Imposter syndrome is not real, but I call mine ‘Beryl’.

I hate to fail.

My failure avoidance leads to a tendency for overwork. I drive myself harder than any manager will, mostly out of fear of failure rather than love for the work. My feelings of insecurity make me a good employee and student, but they also put me at risk for burn out and exhaustion.

Relating?

If so, read on because I think we really need to talk about what it’s like to be a failure avoider during a global pandemic.

In the past, I’ve hesitated to call myself a perfectionist. I can be remarkably messy. I have trouble with detail. I can say ‘good enough’ and hand things in. My house is very neat (but largely because Mr Thesiswhisperer has higher hygiene standards than me). And yet, whenever I take a psych test for perfectionism?

Off. The. Charts.

Apparently, you can be as sloppy as fuck and a perfectionist at the same time. I find this confusing, so I prefer to think about what is going on with me as perfectionism-failure avoidance.

I have learned that this perfectionistic-failure avoidance tendency of mine is not about neatness. I want – no. I need my work to be seen as good and worthwhile by others. Feeling like I have failed in this aim can provoke an intense, almost visceral sense of shame and a healthy dose of fear. I avoid this feeling as much as possible by working until I get it ‘right’.

The problem is, I never, ever feel I have it ‘right’.

This variant of perfectionism is not what they call ‘maladaptive’, but nor is it healthy. While I don’t beat myself up for missing occasional deadlines, I fear being ‘found out’ as a failure until people tell me what I have done is good. Only then do I feel a momentary, fleeting sense of relief – but it doesn’t last long before I am back into the perfectionistic cycle again on a new project.

I don’t take much pleasure in my achievements either. I must, at some level, crave the praise that comes with success, or I wouldn’t work so hard. But when people actually praise me, I get quite uncomfortable. I wince inside when people call me a ‘super-star’ and list my achievements before I give a public talk. I feel like the person they are describing is not me, but I have to be here to accept the praise on her behalf because she does sound pretty awesome.

I suspect academia is the perfect petri dish for this perfectionist-failure avoidance tendency of mine to grow and metastasize because I meet people like myself ALL THE TIME.

I see failure-avoidant PhD students and working researchers in my writing workshops and bootcamps. Many of them are super anxious and looking for ‘rules’ that they can follow to get it ‘right’ (sadly, there are not many I can offer). These people are often exhausted and burned out. When you tell these high-achievers they are doing fantastic work, and their project is close to being done, they immediately tell you how it’s not good enough. They work extremely hard – probably too many hours – but are extremely reluctant to pull back. They tend to react with fear and trepidation when you suggest they are over-doing it a bit. They never seem satisfied with their achievements and, before a project is even done, will take on another, even harder one.

This pattern of behaviour is often called ‘the imposter syndrome’. Hugh Kearns, a famous educator in PhD circles, has written a lot of good stuff about it. While I respect Hugh’s work, I don’t like to use the term ‘imposter syndrome’. As far as I know, it’s not been independently validated as an actual psychological condition, so it’s problematic to give it that label. As my ‘blog sister’ Pat Thomson points out, by calling this behaviour a ‘syndrome’, we pathologise a rational reaction to being in a hierarchical, competitive place like a university, surrounded by high achievers.

To understand what is going on here I think we need to delve deeper into the literature on perfectionism. According to psychologists Hewitt and Flett, there are three kinds of perfectionism: self-oriented, other-oriented and socially-prescribed. All perfectionists will be a little of each type, but consider this list of questionnaire items for socially-prescribed perfectionists, which I have adapted from their 45 item multi-dimensional perfectionism scale:

  • People around me expect me to succeed
  • If my work is less than excellent, it will be seen by others around me as poor
  • The better I do, the better I am expected to do
  • Success on this project will mean I have to work harder on the next one to meet people’s expectations

If you are nodding at this list, I witness you.

