How can I overcome my fear of self-promotion?
April 2, 2011 10:43 PM   Subscribe

How can I get better at promoting myself and my work, without dwelling on my failures or fearing I'll be judged?

I'm a graduate student in the third year of a science Ph.D. program. I have impostor syndrome in spades, to the point where it's becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. A few examples:

- I cringe when I'm asked to fill out applications for fellowships or report my accomplishments over the last week/quarter/year; all I can think about are my failures, my procrastination, and the things I could have done but didn't.

- My desire to communicate about science is one of my main motivations for studying it, yet I can't bring myself to promote my own blog, for fear of seeming arrogant or presumptuous. (Once I made some comment at the end of a post suggesting that readers who enjoyed the blog should consider passing it along to other people who like that sort of thing, and I felt bad for ages about having been so shamelessly self-promotional.)

- I can't even bring myself to fill out online profiles or biographies (even in non-academic contexts like social networking sites.) Choosing a few words or paragraphs that will give a good first impression--not too grandiose, not too wordy, not too self-absorbed, not too self-deprecating--seems like an impossible task. And I fear if I put my research interests in a profile, people will assume more expertise than I have.

The fact that anything I do online is likely to be searchable forever to any potential employers or colleagues just adds to the terror.

Obviously, my hangups about self-promotion are likely to be extremely problematic for my career, whether it's in academia or science journalism. Please help me find some strategies for acknowledging my own successes.
posted by cortisol to Work & Money (11 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
I'm kind of the same way. Actually, not kind of, totally. One of the ways I am handling it is this: ask yourself what you fear more, self-promoting or abject poverty. I find that the former is far preferable to the latter.

It might help to have someone help you identify positive traits / successes you've had and go from there. This has helped me. A friend, lover, or mentor can help. There have to be other people who recognize the amazing person that you are who would be willing to help.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 12:27 AM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

To answer your question - I'd say, to keep trying and don't mind the failures that you'll be getting. The feeling of failing sucks that sometimes people become depressed because of it, but the truth is, failing is just another part of your path to success. Just don't stop and don't give up because based on personal experience, the feeling of giving up is worse than the feeling of failing because in failing, you actually tried.

Innovate yourself - this is what most people lack the most because they are afraid of being judged. In this era, we need innovation the most.

Most successful people became successful because they innovate (Gates, Zuckerberg and so on).

You can do it!
posted by Johnkx at 1:00 AM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Are there people you admire, either professionals in your field or friends and acquaintances in your personal life? Ask them about how they got to where they are; they undoubtedly experienced failures along the way. Perhaps hearing about their experiences and how they handled it might make you feel more at ease with your own journey towards success.

Alternately: Google impressive and famous people. You will find all kinds of things that they've done wrong over the years that didn't stop them from becoming impressive and famous people.
posted by wansac at 2:30 AM on April 3, 2011

I cringe at a lot of this stuff too and suffered considerable anxiety in grad school over it. I've found basically three ways to attack the problem that work for me:

1) After many, many years of practice admitting to and LOLing at my own occasional but sometimes pretty noticeable foolishness, I can finally look at the things that are less foolish and think, hey, that's not bad at all. Saying "mea culpa" over something that really is kind of dumb helps draw the line for what's actually pretty good.

2) If I focus on how something I'm saying about myself genuinely addresses what someone else wants it to say, e.g. to promote my organization or figure out how I might help them or make their event look good or whatever, then I am more comfortable with it. "This isn't for me--it's something very practical that is for 'them.'"

3) Keep telling yourself "it's all just work." Yes, you are working in a field where the work is often driven by your own research interests, which feel very personal, and people do take your work as somehow representative of who "you" are. But in your own mind, try not to invest more than you would if the work were merely an interesting assignment handed to you by a client or a manager or something.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 2:40 AM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It might help to remind yourself that you have no business trying to dictate or control other people's reaction to you or the things you do. You are only half of any given social interaction. The other half has the right to judge you, think of you as arrogant or presumptuous, that you're overselling yourself, self-absorbed, or have nothing much to offer. Nothing you do can possibly keep you safe from other people's judgment, and in fact the more hoops you jump through in the effort to control other people's reactions to you, the more those others will want to rebel, to throw off those shackles. All you can do is be the best that you can be, present yourself honestly and clearly, and let others decide if they want to have anything to do with you.

