than how I could further my career (or ego!). Whenever I wrote a paper, I asked myself how this could help someone else, maybe by giving them a précis of others’ main arguments or opening them up to new ways to deal with ongoing problems.

It took time and I am still working on it but the idea of trying to take me out of the picture made it much harder for me to fall into the old negative cycles. I don’t worry nearly as much about whether people will see me as an imposter; I am too busy thinking about how this talk or paper could help them.

At times, it seems like academia is one big obstacle course for our egos. We can get all too invested in the words on the page or the name on the conference program. Maybe if we remembered that academia is, above all, a set of communities trying to attain common goals, there might be less time left for imposter syndrome.

Do you ever suffer from the impostor syndrome? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Related posts

PhD detachment

Doing a PhD is getting to know yourself

43 thoughts on “The Lies We Tell Ourselves

  1. JT says:

    Thank you for this article. I constantly battle with imposter syndrome! It’s such a struggle! As an added layer at times the defeatist attitude feels like it leads to almost a self sabotage in effect- (not trying as hard as you should), so that when it turns out as you expected it would with everything going wrong, you are then justified to feel the way you do.

  2. Jackie says:

    Thank you for this – I took a brief break from my ‘data wrangling’ and feeling a PhD write up failure to read this and was shocked to see my feelings mirrored back to me. I know my work is of value but why don’t I feel any good at it?? I shall try to detach more and see if the work will flow better.

  3. Robert George says:

    I clearly remember that feeling only few months before what was a successful defense. What I was telling myself were the same things you describe in this post and it felt so very real! After some one-on-one counseling with myself, all was well but what a strong, convincing feeling!

  4. joscelyncole says:

    This was a well needed reminder in a period of post-draft fatigue. Though I wonder if it’s as easy to distance yourself when you are writing an arts PhD? So much on my thesis is dependant on my own powers of analysis or interpretation. (Latin epic is an allusive beast!)

  5. spiderylue says:

    Imposter syndrome and me are old, old friends. Especially recently after failing the oral part of the preliminary exam – not the best moment of my life. Even in the face of hard evidence, I still regularly fill with self doubt.

    What is it about doing a PhD that inevitably makes everyone who does it feel so utterly incompetent? I adhere to the adage that true wisdom lies in knowing that you know nothing, but perhaps we take that too much to heart!

  6. Germana Nicklin says:

    I extend that feeling to taking on a lecturing position. I was given an opportunity at short notice to take two papers – one per semester. I am having to create the material on the run and that involves learning about a lot of stuff fast. I am loving it and feeling like an imposter at the same time. And having the responsibility of students’ learning at the same time is scary. I was told ‘we all go through this’. Trial by fire. I stopped feeling like an imposter by the end of my PhD but I guess it is something we face at new phases of our journey. You are so right that the only thing to do is focus on what you are trying to achieve and to do so with passion and commitment. We will never be good enough to ourselves so we just have to carry on regardless.

  7. hararhyenas says:

    Best advice I’ve been given in ages. We can take it further and think not just in terms of helping universities and academics, but also our research subjects.

  8. Bridget says:

    Ooooh, I like this. (I’ve finished my PhD and I’m now a ECR but I can’t give up my ThesisWhisperer crutch!) I’ve found the last couple of conferences I’ve been too really difficult because it seemed like so many battling egos but refocusing on others seems like a great tonic. I’ll get straight into reading some Hybels and Maxwell. Thank you!

  9. shamim says:

    Well almost the entire of my first two years into Phd telling my self that these very lies were the ultimate truth. This despite of the fact that I worked hard even in period! But one fine when I finally opened up to an ex PhD student and she said, “we all go through the same! “. That’s no reason to give up! Meanwhile I also trained myself as a Professional Coach. And reaching out to others is doing wonders for me.!

    But yes..i am left I working too hard and burning out????

    Jonathan and others like THESIS WHISPERER, thank you for being there!

  10. jessplainsong says:

    I was thinking about this very syndrome just yesterday, when I realised I don’t feel imposter syndrome in my academic work; creative artists feel it every day. They call it crippling self doubt, and that’s where I feel least confident. My identity as a musician is constantly subject to the amazing standards and world class musos around me, and I feel wanting EVERY SINGLE DAY. Thank goodness I can write.


    ​Thank you so much Inger (and Jonathan).

    This post has literally saved my day.



  12. Rebecca says:

    I struggle with this but find it difficult to come up with practical solutions – so I really like these suggestions and especially the one about making it less about yourself and more about how you can contribute to their work! Thanks!

  13. Kate Paine says:

    Very pertinent topic, and one that extends way beyond a Phd. Jonathan’s solution is brilliant, and a lesson that also should extend way beyond the remit of a Phd. Good stuff.

  14. Andrew says:

    Yes, I agree with all you have said. I noted that ‘taking me out of it’ is called externalising in the counselling world so that our identity is separated from issues/problems/concerns. I also noted that your other point on doing something to help others is in other places called love. As M Scott Peck defined it – extending yourself for the sake of the growth of another (i.e. both growing). I remember Deborah Bird Rose saying that academia needed to talk about love a bit more. I learnt a lot about the idea of love from reading too, but the scripts were a lot older than the fine books you mentioned. I am not sure I can say more about that in an academic world dominated by secularism.