 

It’s easier to understand socially prescribed perfectionism by thinking about it as a physical affliction. I’ve been told by doctors that I also have a high tolerance for physical pain – which can be dangerous because I don’t listen to danger signals from my body. I will walk 15 km on a ‘sore ankle’ around Tokyo and end up on crutches for a month. Similarly, socially prescribed perfectionism distorts your internal perceptions of quality. You worry what other people think so much that you set the bar extremely high for your own success. Over time, your sense of what ‘failure’ means is all out of whack. Basically, your ‘failure’ is other people’s ‘pretty damn ok’.

If you’re anything like me, the praise you get from being an over-achiever can trigger an internal need for more praise. But getting more praise doesn’t necessarily help you feel like you can stop and rest. Here’s the thing: a person who seeks praise and recognition, but then cannot accept or enjoy it when it is offered, probably doesn’t like themselves very much.

Oof.

The truth of that stings a little.

I say that academia is a petri-dish because, in our industry, achieving exceptional quality cannot be separated from professional success. To be an academic, you must be striving for perfection. If your work is shoddy and incomplete (or even just boring) you will be considered a poor academic, not just an average one. In fact – being an ‘average’ academic is often positioned as a form of failure when academics gossip about each other. As you become more successful, people treat you like a rising star and expect more of the same. Needless to say, if you are a member of a minority group in the academy you will feel this pressure to succeed more acutely. There’s plenty of evidence that women and people of colour are judged more harshly and given less chances to fail. Failure avoidance for many of us is not pathological: it’s sensible, even essential.

I like to think about Perfectionism as an academic occupational hazard. Along with short-sightedness from reading a lot.

To survive in academia, you will, to some extent, have internalised the kind of attitudes in my list above. If you don’t, you probably won’t last in the profession – and that’s exactly the problem. Even if you started out in your academic career without perfectionist tendencies, you will need to develop some degree of perfectionism as you go on. This tendency to have high standards for your work is good for your career, no doubt, but here’s the rub: it’s really bad for your health. One of the reasons I believe I have ended up on anti-anxiety medication is this workplace induced perfectionism.

We need to be alert to the monster of perfectionism at all times, but especially during the Covid19 pandemic.

So much of what is happening in the world right now is far, far outside our zone of control. It will be literally impossible to live up to your own standards in at least some area of your life at the moment. Researchers are trapped in countries that are far away from their fieldwork sites and labs. Others will be in shitty situations around employment, personal finances or relationships, which will make it hard to concentrate on work. Some are literally locked inside their houses. Postdocs and PhD students all over are losing work – and hope for the future. What is happening to higher education in my country, Australia, is a shit show inside a dumpster fire. It’s hard enough to deal with the real existential angst without imposing these distorted ideas of quality on yourself.

We need to recognise that these imposter feelings are not a ‘syndrome’ because they cannot be cured, only managed. My best advice is to recognise the thinking pattern, pretend for argument’s sake that it is ‘imposter syndrome’ and give it a name.

I call my imposter syndrome Beryl.

She’s my nagging great aunt, sitting on the edge of a sofa with a teacup saying “Oh no, no, no Inger. Do you really think you should do that? What will people think of you?’.

Beryl keeps me sharp. It pays to listen to her, but critically. Sometimes she’s warning me about a real problem. In that case, I need to listen up and do something about it. Other times she’s just being an uptight, prissy old bitch and can be safely ignored. Don’t let Beryl rule your life, ok?

In solidarity

Inger

I miss talking with you in the comments! I have turned them back on for this one. I’m interested to hear about how you are coping with the pandemic and what steps you have taken to protect your mental health.

In our most recent ‘On the Reg’ podcast, Jason Downs and I have an extended rant about the conditions in academia that lead to over work.

The 2020 Covid Diaries

Should you quit (go part time or pause) your PhD during Covid

The valley of deep Covid Shit

Where I call bullshit on how we do the PhD

Why academic writing sucks, and how to fix it

How NOT to be an academic asshole during Covid

Rich academic, poor academic: making an academic living in Covid times

Do you need clown shoes? Finding a research job in Covid times

Related posts on The Thesis Whisperer

You can find our podcast webpage here or search ‘on the reg’ in any good podcast directory.

Why does feedback hurt sometimes?

