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.”
~Reg Smythe

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!”
—Lily Thomlin

But even after all this, some days it’s just damn exhausting to be smart and yet unable to solve problems.


  1. 3 September 2008 at 7:51

    […] Fraud (Andrea’s Buzzing About) […]

  2. David Howell said,

    30 January 2008 at 16:21

    So true of me. Very much true of me. Here’s some background:

    * I’m at one of the better universities in England. I deferred my entry by a year (having already spent an extra year in what you would call ‘high school’ taking a part-time load of extra classes while trying and failing to find a part-time job) owing to parental concerns over my ability to live independently (they outright stopped me the first time round, second time… they didn’t, but the damage was done), and my grades wouldn’t have got me in had I applied afresh (but they got me in the first time, and deferring was fine).
    * I was originally studying Economics. I wanted to transfer to the Econometrics stream, involving more mathematical content, as I thought that was what I was good at.
    * I later discovered I really wasn’t. And I mostly did well in my other courses – heck, I got a 68, which is a high mark in English universities (the requirement for the highest of four classifications is 70) in a unit for which I basically didn’t attend any lectures due to sensory overload (a class of 250!). My really good marks were mostly in essay-based courses, including the two in Politics I did in the first semester.
    * However, I had it in my head still that I was mathematically minded above all else, and that my essay marks were inflated for various reasons. And I had a few perceptions, none of which have gone – being able to write more in exams because I’m entitled to a computer due to unclear handwriting and on a PC keyboard my wpm number is well up into the upper 60s on a bad day, examiners deliberately singling me for higher marks because my student ID number (due to deferring) is readily recognisable (the second digit is 0, almost everyone else’s in my cohort is 1), or just essay subjects being plain objectively easier. The worst thing is, there was quantifiable evidence of the last of these that I had encountered – it’s linked on my blog, so no need to point a link in a comment, but the précis is that there’s a discrepency between science and humanities degrees of close to 10 hours per week workload (we’re talking low 30s against low-to-mid 20s here, though with much variation between institutions).

    In short: doing better in essay subjects + essay subjects having apparently lower workload => essay subjects easier, .: failure in maths => generalised inability and success in essays => too-low standards.

    Somewhere in this conundrum is the fact that grade inflation is a big issue in England, just as I gather it is in the States. The only problem is that almost nobody’s picked up on it being an issue at the university level – *everyone* knows it’s a problem at school level, because the results are nationally published in August and the media pounce on it in the absence of alternative hard news. Indeed, my grades were sufficient one year but not the next for almost precisely that reason – the entry requirements are rising as more people get higher grades and the top universities (who demand top grades anyway and now have too many people getting them) are having to rely ever more on entrance exams now, because they can’t filter any more on school results.

    There’s a lot more, but I shall spare you it for now. And yes, I’m constantly chasing accuracy, and end up drawing conclusions from data (which I’m normally *good* at) wrongly. And does that mean I suck at that too? Infinite loop!

  3. medrecgal said,

    14 June 2007 at 23:01

    OMG…you just described my life! “Overeducated but underemployed”…
    “can seem intelligent but can’t do the simplest tasks others can do”…. YIKES!!! It was so totally reminiscent of all those occasions when some manager at a job would say, “But you’re obviously bright; how come you are having such a hard time getting a handle on this?” There were times when school, too, was this way, and now I don’t feel so God-awful because I know there are others out there who have the same sort of experience. It totally deflates any sort of self-confidence you might have managed to build up…and then they wonder why you get so frustrated.

    Wildly varying strengths and weaknesses…that’s me in a nutshell. It drove my instructors in college crazy, and forget about a boss or manager ever understanding it. If you can’t give them exactly what they want, no amount of explanation is going to help in most situations. And yet, I persist in trying to find that niche. Maybe I’m the one who’s crazy, after all…

  4. 14 June 2007 at 0:14

    You just described my grad school experience to a t, but this garbage *still* plagues me, long after grad school. It helps me to know that others go through it-not wishing them ill, but seeing it’s part of being human, especially when one has impairments.

  5. 13 June 2007 at 21:52

    […] June 13th, 2007 at 2:52 pm (Uncategorized) Is distilled in this post […]

  6. Geosomin said,

    8 June 2007 at 15:29

    heh..spellcheck? me? that’s umpossible :)

  7. Geosomin said,

    8 June 2007 at 15:28

    The more I learn and the longer I work in an academic setting after university, the more I realise a lot of people are just like me- they know somethings but are kind of winging it to figure out the rest…just enjoy the learning and be honest. I find I impress more people by exceeding my average expectations thatn offering them the moon and fizzling out half way there. Banging your head a bit and hard learning is the best way to get there…the gifted people are lucky, but I think the effort I take to get there makes it all the better when I do. :)

    It get better!

  8. qw88nb88 said,

    8 June 2007 at 15:13

    I don’t feel like a “fraud” so much any more, but I certainly did for much of my adult life, and in graduate school.

  9. elfie said,

    7 June 2007 at 19:46

    World’s most ridiculous imposter here. I worry about this for all three of my kids, the NT, the aspie, and the autistic one. Becoming at home with yourself, and not worrying about what’s under the bridge (like getting into a program – that’s DONE, now worry about staying in it) take tremendous practice, regardless of who you are. Being different makes it worse. But it also provides strength in the end, if you can tap that.

    Let me tell you, you belong. As Daedalus said, find where you feel it and you will be half-way there. But don’t let the uncomfortable feeling of having to work a mask keep you from accomplishing things that you can. I’m (purportedly) neurotypical, and I have felt this way COUNTLESS times at countless gatherings or in countless groups. Keep moving forward, and you will work your way into it.

  10. Joeymom said,

    7 June 2007 at 17:58

    Yep, that’s my life to a T. And then when I finally did get a real job, I had to give it up to run my kids to therapies. I do a lot of contracting with ETS, but even that doesn’t work well for everybody.

  11. daedalus2u said,

    7 June 2007 at 16:14

    In my opinion, the “trick”, is to find, (or make), a place where you do belong.

    Usually that means excluding people who don’t want to play by rules that are “fair” to everyone, not rules that just favor them.

    Maybe you can’t make the whole world that way, but if you have just one place in your life where you do belong, that refuge can make the rest of the world more endurable.

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