Friday, July 25, 2008

Faking it

Edit: Apologies to Clarita, who should have been acknowledged for the photo used in this post.

During an exchange of emails with my MA programme course leader today, I had a proper, fullblown panic attack.

As you will know if you've been reading this blog for a while, I failed an assignment earlier this year. All my other assignments had been assessed as being of merit or distinction standard. This was the one I felt most confident about going in and I was utterly certain it would net me another distinction grade. The impact of that fail extended far beyond just the course and I have yet to get back on track.

My course leader was making enquiries about my progress and the exchange of emails forced me to look into the abyss.

I had to acknowledge that I felt humiliated. Unmasked as a fraud. Exposed as an imposter masquerading as a member of the intelligentsia.

To my surprise, I was informed that this is very common among female academics, this sense of being a fake, and this terror of being unmasked as such. Apparently this has been researched, although she did not reference her assertion (tut, tut).

Of course, I'm not really an academic - I'm the token corporate anomaly in the cohort, but the principle probably still applies. It's not a constant, though. I am not afraid to challenge a client's perceptions and I relish informed debate with other learning professionals (as long as it doesn't get ugly... then you won't see me for dust). In those situations, I ooze confidence.

So I'm curious. Do the other women out there secretly feel that they're faking it and fear discovery, or is that idea past it's sell-by date? And, come to that, do men actually feel the same deep down and just adopt a more pragmatic approach to that feeling?


Anonymous said...

One of my coworkers and I had a conversation a while back about the recurring feeling that we needed a "real grown up" to make the decisions or do the work. I don't think I have the same sense of being a fake as you're talking about, although I have heard of it. I do have moments where I feel a compulsion to check in with someone else and make sure what I'm doing is OK though, like asking for mommy's permission. It's very bizarre. I know I'm smart enough and learn quickly and have good skills, but I still have those times that I regress and feel like I'm 8 years old.

For me, it's enough to recognize that I have these feelings. I can identify them, and then I can take a deep breath and make the decision or whatever I need to do. It doesn't last long for me at this stage of my life, but I get the feeling more frequently when I'm extremely stressed.

I think it is a very common feeling. You're not a fraud though; you are you. In fact, you are more authentically you on your blog than many other people I read. You have the courage to let yourself be publicly vulnerable. You couldn't do that without the authenticity.

artichoke said...

Try Imposter Syndrome"

Have heard it talked about in a bit in gifted education .. especially when working with gifted girls/ women

Anonymous said...

As you said Karyn I am hanging in here. Allowing the rough patches to pass. Braving the storm but the dust is rising on many fronts, personal, professional. For past two days I have been thinking on similar things. I see life in its raw form and then I question my easy existence. Do I deserve the diamonds and the fine clothes? Do I deserve to take my kids to nice eating out places when so many kids roam with didtended bellies and hunger in theit eyes. Today I feel tears stinging my throat. Karyn, I saw a child begging and another small one on his or her hip(wore no upper garment but was so thin I could not figure out) Just as I tried to take out a banana and give it the cab moved and I had to throw it to preven him from coming near the traffic. The banana landed beneath the wheels of a coming vehicle and my cab moved. I prayed that no hurt came to the children. Just prayed Karyn and doubted my action. At that moment, all this work seemed so false so fickle. I do not know how right or wrong I was. Another version of the same feeling I guess. You know, I feel the same most of the timeS. I feel even when I have work and degrees to show, always there is the thought lurking , do I deserve this? Guss it is dissolved in the woman blood all across. The conditioning of not being worth it. Hugs

Anonymous said...

@christytucker Like you, I know I'm bright and I know I learn fast, but I totally relate to this "mommy's permission" thing. What the heck is that about? In my case, I wonder if it isn't as much as socioeconomic thing as a gender thing, and, without even checking, I am confident that people from poorer/rougher backgrounds are also prone to that sense of being a fake. It would be interesting to see if that has been researched, too.

As for having the courage to let myself be 'publicly vulnerable' - that might just as easily be a sign of naievete! I have neither the skill nor the appetite for subterfuge and dissembling and have always had this almost compulsive need to be absolutely up front about everything. I have had to learn discretion and it hasn't been easy.