  15. Hannah says:

    Brilliant article! I feel like someone has gone into my head and explained exactly what’s been going on for me recently! Twin one was here a few weeks ago and now it’s twin two’s turn- the one that left me crying at my desk and wanting to give up! I’m going to think more about how my work can help others rather than looking at what I can’t do!

  16. NIna Chatelain says:

    Thank you so much for this insightful and helpful article. I love the idea of serving others, since it not only helps side-step the negativity, but also totally reframes the paradigm from competitive to cooperative. Brilliant.

  17. Abdul Kleesh says:

    Thank you very much for this article. I am starting my second PhD year and I am feeling that I am not up to the task. But, everyone around me believed the complete opposite. I wished I had their confidence in me. Now, I am feeling relieved that it is not just me but others felt it as well. I will use your approach. Thanks again for pointing this out.

  18. BananaFurby says:

    I feel like you looked into my head and described exactly what is going on there!
    Having the problem defined like that (twin 1 and 2) makes it easier to recognize and deal with. I also really like the idea of not thinking so much about our ego. In my case that is the place in the author list. Instead of thinking how I can be 2nd author, I can think about the best way to help the paper be published. That is so much more defined and doable than “becoming 2nd author” is. Thanks 🙂

  19. Sarah says:

    Excellent article, Jonathan!
    Like most academics, I suffer from impostor syndrome from time to time (which in my thoughts quickly escalates to ALL THE TIME, which is simply not true, but feeds the evil twins very nicely). What I have found to be helpful is to have a little accountability group of colleagues I trust. It’s always easier to see the successes of somebody else. We are very open with each other, sharing our worries and vulnerabilities, but also reminding each other of how far we have come. I can’t be nearly as critical with somebody else as I am with myself — why would I, it’s my goal to help my friends! — and an outside view often seems to be more realistic than what we build up inside our minds.

  20. sarahisainmdom says:

    Imposter syndrome sometimes fully cripples me. I literally cannot work because I’m so plagued with fear. It doesn’t help that I’m working in an very under-researched area and applying a relatively unused-in-my-field methodology.

    Hearing that I’m not alone is massively helpful though, and I’m definitely going to try viewing things from a ‘helping others’ perspective!

  21. Johanna Baker-Dowdell says:

    I’d really like to say I’ve been through this and now I’m on the other side nodding along with all your suggestions Jonathan. But that is not the case. I’m still very much in the middle of imposter syndrome, or as I like to call is, wading through quicksand.

    Only last week my supervisor resorted to some very tough love that resulted in tears to try to make me see exactly what you’ve just said – if I wasn’t capable and researching something worthwhile I wouldn’t have been offered a scholarship to complete this PhD. I know the words are true, but at the moment those words are empty. Roll on the realisation that I should be doing this, but in the meantime I’ll keep writing, wrangling data and conducting interviews.

  22. nordago says:

    I have been suffering from that syndrome without knowing it. First during my M.Ed and now starting my Ph. D. Your post is really elucidating for me. I liked the “if you weren’t capable” part. That´s what my wife always tells me… but it sounds more convincing from a person in the same situation. Thanks for sharing

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  24. sarahbabcockblog says:

    Thank you for this insightful post. I have chronic imposter syndrome (even as I write this, I think “but for me, it is really the truth–I am not up to the task) and it has caused me to procrastinate and isolate myself (giving more fodder for the syndrome). One of my problems is that I constantly do not make my own self-determined deadlines (or even the few that are agreed upon with my supervisor). As these unmet deadlines pass by, my feelings of discouragement cause me to stop working for a while, until I settle down and make a revised deadline. But often even this second deadline I don’t make either. It has become a reoccurring problem. For a while I do believe the problem was that my goals were too ambitious, but for the past few months I have worked on making more reasonable goals. I still don’t meet them. Partly it is because I know in the back of my head I can get away with it short term (even tho somewhere I know that the long term result might mean I never finish), and partly it is because I have a hard time making decisions while writing and revising. Not wanting to commit to ideas I am not 100% sure about means I leave too many things unresolved, so I never really finish a chunk. I know this issue is not exactly related to your post, but I haven’t found a good place to get advice about this problem. If you can point me to any resources or have any initial thoughts, I would really appreciate it. Thank you for reading this long comment.

  25. Irene says:

    Thanks for sharing your personal experience. A friend just suggested me to read this because I am questioning whether what I feel is imposter syndrome or it really is that I am an incompetent scientist.
    I understand the idea of taking myself out of the picture and think about how my work can help others, instead of just thinking if I am good enough. Tough to do when I am worried about failing my PhD, but I will sincerely give it a try.
    One thing I honestly disagree with is “if you weren’t capable, you wouldn’t even have started the PhD in the first place”. I personally don’t think being accepted for a PhD program is so hard that the only fact of being chosen for one validates my abilities. I might be wrong and this might be the source of all my insecurities as a PhD student.
    Thanks again for this article, it made me look at other aspects of imposter syndrome.

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