Please help me make peace with my inadequacy.
February 25, 2012 7:26 AM   Subscribe

Please help me make peace with my inadequacy, because it's killing me.

I'm a postdoc in the humanities at good North American university. I was hired with a bunch of other postdocs, and I am increasingly convinced that I'm the gigantic dud of the lot. They are smarter, wittier, think more quickly on their feet, know more stuff, are more outgoing. They follow complex arguments to their conclusions much more quickly than I can, and they ask much more penetrating questions; they bring more insights and thoughts to the table. They have better and more coherent research agendas. (I know that they are at least more coherent than mine). It doesn't help that my work is on a topic that's ultimately much smaller and narrower than the others: as a result, they're able to talk broadly about their research in ways which many people can engage with, while I think I sound like a one-trick pony. It doesn't help that I'm younger than every humanities postdoc I know (I'm 26), and I feel that I just haven't had enough time to be as awesome as my peers -- but also that I will never get there, because I'm just genuinely less intelligent and quick. I also feel that people think I know a lot, but I really don't, even about things which I should know about. I frequently feel I have little or nothing to bring to conversations. I desperately try to read more and learn more, and I put a great deal of pressure on myself to be less of a worthless drain, but I always feel like I'm lagging behind, and I'm stressing out so much that my performance in my program is probably suffering.

I also feel that I make a huge number of social and professional gaffes. I say things to senior scholars and peers that make me cringe in retrospect. I spend a lot of time after some encounter or event being quietly mortified, and panicky about the many ways in which I royally embarrassed myself. I've always been regarded as very smart, an extremely engaged conversationalist, a good scholar. But around here I frequently feel thick as molasses. I somehow feel as though back in my old university I was insulated from the world, and in my little pool I was hot stuff, but now I'm in the real deal ocean, and I'm drowning. Some days are better than others; I'll feel like I'm on top of my game at one event or conversation, and the next minute I'll crash and burn hard.

I am also constantly anxious and terrified that I'm not living up to expectations: not producing enough good work, not far along enough in my proposed research. I feel like the gap between what people perceive I'll be doing, and what I am actually capable of doing, is so insurmountably large that I sometimes feel like just running away so no one will find me out. I manage to hold it together mostly, but I think that it's only a matter of time before they all realize they hired a dud. I think my thesis is shoddy and possibly unsalvageable. I have barely started the research I was hired to do, because I've had so many other things on my plate (the thesis book proposal; an article I'm writing which I've found incredibly difficult to write; a workshop I'm running, at which I am session by session publicly demonstrating my embarrassingly poor teaching/class management skills; numerous conferences; etc). I am having trouble juggling my various projects, allocating my time effectively and managing the directions of my research. Meanwhile my fellow peers are giving job talks, publishing papers, teaching, giving amazing presentations, impressing the department with their good-natured brilliance, and generally being more awesome than I am increasingly realising I could ever be.

Am I crazy? How can I make peace with my crapness? How for the love of god can I stop feeling so anxious, mortified, horrified and frightened all the time? (Literally, I will be walking down the street and stop and be suddenly seized with a spasm of horror at some memory of an embarrassing encounter, or of my ineptitude. This happens a LOT.) I love scholarship, I love reading and thinking and working things out for myself. But I'm being crushed by the pressure, and I freely admit and know that most of it is pressure I put on myself -- precisely because I feel so inadequate. Please help: how can I both FEEL and BE less inadequate, as a junior academic? I'd love to hear from you particularly if you're in academia and know where I'm coming from, but even if your'e not.
posted by starcrust to Education (31 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
Please Google "impostor syndrome." Nearly everyone in academia feels this way at some time it another.
posted by gerryblog at 7:43 AM on February 25, 2012 [12 favorites]


First, therapy for self-esteem issues.

Secondly, while I'm just a master's student (likewise humanities, good NA school), almost everyone I talk to feels this way. (I'd be a little surprised if the doctorate students weren't having these same conversations themselves.) In fact, I literally had the masters version of this conversation with one of my peers whom I think is one of the strongest in our program, and she said nearly everything you just did. I think you're probably in good company.

Right after you make an appointment to talk to a counselor (that's what they're there for!), start practicing being kind to yourself. I used to beat myself up on a regular basis for not saying the perfect thing all the time, for putting my foot in it sometimes, etc. The thing is, we're all human. We all flub. Unless it was something truly horrific (racist, homophobic, etc.), don't let yourself dwell. Think about it once, making a mental note about what you'd not like to repeat, and then forcibly change your direction of thought. Read something. Call someone. Write something. When the niggling thought comes back, redirect your thoughts elsewhere.