Perfectionism is a spectrum disorder

The last 5%

Links to other articles and resources

Which kind of perfectionist are you?

Self-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism: Differential relationships with intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and test anxiety, Personality and individual differences, 47(5), p. 423 – 438.

Gender, Work, Stress and Health – Science Magazine article with some good self care tips.

Coping during COVID tip sheet by Shari Walsh

How to touch your face less (printable tip sheet from The Oatmeal).

39 thoughts on “Imposter syndrome is not real, but I call mine ‘Beryl’.

  1. Clare Martin says:

    I have just left a Teams call not 20 minutes ago with someone who was talking me through how to present myself at interview. This resonates so much I am almost tearful. So, a double dose of reality checking this afternoon.
    So much easier to hide behind “I was only…”, “It was just because” than to step out and say “I am”, “I know”, I can”. It’s so hard when you’ve been in education for 30 years though. Your whole raison d’etre there is to put others first, to be stepping back to let them go forwards.
    I will be cringing when I step into my interview next week. PhD via? Bring it on! – because I’ll be talking about my work, not myself.

  2. Debbie Baff says:

    Oh my word Inger … thank so so much for writing this …you have just described absolutely everything that is jumbling around in my head ! 🤪🤯

    … I have my own mischievous little imposter imp that pokes me in the ribs on a pretty regular basis and asks me what on Earth I think I’m doing trying to do a PhD with all of the raised eyebrows and nodding looks that he can muster (actually …’do or do not there is no try’ … I feel myself adding to that sentence … clearly yoda is also in my head at the minute … ).

    My imposter imp also seems to play tag team with my procrastinator fairy 🧚‍♀️ And between the two of them I go around in circles … however I have to say your amazing blog is firmly in my my box of tricks which will hopefully help me kick the ass of both of them … 🙏

  3. Em says:

    Wow.. As a recovering academic ({PhD 7.5 yrs of failure avoidance), now in the working world, you nailed it. That is me to a T.
    “Success on this project will mean I have to work harder on the next one to meet people’s expectations”. That is how I live my life, and my expectations for myself are off the charts, and I’m dismissive of praise because I think in those cases, other peoples expectations are not high enough. I excel under pressure, and I’m toeing the line of burn out any given day. The pandemic has not made it more difficult per se, except I quit my job of 13 years and started a new one.. one that I REALLY REALLY like and want to excel at. So making a positive impression, virtually, has been strenuous.

  4. LAUREN says:

    Wow…felt like i was reading my own internal dialogue out loud!! Resonated so much…just disappointed you havent found the magic cure!!

  5. cathyc says:

    My problem with this: ‘Here’s the thing: a person who seeks praise and recognition, but then cannot accept or enjoy it when it is offered, probably doesn’t like themselves very much.’ is that if academia is essentially broken – and it seems to me it is – then why should praise be the thing that you can trust?

    Maybe feeling good in yourself about what you are doing is a more reliable benchmark of success.

  6. Ann Shoebridge says:

    This is my quote for the week, making me laugh out loud in the midst of exhausting endless tussle with my own multidimensional Beryl in the terminal stage of thesis-writing: “Apparently, you can be as sloppy as fuck and a perfectionist at the same time.”
    There is a proverb that says “An apt word is like an apple of gold in settings of silver”. Thank you for this golden apple today, and thank you so much for being a voice of steadiness and sanity throughout this long process.

  7. J.Weekes says:

    I nodded non-stop during your entire post – this is me to a T. I am giving a talk to 10 colleagues on Friday which is supposed to help me further my study and have literally not slept for 3 nights, have sore teeth from grinding them and a sore neck from spending all day on my computer. I imagine my topic will be seen as frivolous, unworthy and a waste of time. When I told my supervisor all this yesterday she laughed as if that could be possible. Yet she looks bedraggled and exhausted herself whilst working on her latest book, supervising 4 students etc etc. What a sad lot we are.