As to self-promotion specifically (and I'm going to paraphrase a quote I heard somewhere but can't place exactly), an advertisement is basically a matter of holding up a sign that says "Cortisol available here," and waiting for someone who needs a Cortisol to happen along. No matter how great you are, not everyone needs a Cortisol today, and that's okay. You're not trying to sell yourself to everybody; you're just making yourself visible to someone else who might need someone like you. Again, you are only half of any given interaction. You can't manage other people's priorities, interests or choices, and you shouldn't try.

I know that such anxiety can be terribly compelling, but consider what life would be like if you could actually control other people the way you're trying to. Everyone would love you, but only because you'd made them love you. It would totally suck.
posted by jon1270 at 2:59 AM on April 3, 2011 [12 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm well familiar with the idea that failure is a step on the path to success and a necessary part of the learning experience (which is not to say that the advice on dealing with failure isn't useful.) I just have a lot of trouble internalizing that idea, especially when I feel like the failure could have been avoided if I'd worked harder.

jon1270, you make some really excellent and helpful points about not trying to control other peoples' reactions to me. Once I've dealt with the fear of seeming arrogant and presumptuous, though, I'm left with the fear that I'm actually being arrogant and presumptuous, which seems like a bad thing regardless of others' reactions.
posted by cortisol at 3:22 AM on April 3, 2011

Most people will take you as seriously as you take yourself. If you provide a description of your abilities and achievements – or, if you prefer, a list of interests and areas of research – no-one is going to bat an eye.

And if they do, so what? You can't go through life agonising over others' perception of you, as jon1270 points out.

But I do agree: you don't need to make public appeals to people to pass on the news of your blog. That comes off as desperate. If you write a good blog, people will come. As far as promotion of it is concerned, I'd allow myself a one-off mass e-mailing or message to facebook friends to announce its existence. Don't claim that it's the greatest blog since Popwatch and a must-read for all in your field. Just lay out the facts: you're blogging on whatever subject(s) and people are invited to take a look.
posted by londongeezer at 3:47 AM on April 3, 2011

I got over imposter syndrome when I realized that no one is as good as they look on paper (or as they present themselves).

And it was really disappointing, because it was the loss of an ideal.
posted by vitabellosi at 4:34 AM on April 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

I don't know about the first two things, because I sort of do those too. But for your third thing, about profiles and bios, try this. Write a few of them in the various forms you might need (serious, fun, impressive, joke-filled, whatever.) When you're writing them, pretend you're a PR person, like someone else (you) has hired this PR person to make them look good. Save all of these in a document. When you need one, open your document, copy and insert appropriate bio, roll your eyes at yourself once, and move on. It may be treating the symptom instead of the internal problem, but it drastically reduces the time you'll spend worrying that you sound like a tool.

Also, londongeezer is right about taking yourself seriously. And I agree with vitabellosi about other people's representations of themselves on paper, except that I love that. If you spend some time reading other people's bios, you realize that everyone puts only the good things, they can't all truly be that fabulous. Which is great, because it means you don't have to be either.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 5:20 AM on April 3, 2011

I'm left with the fear that I'm actually being arrogant and presumptuous

Oh, so arrogance and presumptuousness are now measurable, objective qualities? I'm not so sure about that.

Consider the possibility that you're wrong about the cause of your anxiety. If you could somehow be positive that you were neither arrogant nor presumptuous, would you feel immediate and lasting relief, or would your anxiety simply refocus itself elsewhere?

Consider that this is just a slight variation on the question you asked in the fall of 2007, when you first started this program. You're approaching a new phase of your life, you've gotten a little myopic about it, you're terrified that you're about to irretrievably fuck something up, and you're trying to micromanage the outcome.

If you're serially anxious about one thing after another, then anxiety itself is the problem and you should deal with it directly. Get out of the house. Exercise. Meditate. Adopt a mantra. Trying to eliminate each individual source of anxiety is like fighting a hydra.
posted by jon1270 at 6:45 AM on April 3, 2011

Best answer: Pretend you're doing it for someone else.

For instance, you probably have a friend or family member who you think is awesome and brilliant. When it's time to fill out an application or brag about an achievement, pretend you're doing it on this person's behalf. You're likely to be enthusiastic in a non-bragging way, in a way that you might feel awkward about if you were doing it for yourself. Give it a try, it's amazing how well this can work.
posted by chickenmagazine at 7:25 PM on April 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

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