@artichoke That must be it, then! ;o) Actually, jokes aside, I was in the gifted stream in primary school, until it was discontinued. And I did have it thrown in my face by teachers at high school that I was 'supposed to be' so intelligent, so why was I underperforming so spectacularly? In fact, that might even be part of my motivation to get this flipping MA in the first place - a bit "if they could see me now".

@rina I come from a broken home and my mother had to make a home for us in some rather unpleasant parts of town. Today, while I don't have diamonds, I am blessed with material affluence. I don't see that as being a gift, but a responsibility. As I see it, I am to use what I have to make a difference where I can. You can't change the world, but you can change part of it. Perhaps you should select a cause or two that you trust and believe in, and give them some of your time and money to change what you can.

Anonymous said...

@jago Don't know how I didn't see your comment until after posting my response above. Talk about courage - what about you? We seem to think of this as being a particularly female strength/weakness, this willingness to be honest about our fears. In the light of the pressure on men to hold it all together, and to be seen to be coping, I think it took more courage for you to share that than it did for me. Besides, as we seem to have established, I appear to suffer from compulsive disclosure disorder ;o)

Thanks for the encouragement!

Anonymous said...

Karyn, I don't know that this is necessarily more prevalent among women. I certainly have felt at times as though I didn't know as much or have as many skills as I'd like to, or as some people might think I have.

Carol Dweck has studied what she calls mindset, focusing on whether people think that talent/intelligence/what-have-you are inborn ("fixed"), or can be developed. (This is related to, though not the same as, Jago's comments on perfectionism.)

So people who take in a lot of messages about how they're supposed to act sometimes become fearful about falling short. For some young people, there's no burden heavier than a great potential.

If there's a generalized difference between the sexes in this area, it's probably that men tend not to talk about their feelings (or at least the apparently negative ones), either with others or with themselves.

Anonymous said...

Do I secretly feel that I'm faking it and fear discovery? Not anymore. For years I worked harder than I should have because I had higher than necessary expectations for myself. Experiences with bias also influenced me. I don't know what the tipping point was exactly but it occurred to me that I didn't need approval from anyone, didn't have to work harder, and that everybody else probably just played a better game. So I learned the rules of the game. While I still practically hurl when asked to speak as some kind of "expert," I end up laughing at my own insecurity. Why would I be any less an expert than someone else given an equivalent amount of experience in any given area? Experts disagree after all, and no one person is right. So where I once may have feared discovery for "faking it" (not having all the answers! imagine that!) I now see those moments as real development. I no longer give myself permission to feel bad.

Anonymous said...

@dave "no burden heavier than a great potential". This is very interesting. And I realise I am probably replicating the problem for my elder son. I must try to ease up on him so that he doesn't collapse under the burden of his own exceptional abilities.

The thing is, though, I have always seen talent as a responsibility, rather than a gift. I don't think you're supposed to hoard your gifts (or their fruits) to yourself. I think we're supposed to used them to serve (and yes, I know that's a cheesy word, but I am unrepentant in my use of it) one another. So having many talents means having many responsibilities. Ergo a heavy burden. Ineresting dilemma!

Anonymous said...

@janet How wonderfully grounded you are! Please can I come and spend some time with you so that it can rub off on me?

Jason Allen said...

Linda Silverman writes about not only women getting imposter syndrome, but Gifted people in general.
Also Barbara Sher has some amazing insight into it in "Refuse to Choose", which I really really really think you need to read before you make any career choice.
As for Imposter Syndrome (yes, there's a term for it), I get it all the time. It's just part of being Gifted.
I came into the training world as a full time Sales Trainer having done a grand total of 1 seminar in my life - for two people.
I beleive in the UK I would be called a "chancer"?
So, yes, I get hit with it all the time, but I just knew it was what I was supposed to do, and now I get told regularly by new hires that it's the best training they have ever had.
In the end, I guess I just "Fake it 'till I make it".
Seriously, take a look at the Barbara Sher book. Wonderful stuff.

Wendy said...

