I don’t belong here. Maybe I should have applied at a different department; Professor N was just being nice to write me a letter of recommendation. I don’t even know what those rec letters said; what if they were just so much “social noise” and I’m not really cut out for graduate school?
I am not getting these party jokes at all. Are they inside jokes? Are they related to people’s research? Is it a department joke? Just smile and move along…
I’ll never be able to cope with all this stuff. Omigod, they’ve added so much stuff to animal biology since I studied it years ago. I can’t believe I just got a B grade in biochemistry without knowing all these details.
How come everyone else seems to know what’s going on? Did I miss something on Orientation Day? Just act sharp and keep your mouth shut; hopefully somebody will mention something.
There’s too many people here to remember! But they all know each other. Just smile and ask “How’s it going”; maybe some clue will be mentioned.
My advisor says I ask too many questions. I thought he was there to advise me?
Oh no! How will I make it through four semesters of statistics? I’ve always been terrible at the maths. That A in Calculus wasn’t normal for me; we just had a really good teacher. I can’t hardly do these life table calculations without getting numbers turned around!
I feel like such a fake. I was just lucky. That was just an isolated event — it won’t happen again.
“You have no idea what a poor opinion I have of myself, and how little I deserve it.”
It’s not just me. This is what we call “Imposter Syndrome”. Often mentioned in the context of gifted individuals, and high-achieving women, it’s also seen in quite a different population.
People with disabilities sometimes feel this way. Because of the inconsistency and unpredictability of success, we’re never quite sure if we’ll be able to “pull it off” again. It’s not just about, “Will I be able to walk across this room without stumbling or crashing into something” or “Can I make it through this exam without my brain freezing up or the lighting driving me nutz”. Every major event and accomplishment in life, in school and in personal social life and getting a job and doing a job and professional groups and volunteer work, feels like that.
“When they’re around the regular kids, they are never fast enough or smart enough or acceptable enough. This is an exhausting way to live.”
~Mary Sharp, MD
We also feel that way because of the often wildly varying strengths and weaknesses. It’s hard for others to understand just why a person can seem intelligent, and be able to do some things so well (even very complex things), and yet fail to be able to do the “simplest” things that “everyone can do”. Or, not be able to do them consistently. You just can’t feel confident when you never know when your brain and/or your body is going to unexpectedly fail you. Especially if you’ve not had difficulties diagnosed, and don’t know why those glitches happen.
Or, learning and development is asynchronous, so even though the same things are accomplished, they are not done in the same time frame or manner as other people, so you still feel like a failure in comparison to your peers at the time. Your mental accounting fails to get updated with the new data, and you haven’t forgotten their snide remarks and your foundering trials.
Sometimes, our strengths aren’t always the academic sort, so they’re not necessarily recognised. “I’m really good at seeing the underlying patterns in things, and making connections between wildly disparate things.” So what? We need someone with a background in PCR. “I can manipulate three-dimensional objects in my head, and pack more stuff into a space than anyone else!” What’s the use of that? We need you to learn SAS program coding.
“Further, the importance of a particular strength or weakness depends upon what is being asked of the learner. This is why, for example, a youngster with perfect pitch who has difficulty recognizing letters is seen as disabled, but a child who is tone deaf but can read words easily is not.”
~David H. Rose & Anne Meyer
Sometimes we’re so focused on accuracy, on pursuing “real” information, that we over-emphasize truthfulness, even in social settings where complete honesty or extra information is not wanted. Or we become too devoted to accuracy as perfectionism, striving obsessively to be as accurate, precise, complete, and detailed as possible in an effort to ward off failure.
So here we are, too often overeducated, yet underemployed. No matter how varied a résumé gets piled up, no matter what a variety or number of classes we pull through, it never seems to be enough. We own our failures large and setbacks small, but feel like the natural successes and triumphs borne of struggle were due to random, external events.
What a mess!
It takes a lot of untangling, of separating fears from events. Just because you feel like you’re stupid, doesn’t mean you are. Just because some people are better than you at some things does not mean that everyone is better than you at everything. Indeed, we have to forgive ourselves for simply being human. Forgive ourselves for not “measuring up”, by realising that the necessary qualities of humans are different from those in board lumber. Instead of dwelling upon and getting stuck upon problems, setbacks and “failures”, we need to remember that those are opportunities for learning what to do differently. Sometimes these are opportunities for changing the world, because when people cannot succeed in human-made situations and environments, it’s not the fault of the person, but the way it was set up! Not only that, but we must learn to expect common respect, and to ask for help from others as equals (not as beggers). We also give help by sharing our strengths with others, and by working with people. We must remember that life is not a race from one destination point to another, but rather that life is the journey.
“The sad thing about the rat race is that even if you win the race, you’re still a rat!”
But even after all this, some days it’s just damn exhausting to be smart and yet unable to solve problems.