  8. G.Wilson says:

    Awesome Inger. Thanks for challenging this unhelpful, soul destroying monster called ‘perfectionism’. The world would be a dystopian nightmare if we always ‘got it right’. Big-ups for mis-takes and learning to make more of them! 🙌

  9. Jessica says:

    I was talking about this with colleagues just earlier this week. Claire Bowditch has written an autobiography and calls her negative voice Frank…. I am yet to find a suitable nagging name for my voice. Thank you for writing this post- it is good not to feel alone with these. And I agree, Hugh Kearns has written some great articles and resources on this! A must read for any researcher !

  10. Lindy Burton says:

    Perfectionistic-failure avoidance tendencies are often birthed in architecture school. You got a double dose of it, my friend! Yours in solidarity and empathy, L xxx #samesame

  11. Lynne Kelly says:

    Wonderful post, Inger. My PhD gave me four books (the fourth is due out in a few weeks) but that will be the last. A dozen years filled with a thesis and four books has been a constant stress of imposter syndrome – and I can’t stand it any more.

    I am in the fortunate position that I can continue as an Honorary at LaTrobe Uni, keep researching and not need to produce anything which is then assessed by others – academic assessors, editors, readers … No matter what the assessment and feedback, I never seem to believe it myself or think what I do is good enough. I shall blog and write the odd freelance article but mostly just research and enjoy and avoid assessment (real or imagined, from other or by me). I intend to sleep properly and learn how to relax. Wish me luck!

    Lynne

  12. Ariana says:

    Since finishing my PhD, it’s been a while since I’d read a post with which I identified so much. As a messy person overall, I’m also wary of identifying as a perfectionist, but I identified so much as failure-avoidant! I’m like, let’s stay messy because at least I can own glorious messiness, and not be a ok-neat person. 🙂 I’m glad to know I’m not the only one, because my friends mostly fall into all-perfectionist-super-neat category or just very chill-messy people.

  13. Marina H. says:

    Thanks a lot for this, Inger. I’m a young gender studies PhD student in Brazil – which is going through a deep political and economical crisis more or less since I started my Master’s lol. Right now everything is just worse with COVID, and it seems to be no way out of this dumpster we find ourselves in.
    Last year, in the middle of the first year of my PhD I had a burnout, consequence of overwork during my Master’s and the many side jobs I had to juggle in order to make ends meet. It was a crazy experience to think my brain was damaged for good and I wouldn’t ever be able to concentrate on writing or reading or creative thinking again. The burnout made my Impostor Syndrome even harsher (of course – “I broke down, it’s clear I don’t suit this high pressure environment”) and I think that a year after this incident I’m finally getting back on my feet. It was essential to read a lot about academic writing, specially Howard Becker’s book but also your blog and others who have been writing about this subject (as well as a lot of psycotherapy). It seems to me that when we listen to other people saying they don’t know what they’re doing either, or even that they also found themselves lost at some point, it helps a lot on putting down this impostor inside. Plus understanding intellectual/academic work is cummulative and done gradually also sets down the bar for what we think we must deliver.

    Anyways, thanks a lot for the blog. It’s a great help for people in the other side of the world 🙂

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Thanks Marina – I’m sorry to see what’s happening in Brazil. Hard enough to cope without a Beryl. Burnout is scary – it’s happened to me twice and now I must be very careful, so I get the fear completely. Sending virtual hugs 🤗

  14. Jacqulyn says:

    So much nodding all the way through this. My voice got named for me even as far back as undergrad when my housemate and best friend would call me Hermione (a Harry Potter reference) for getting stressed out of my gourd about marks etc. She told me Hermione could be good but also toxic and to be careful not to let her take over.

    Thank you, I will be mulling this post over for a while I think.

  15. Cath R. says:

    Thanks so much Inger – bells ringing all over the place for me too!

    I have been thinking a lot about “imposter syndrome” lately and wondering who, or what is the real imposter. I agree completely with you and Pat that calling it a syndrome pathologises “a rational reaction to being in a hierarchical, competitive place like a university, surrounded by high achievers.”

    But at the same time you well point out that you’re not feeling well. And often, neither am I and many of your commenters too.

