'Waiting for the cards to fall: addressing my ‘imposter syndrome’ '/ Kelly Herbison
Kelly Herbison is currently studying philosophy at Melbourne University, working as a freelance music journalist, and helps out at 3RRR FM in her spare time.
(Image: Dustin Hefford)
In each new lecture hall, classroom, and workplace, there’s a grip of anxiety which takes hold. The things that I care about the most cause great distress, and I’m left in a bundle of passion and anguish which I cannot seem to disentangle, as if anticipating that something is bound to go awry and that my successes will be found out as mere flukes. The sensation of ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is all too common for many people, but for individuals from minority groups who are working or learning in fields dominated by white men, the sting of invalidation is much more normalised, and all the more dangerous in its subtlety. The woman who puts her argument forward, only to have it interrupted, might think that it is because her idea is faulty, that it’s because she has reasoned poorly to arrive at such a conclusion. Consistently having your ideas undermined reinforces the idea that perhaps you’re just not any good at the whole thing. For a long time, my teachers encouraged me to contribute more, to which I’d reply with a shoulder shrug and smile, “I just feel like I learn more when I listen”. What I really meant by this, and which I didn’t come to realise for a long time, is that “I only feel safe in the academic space when I don’t run the risk of having my ideas unfairly shot down”.
I have always been sorely aware of my own presence, but this started to become something more sinister throughout high school. As a keen learner and passionate writer – I have enough embarrassing poetry journals to sustain a fire for weeks – I developed deep insecurities about my competence as a student. To give off a ‘chill girl’ vibe, seeing as the angsty teen poet was not a stereotype I wanted to embody (but inevitably ended up doing), I veered away from the things I had once loved the most. Pretending not to care, I showed up to literature class with a blasé attitude and disassociated myself completely. My writing style became convoluted – if I was marked poorly, then it was merely a reflection of my complexity rather than lack of skill. I continued to shroud my passions in communicative barriers to cope, which only fuelled the difficulty I faced in establishing myself in academic spaces later on.
Having moved schools to study philosophy, I remember our teacher sitting us down in a circle. We were each given two popsicle sticks as our intellectual currency: the red one bought you a moment to put forward your idea, and a green one allowed you a moment to ask a follow-up question to someone else’s idea. The community of inquiry model offers a way to ensure each person says something. But this method ignores the heart of the problem, which is the vast differences in power that each stick holds among depending on whose hands they are in.
Being interrupted, spoken for, and corrected before finishing your sentence, are experiences that are all too common for women who are speaking about topics that are traditionally dubbed as ‘masculine’. There’s something about campfires at shitty house parties that bring in all the men who have a self-appointed expertise on philosophy, despite never having read a word of it. In such situations, you can argue your point, and inevitably be told to ‘chill out’; or, take the ‘chill girl’ option, and have your integrity and knowledge in your field undermined. Having your capacity to be respected as a bearer of knowledge, particularly in your favoured domain, doubted in competitive environments is difficult to overcome. Being made to feel this way increases the likelihood of losing interest in the subject, and thus, contributing to an environment where invalidating and competitive behaviour is rewarded with success.
For me, the insidious nature of this phenomenon meant that it went unnoticed for far too long, and I considered dropping philosophy in my first year at university because of the way that competitive classmates and unruly environments have eroded my sense of belonging. Dealing with impostor syndrome is constant, and even as I move along in my years of study and work in fields that are dominated by men, it doesn’t really go away, it just shifts along to the next thing that I begin to value. Having tried meditation courses, it seems that the equanimity that mindfulness cultivates helps, but as a result, my passions also dwindle. Being stuck in a cycle where success and intrigue are intertwined with imposter syndrome makes it a truly exhausting experience. The self-doubt it creates can be a useful impetus to get things done, but such an anxiety-ridden incentive becomes a cruel internal pattern.
Finding women in similar situations became a pivotal way for me to process these feelings. There have been particular educators in my time as a student that have been acutely aware of balancing classroom dynamics, who have allowed each student to develop their own presence, as well as their own sense of importance. When I feel myself slipping back into the flurry of self-doubt, I try to remember that what I’ve achieved has come about through work, and not some sort of blessing that is running out. I remind myself that this anxiety isn’t a fault with my mind, and that this is something that has been engrained in me, and many others, from an early age. Perhaps we would do well to place more emphasis on how ideas are reached, so as to encourage the thought that people do not just inherently have great ideas. If we erode conceptions of inherently brilliant minds, then we open up the playing field, and allow people to develop skills in safer learning environments. The overwhelmingly competitive classroom acts as a free-for-all to soundboard ready-made opinions among the self-assured. No amount of green and red sticks can unravel the barbed embrace of imposter syndrome, but supporting the ideas of those around you, in a critical but validating way, is a good place to start.