You can do it! You belong there and are no doubt doing good work.
posted by smirkette at 7:45 AM on February 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have this belief that when you try to be perfect, all you get is an overwhelming awareness of your imperfections.

You sound a lot like me, so for what it is worth, here is what helped me:

1. Therapy and anti-anxiety medication. The rumination and the negative self-talk can still be there, but the volume is turned down enough that I can say to the negativity, "I'm not going to be listening to your opinions on this."

2. Exercise. Really, my psychiatrist told me he sees spikes in depression in the winter months because people are getting less sunlight and are exercising less.

3. I've been taking an executive leadership course where we have used a number of psychological instruments (i.e. Meyers-Briggs, FIRO-B, etc.)t hat have shown me that one of the reasons I tend to be prone to "be walking down the street and stop and be suddenly seized with a spasm of horror at some memory of an embarrassing encounter, or of my ineptitude." This has helped me to realize that I'm not the only one who does this, and that when I do, it is just my brain wiring being my brain wiring, which allows me to say to myself, "Heh, there you go again" and move on. Which brings me to:

4. "be walking down the street and stop and be suddenly seized with a spasm of horror at some memory of an embarrassing encounter, or of my ineptitude" What are you basing your belief that you are inept on? Often, when I catch myself doing this, I find it is really me accepting uncritically and without any examination, what my brain is telling me, and if I allow myself to think about it, I find that I'm not really basing these thoughts on reality.

5. I fired my instant reply guy, you know, the one in your head who loves to look at all of your perceived bloopers? Get rid of him. He does you no favors.

I hope this helps. All the best to you.
posted by 4ster at 7:45 AM on February 25, 2012 [10 favorites]


gerryblog beat me to it. He is absolutely correct. I would not be surprised if most if not all of the other post docs feel the same way.
posted by holdkris99 at 7:46 AM on February 25, 2012


Not in academia, but you said feedback from others is OK. I'll keep it short, though. You are wonderfully detailed in explaining why you feel the way you do, showing that it is not (only) social anxiety or feelings of insecurity. And I notice you mention that you work hard to catch up in your field, but have you tried devoting some time to reading about how people deal with the world in general. For instance, have you heard of Howard Gardner's "Multiple Intelligences" theory, or the Myers-Briggs personality indicators? FWIW, I find that people I interact with on a day to day basis, and I myself, do seem to show differences in their strengths and weaknesses, and in how they are more comfortable dealing with challenges. I use this both to try to understand why others are not like me, and also how I will never be like some other people. It also (for me) explains the importance of team building approaches in any endeavor (strengths of one compensate for weakness in another, and vice versa). My 2 cents.
posted by forthright at 7:47 AM on February 25, 2012


I'm on the TT in math, and I used to be regularly concerned that someone was going to eventually figure out that I have no idea what I'm doing. A friend in another discipline said something to me that has stuck with me. "You got a PhD. They don't just give those out to anybody." It's helped me a lot.

Are there going to be times that you feel like you don't know enough? You bet. Welcome to 'the life of the mind'. We're all trying to figure things out; that's an academic's job. We're wrong a lot. And I learned in grad school that quick thinking isn't what gets research done.
posted by monkeymadness at 7:53 AM on February 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Best answer: I think the best antidote to feeling inadequate and horribly embarrassed all of the time is to talk to other people. It is very reassuring to tell a good friend about the incident that you've been torturing yourself about for weeks and have them say, essentially, "Oh, is that all? That doesn't sound so awful." It's really easy to get so freaked out that every tiny mistake feels like the apocalypse. You can lose your sense of scale; talking to other people is what helps you find it again.

Do you have good friends outside of academia? Are you close to your parents or your siblings or other folks in your family? Call them up and go, "Ugh, you won't believe what I said in the seminar I was leading today--" and then tell them about it. I promise they won't think it is horrifying as you do. Not because they can't understand academia, but because they've got a bit of distance on it.

I think you should also talk to other academics. Are you still close to any of your undergrad professors? Could you write them a note that says, "Hey, I just got hired as a post-doc at Such and Such University and I'm feeling a little out of my depth. Did you ever feel like that when you were starting out? Do you have any advice for how to do this better?" And I would think you should go talk to people in your program too. If you get a chance, have a beer with the other post-docs or something. I bet you'll find that they don't feel as composed and brilliant as you think they do.
posted by colfax at 8:06 AM on February 25, 2012


Best answer: Others have given good advice, so I just want to add this observation...

