Nature | Editorial

Found out

Self-doubt is a pernicious affliction that can overwhelm researchers.

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Oh good grief, why did I ever say that I would write something about impostor syndrome? What do I know about it, really? I’m not a psychologist or a researcher or a proper expert, I’m just a journalist. I thought I knew what impostor syndrome was — that some people don’t call it a syndrome as such, because that implies a mental disorder. And I thought that I had suffered from those feelings of doubt and inadequacy about my abilities, but now I’m not sure. Maybe other people just suffer from impostor syndrome more badly than I do.

What if I simply tell people to go and read the Careers feature that describes how impostor syndrome can affect people in science, and which offers some useful tips on overcoming what, as it turns out, are very common feelings? But then again, won’t that make it clear that I don’t have anything else to say?

Maybe I can deflect attention from my own pitiful performance by citing talented celebrities who have admitted to sometimes feeling like frauds and impostors. The multiple-Oscar-winning film star Meryl Streep perhaps? I’m sure I read somewhere, though I might be wrong, that she once said she couldn’t understand why anyone would want to watch her on screen because she felt she couldn’t act. Or the famous and award-gathering author Maya Angelou, who after each of her eleven books, said she felt that this was the time she was going to be found out.

See, I have done the research. I do know what I am talking about, so why does it feel as if everyone around me is simply better at this than me? I bet that’s the way the editor thinks, too. Maybe this would be a good time to throw in an Einstein quote, and seek some reflected glory: “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”

I wish I had that Dunning–Kruger effect, the almost opposite experience to impostor syndrome in which people who really aren’t qualified or knowledgeable show remarkable (and misplaced) confidence in their abilities and decisions. Life would be so much easier then, or at least it would seem that way.

The thing about impostor syndrome is that it’s been known and written about since the late 1980s, and yet each generation of young scientists (and teachers, nurses, jet pilots and so on) feel isolated and anxious because of it. They feel that they are the only ones to have these crippling self-doubts, as if someone is about to tap them on the shoulder and confess that the whole situation — the job, the responsibility, the career — is an elaborate hoax and they should go home and stop being so presumptuous as to believe that they had anything to offer.

They need to know that these thoughts and ideas are common, and in fact are most common among genuine high achievers. They should be told that rejection — of papers, grants, ideas — in science is the norm and that they shouldn’t lose heart when it happens. After all, this is a field of human endeavour in which experts boast about how little they know and proudly display their margins of error. Young and vulnerable researchers need to know that if they tell someone — a friend or colleague or mentor — about how they are feeling, then they will almost certainly hear the words ‘me too’ and will feel better.

I should tell them that. If only I could find the right words.

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