CAREER COLUMN

How I overcame impostor syndrome after leaving academia

Desiree Dickerson discusses learning to control the voice in her head that insisted she wasn’t good enough.
Desiree Dickerson is a neuroscientist and a clinical psychologist (www.desireedickerson.com).

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As I sit down to write this piece, a voice in my head tells me: “You can’t do this,” and “Who do you think you are?” Tension grows. Writing about well-being starts to stress me out. “This needs to be perfect,” the voice continues.

This voice is not unique to me; we all have one. It is a product of our beliefs and our mindset. It influences how we perceive the world, our position in it and how we think, feel, act and interact.

It has driven many of us to academic accolades and career advancement — both measures of success according to most social standards.

But for some of us, this voice can denounce us as ‘impostors’ in academia and demand that we work twice as hard. Gradually, every day begins to feel like the morning of an exam. New ideas are dismissed with negative thoughts such as: “If I thought it, then it must be obvious.” We read and reread to see how others have said what we want to say, because surely they said it better and more clearly. We silence our curiosity and don’t speak up in lectures or meetings, missing invaluable learning opportunities.

The pursuit of excellence might have driven us to get high marks at university, but this perfectionism has become so ingrained that it fuels our need to forfeit rest as we work through the weekend. It underlies our tendency to amplify the criticism over the praise. We drag out deadlines as we search for something ‘better’ or ‘more perfect’. Academia might benefit from this imbalance, but often our health as scientists does not.

Looking back, I can see that this voice played a large role in my departure from academia. Now that I run well-being and resilience workshops for academic institutions across Europe, and work one-to-one with academics as an academic-resilience coach, I know I am not alone.

After leaving academia, I decided to apply my skills as a clinical psychologist to change the narrative. First, I needed to dial down the fear and self-doubt that were so easily evoked in me.

To do that, I had to recognize the voice for what it was — a negative influence that I was allowing to make big life choices for me. I had to challenge the internal dialogue telling me I wasn’t good enough, and to equip my new voice with arguments that recognized my strengths rather than magnified my fears. I realized that I had to develop a voice that could be compassionate in the face of setbacks; that would talk to me as I would talk to a good friend.

And, crucially, I needed to challenge the behaviours — avoidance, procrastination — that were empowering that voice and maintaining the cycle of self-doubt. These behaviours, of course, made me think that my old voice was right, that “I clearly wasn’t good enough”.

Writing a new script for the voice in my head is an ongoing process. I can’t say I’ve killed off the character entirely, but it no longer plays the lead part. To complement the cognitive behavioural techniques that I used to rewrite my voice, certain specific, learnable exercises have helped me to gain more control.

I started practicing mindfulness meditation to gain more control over where and how often my mind wanders. It helps me to be less emotionally reactive to things like criticism and feedback, less preoccupied by the progress of others and better able to focus on what I want to bring to the table. If you’re interested, Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World (2011) was a good starting point for me.

I restructured my day to prioritize activities that make me most productive. I rate my sleep above all things and I exercise, no matter the deadlines, because I know it helps me to manage stress better, think more clearly and focus for longer (and it just makes me a much nicer human being — to myself and to others).

By muting parts of that inner voice — the ones centred on perfection, worry, fear and guilt — you too can create space. Mental space and energy can be freed up to think, create, be present, ask questions, learn and relax. Imagine your life without that weight, without that constant pre-exam tension. Imagine academia without it.

Nature 574, 588 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03036-y

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