Your description of your work: the thesis book proposal; an article I'm writing which I've found incredibly difficult to write; a workshop I'm running, at which I am session by session publicly demonstrating my embarrassingly poor teaching/class management skills; numerous conferences; etc.

Your description of other people's work: giving job talks, publishing papers, teaching, giving amazing presentations, impressing the department with their good-natured brilliance.

If you take out the hate-talk when you describe your own work, you see that you and your peers are doing exactly the same stuff.

Yeah, maybe you're still working on your thesis, whereas the older ones have more time to dedicate directly to the postdoc research right now, but your skills and knowledge are equal to theirs.

You do not have a problem with being inadequate. You only have a problem with thinking you are inadequate.
posted by dumdidumdum at 8:18 AM on February 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Best answer: You finished your Ph.D. in the humanities at 26? Cripes, you're a rockstar.

It doesn't help that I'm younger than every humanities postdoc I know (I'm 26), and I feel that I just haven't had enough time to be as awesome as my peers -- but also that I will never get there, because I'm just genuinely less intelligent and quick

To quote a professor on Mefi, there are only two types of people that matter in academia. It's not "intelligent and quick vs. not" it's "disciplined, hard-working, humble, driven, and passionate, on the one hand; and entitled, undisciplined, self-important, dreamers on the other. "

It's hard. You are going to have to cultivate a certain sense of entitlement and determination where you aren't intimidating by how glib your colleagues are but proving that you can outpublish them and be even more determined than they are to get the choice academic positions.

(Literally, I will be walking down the street and stop and be suddenly seized with a spasm of horror at some memory of an embarrassing encounter, or of my ineptitude. This happens a LOT.)

You're not the only one who feels this about themselves. Keep in mind that you are the only person in those encounters who remembers them.
posted by deanc at 8:18 AM on February 25, 2012 [7 favorites]


All the advice so far has been excellent. I'm in academia in the humanities, still at the graduate level. Colfax made a really important point about having a group of friends who you can run some of these feelings by: heed this advice! It took me a little while, but I've assembled a group of amazing friends in my program and we often have powwows where we just dissect this type of stuff and reassure eachother that no, we are not pathetic and stupid, and that no, these little gaffes we each imagine as being horrible are not in fact a big deal at all! This has been totally sanity-saving.

I totally understand where you are coming from, and imposter syndrome is a real thing. Everyone feels this at some point, unless they are a total egomaniac! It helps me to have a little mantra. One that works well for me is "You're are smart and capable. Everything will be okay." Cheesy, but it works. YMMV.

I hope you get some relief from all this anxiety soon. I would urge you to take advantage of any mental health services you can get on campus because they see this kind of stuff often. I wish you the best.
posted by araisingirl at 8:25 AM on February 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Correction: You are going to have to cultivate a certain sense of entitlement and determination where you aren't intimidated by how glib your colleagues are
posted by deanc at 8:28 AM on February 25, 2012


Your question is not the work of an inadequate person--it's quite the reverse.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 8:46 AM on February 25, 2012


Best answer: You're in a difficult spot. Going from being one of the brightest in your group to being surrounded by people who are as smart as you and more experienced can be a blow, especially if your self-worth is tied to believing that you are pretty darn smart. I know this. And then you get nervous and intimidated and your thoughts are less clear and you start to think you're not so bright after all.

But of course the others can speak differently about their work. They have had more years to think about it. Their brains have had time to forge more pathways. Half the time those nimble solutions they appear to pull out of thin air are likely related things they've studied before.

Can you talk to a trusted adviser or professor about whether or not you are meeting the expectations of your program? Not how your work measures up to everyone else's. Though you could maybe talk about those concerns too.

You could also try to shift your story about what is happening here from "intellectual runt of the pack" to "lucky dog who gets to run with people who have had more time with this than I have". Ask questions. Admire. Don't be afraid to say "I've never heard of that, tell me more," or "I'm so jealous of your presentation skills, I'd really love to ask for your advice on this upcoming talk I'm working on." Therapy and meds might help that shift become a little easier.

I'm not in academia but I'm in a group where knowledge counts for a lot and getting things done counts too. When I first started I felt much like you. I still struggle with that feeling on bad days. But I've watched total newbies waltz in and be curious, open, and willing to learn and ask questions and totally win respect for their hard work and interest in what we do.