Karyn - I don't secretly feel like a poseur. I OPENLY feel like a poseur. I marvel at everyone else's maturity and intelligence - on the blogs and in person. Shoot - just look at the intelligent comments and feedback you received. As Christy pointed out, the best we can do is be most authentically ourselves. If we know or experience something - share. If not - ask. That whole "expert" thing is slowly getting outdated anyway. And, in my eyes, you really don't have to prove anything to anyone anymore. We see evidence of your skills each time you write on your blog.

Anonymous said...

@wendy Sincere thanks. Very kind of you to say so.

I am honestly often moved by the spirit of mutual encouragement that is in evidence in this corner of the edublogosphere.

Anonymous said...

and to jammasterjay's list, for some light reading, I'd add "I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!: Daily Affirmations With Stuart Smalley."

Jackie Cameron said...

So much of this excellent post and the comments resonates with me. When I was studying in my 30s each mark for each topic counted as a judgement of me - by me! Long story short but it was only when panic attacks were taking over my life that I realised that I kept moving the goal posts - and was not giving myself permission to celebrate my successes ( could have done better or there are other people better than me) nor recognise just how good I was at a lot of things. I know from my experience as a coach this is not just a female thing.

I know it is maybe a wee bit overused now - but I would urge anyone who hasn't already done so to read Marianne Williamson's poem "our greatest fear.." and consider how that relates to you.

Anonymous said...

@janet just that title inspires me!

@jackie Nelson Mandela read that poem as part of his inaugural speech. Most people (including me, until comparitively recently) didn't realise that he was reciting someone else's words.

John Zurovchak said...


What an interesting post and discussion regarding these feelings about being an impostor. I don't have any great words of wisdom regarding this feeling, although some observations from another realm came to mind while reading these posts. Some years ago, my wife took up golf lessons in order to enjoy what I call "a nice walk through a lovely park". Needless to say, I am not a good golfer, but I enjoy the beauty of most golf courses and the exercise that it brings. What I found interesting is that she would get so nervous on the golf course and feel that she did not belong. Often, I told her to look around at the men (me included!) and notice that we were not really any better at golf than she was - in fact most of us a quite poor golfers! The only difference is that I didn't care who was looking at me. While I knew I wasn't a good golfer, I still knew that I deserved to be on the course just like everyone else. Oddly enough, she could never get over the feeling of not being "good enough" to be on the course.

I attribute my strong self-esteem to my upbringing. My parents were both high school teachers and raised seven children on a modest teacher’s salary. We did not have expensive clothes, cars, or go on fancy vacations, but we also never felt the pain on hunger or the chill from a lack of clothing. While my parents never "pushed" us, expectations were high and in fact all seven children graduated from college with nearly all moving on to post-graduate work of some kind. I have never felt a fraud or that I would be "found out". I am sure that it came from my parents complete confidence in me and in reality who I was and who I am. Their love was unconditional and they made sure that each of us felt that way - what an accomplishment for a diverse family of seven kids!

I guess my point to you is more toward your statement regarding the heavy burden you feel you are placing on your son. My advice is simply to let him know that you support him and love him for who he is. It doesn't reduce expectations to any degree - gifts are a responsibility and high achievement should be expected - but it does allow him to be authentic in all that he does. From my own personal perspective - that leads to a strong sense of self, which has made all the difference.

Good luck!


Anonymous said...

@john Thanks so much for your comment. What you say makes a great deal of sense. I will ruminate over it.

With regard to your wife's experience: my previous line manager was a keen golfer, who played off a single digit handicap. One birthday, his wife gave him a series of lessons with a pro. These took place during work hours (don't worry - he was more than due the hours, with the amount of overtime he did), and he would regularly announce on his return, "There is obviously not a dirty dish or a creased shirt in the whole of [town name] because all the women in the town were out on the golf course!" As women, we encounter these attitudes regularly, and the perception that we have to be twice as good to be considered half as entitled has become quite entrenched as a result. Fortunately, that is now changing, but some are slower to change than others :o(.

I used to be like that about my squash. I hated playing on a glass-backed court, where my inadequacy was displayed. Now I don't give a hoot. I love to play, even though I am pretty poor at the game. If someone has nothing better to do than watch me botch my shots, well, how sad are they?