We’re all imposters on Halloween


What is imposter syndrome? Well, if other people would say you’re a high achiever but you don’t feel that way, you might have it. People with imposter syndrome feel they aren’t qualified for the job they have (or for the job they want) and no amount of success relieves these feelings.

For Halloween, I dressed as imposter syndrome. It was a 2-part costume:

  1. Physical representation of imposter syndrome: The ugly mask represents how we feel about ourselves. We know about our failures and rejections and the many times we felt like the only person in the room who doesn’t understand. The pretty mask represents how we present ourselves–our resume, our polished presentation that only shows the experiments that worked, the elevator pitch that makes us sound like the ideal match, etc.
  2. Survey: I’m a big fan of collecting people’s experiences. I wrote speech bubbles based on a) common experiences of imposter syndrome and b) direct quotes from the stories I collected to make my Grad School Stresses presentation. I carried sharpies with me to the grad student party I went to on Saturday and asked people to add tally marks below the speech bubbles they related to.

Lessons learned:

  1. Most grad students have or have had imposter syndrome (Okay I actually knew this already). Heard from a party guest while they were drawing on my costume: “What do I get if I relate to all of them?” Me: “A hug, if you want it.”
  2. Hot glue doesn’t stick to latex, and E6000 glue (which does stick to latex) smells terrible when it isn’t 100% dry.
  3. Having 2 removable parts to the costume (graduation cap, mask) meant that I found myself shedding parts of the costume throughout the party and only retrieving them when I got the very reasonable question, “wait, what are you dressed as?”

Full questions on the costume (most are geared towards grad students, but could be adapted to be relevant to other jobs):

  1. I’ve pretended to know more than I did or been afraid to ask questions [in class]
  2. Sometimes people tell me I look good but I think if they saw me without my clothes/makeup they wouldn’t think that.
  3. I don’t know what makes me special or unique [as a researcher].
  4. My project fails so much and it makes me wonder if I’m a bad researcher.
  5. Other people seem better at presenting/communicating their research.
  6. I worry that my mental/physical health issues will always interfere with my goals.
  7. I don’t have enough publications (or didn’t when I started grad school)
  8. I haven’t made as much progress as I had hoped.
  9. I worry I need too much work/life balance or am too lazy.
  10. I think about leaving grad school and/or sometimes regret starting.
  11. I worry a lot about my productivity and whether I’ll reach my goals.
  12. Because I may not go into academic research, sometimes I feel like an outsider.
  13. My perfectionism slows me down.
  14. I haven’t prepared enough so thinking about my future is overwhelming.
  15. I don’t feel as qualified as my peers and I worry people will find out I’m not good enough.
  16. I’ve avoided applying for something because I didn’t think I was good enough.
  17. I obsess over criticism.
  18. I compare myself to postdocs, advanced grad students, or the people who are the most successful.
  19. I don’t know if I’m smart enough.
  20. I forgot much of what I learned in undergrad.

Relate to any of these? Share your experience and/or share this post!


Video: 7 Celebrities You Wouldn’t Believe Have Imposter Syndrome!

Have you experienced low confidence? Tell us about it!

Stream of Quirky Consciousness: Eye Contact

This post is in honor of National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Mental Health Month. They intend to break down the stigmas associated with mental illness and Quirks Who Care supports that mission!
When I’m talking to you I’m never completely focused on what you’re saying. It’s not that I don’t care. I love the people in my life and want to learn about their lives, their struggles, their passions.

But my mind wanders. Where does it go?

Too many places for anyone’s comfort.

Am I making too much eye contact? How long have I been looking at their eyes? Is this creepy? Are we both thinking about this?

Ok, it’s time to look away. But where do I look? If I look at a different part of their body, they’ll think I’m noticing something about them or even….interested?! Though, how could I possibly know what they would think? I’m starting to recognize how little we can predict another person’s thought processes and emotions.

Ok I can look in the distance instead! Oh eep, they thought I noticed something there and looked where my eyes were too.

Eye contact is hard. But it’s not all I think about. Where else does my mind wander?

How am I supposed to be responding? What’s appropriate to ask? Am I supposed to ask follow up questions or will they tell me what they want me to know? How will they know I’m interested to hear whatever they’re willing to tell me if I don’t match each of their statements with a question?

Wait, am I asking too many questions? Did they just allude to a private issue and I took it upon myself to try to dig deeper? Or if I don’t ask more questions they’ll think I’m uncomfortable or unwilling to discuss!

Do my follow up questions even address the point they’re trying to make? Did they have a point they were trying to get to? Am I just saying something to fill the silence?

Oh here we go, here’s another moral failing of mine! I say something just because it’s silent. Fill the silence because eye contact is even more awkward when no one is speaking.

So I must change my behavior! Abort abort! Behave as a normal human does.

Wait, what am I doing? My policy is self acceptance, right? Why am I changing my behavior to be more normal?

But surely that’s a slippery slope! Fine, do everything that comes naturally to you. You’re going to go all the way back to middle school where you didn’t know how to communicate with people and had no friends.

Oh my Flying Spaghetti Monster how long have I been thinking and not paying attention? They’re still talking so maybe it’s ok. But wait, what’s that facial expression? Is that a reaction to something in their story? Or do they know I haven’t been paying attention?

No, no don’t think I don’t care. I care so much! I want to know what you care about, what drives you, what keeps you awake at night.

If I had to guess, it’s probably not the number of milliseconds our eyes were locked.