    So yes, our “rational reaction” is making making us sick. Then where is the syndrome and who is the imposter? Without knowing any research whatsoever on this, I’m going out on a limb with suggesting that it’s “heirarchical, competitive” places that are the pathogen, the syndrome. (Let’s just add patriarchal and colonising here too?). They, and the systems they represent and reproduce are imposing themselves upon our bodies and our communities in ways that go against the grain of my embodied knowledge of what makes a healthy and meaningful life, and healthy and respectful ways to share and grow knowledge.

    Thinking about it this way helps me feel sadder and angrier for our system and institutions and everyone who’s struggling inside them, but also strangely more empowered to define and identify myself differently to them.

    Thanks so much for your thoughts and this unexpected opportunity to share a little rant over my lunch break!

    Hope you can find moments of breathing and feeling better,

    Warmly,
    Cath

    • abigailatecu says:

      Cath, I so agree. I love your comment and I’m going to take that on board: be more empowered to define and identify myself differently – stay in the system but out of the main highway to self-destruction!!

  16. Soph says:

    Yep! This is me – “you can be as sloppy as fuck and a perfectionist at the same time.” I read this blog post and thought, I’m not the only one!! That inner voice is what’s stalling my thesis..”Is it good enough?”, “Am I doing it right?”, “Is it wrong?” and all the “What ifs”. Thank you for writing about this. Lately, meditation and a lot of exercise has kept that inner voice at bay.

  17. Alexandra says:

    Another terrific article, thank you so much for your sincerity and sharing your vulnerability Inger!

    I spent the last years saying “I am not a perfectionist, I am too messy and can say ‘good enough’ and hand things in. I just have high expectations” but I guess I wasn’t quite right…

  18. Samantha says:

    Thank you so very much for this, I am in tears as I literally felt I was the only one. Just started my PhD this year, and I am already applying for leave. I thought seriously hard about leaving my studies, as I believed I’m just not suited for or good enough to be in academia – it must be me. But reading articles like yours and reading comments, I can see it’s not me but academia itself that needs to change. Even though I have always used my perfectionism in ways that could be useful for me while doing my undergraduate, and that it was something not demanded of me, what’s demanded from you while doing your PhD is just not sustainable as not only is perfectionism encouraged but it’s expected. I’m staying on as I believe in my topic and have no interest whatsoever in staying in academia, but unless things somehow change then there will be a real shortage of PhD students in the future.

  19. Clive Harrison says:

    Boom! Nailed it again Inger 🙏. Thanks for this description and explanation of WTF my life is. ❤️

  20. Emma D. says:

    Inger – this is fantastic and so applicable outside the academy too. I mean I’m in the business of editing, a biz that literally (and quite rightly) judges its practitioners on a perfectionist attention to detail. You’re spot-on about the probs with the ‘syndromisation’ of those ‘I don’t belong here and they’ll all find out’ feelings too. Captured in such a humane and helpful way, as always. Power to ya.

  21. Nada says:

    Inger, I can’t thank you enough for this post! I have been regularly following and valuing your posts all throughout my phd journey, but this one especially resonated with me on literally all levels and particularly now as I am fresh PhD in the current Australian higher ed climate and trying not to lose hope.
    You couldn’t have described my own ‘imposter syndrome’ better; the perfectionism, the fear of failure, the high (and continuously rising) standards that I place on myself, the relief I get when I receive praise on my work/accomplishments, and the burn-outs! And on top of all that I am a minority-culture woman. Basically everything you said!

    But I have to thank you for voicing it all to let us know we’re not alone, and for the consolation that it can be managed rather than ‘cured’. I will try!

  22. brianedmatthews says:

    A really interesting post Inger. I enjoy your comments and observations and, from the comments, it seems you resonate with many others. I had a lengthy professional career with the last 25 years in academia and saw much of what you describe in myself, colleagues and PhD students. Each person needs to get to the early source of their own Beryl before embracing their own self compassion, something I would have hooted at as a behavioural psychologist in my younger years. We each define the value in ourselves and if we hand this over to others we face true unhappiness

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