Also - build something into your life besides this program. Do something that makes you feel awesome on weekends or evenings. If you just kicked ass running a marathon or walking dogs or doing your open mike thing that good feeling and confidence will help carry you through.
posted by bunderful at 8:47 AM on February 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


deanc is right on the money.

I attended a school for communications with students in two "tracks": those who were there for a one-year master's in technical communication (that was me) and those who were going for their Ph.D.'s. While I was there, I met a young woman (younger than many of the other students) who was very bright and insightful but struggled (I believe) with depression and self-esteem issues quite a bit. She was in the Ph.D. program and had a difficult time with many aspects of the program: some people were naturally "better" writers, others were polished speakers of the kind the OP describes, and so on. But she hung in and chose a dissertation topic that she believed in deeply. In other words: she was the tortoise among many, many hares.

She now has a Ph.D. and teaches at a prestigious university.
posted by Currer Belfry at 8:52 AM on February 25, 2012


Best answer: Your anxiety is just bursting off the page; it's making me feel panicky! It sounds like across the board, you are comparing yourself to others (who are probably mostly years older than you) rather than to your own usual rate of progress. You also sound incredibly afraid of failing; I almost feel like maybe you need to let things go a bit for a while so you can see either that if you relax, you won't fail...or that if you do fail, it isn't the end of the world.

It sounds like you need more guidance and mentoring, but that perhaps you're afraid to ask for it because you want to look self-sufficient and like you have all the answers, like you suspect everyone around you does. My guess is that they're not as on top of things as you think...or that they're falling behind in areas of their lives you don't know about. Maybe they're doing amazing work but neglecting a spouse and kids to get there.

And along those lines, what are you doing to relax and get perspective? If you really just can't let go of things, even walking down the street, you need to find a way to offload and manage your anxiety, whether that's scheduling specific times for work and banishing all thoughts of it otherwise or even seeing a therapist to talk through some of it (and I don't usually recommend therapy, but you sound like you're kind of screaming out for it).

Also: Good first step in writing it all down for us. Now organize it: What can you control or change about what you're doing? What could others change to help you (or what could you consult others for help with, and along the way build some of those relationships you envy among others)?
posted by limeonaire at 9:26 AM on February 25, 2012


I recognize so much of myself in your question. - I'm waking up this morning after a presentation yesterday that probably went FINE, but I can't shake the negative thinking "OH, you were so awful, your bosses were so disgusted...". You are not at all alone in feeling the way you do, but please recognize that these feelings are well beyond the scope of normal self-critique. You are being very very hard on yourself. I started seeing a therapist some time ago to deal with these emotions, and it has helped a great deal.

I also asked some of my colleagues out for a drink after yesterday's presentation and screwed up my courage to say "So, I always feel awful about myself after these things...I'm probably being stupid..." and was SHOCKED when several of them said "Oh, me too! I'm always sure that I look like an idiot! But don't feel stupid, we're just under a lot of pressure...". Turns out I'm not nearly as alone as I think.

It also sometimes comforts me to think that people are generally far too preoccupied with themselves to notice or remember the little gaffes that I make...if everyone else spends even half the time I do thinking about themselves and their own actions, they probably don't have much space to be contemplating little ol' me and the stupid comment I made at that gala last week.

Please seek out a therapist - your school likely has programs that can help you with this. And is there someone overseeing your group that you could speak to, to get a real assessment of how you're doing, and to whom you could reveal some of the stresses you're under?

I just want to give you a big ol' internet hug. Good luck. Dealing with these feelings is not easy - good for you for reaching out this way - please take your mental health seriously enough to follow through and get some help.
posted by stray at 9:51 AM on February 25, 2012


Best answer: I was a lot like you during my PhD program. A large part of my problem was related to the program being not a good fit, a lack of support from my advisor, and a series of personal problems. If these things are not issues for you (adjusting for the fact that you're a post-doc), then you really need to just work on your anxiety and confidence. Therapy may help. It didn't help me with my anxiety, but I did learn some time management skills which were ultimately helpful.

One thing that helped was that, indeed, I was not the only person feeling this way. In fact the most brilliant person in my cohort would obsess over her comments during seminars, her papers, everything. But she was able to channel her anxiety in ways that I was not (productive ways), which got me thinking - why was I not as productive? Why did I feel like m wheels were constantly spinning? I needed to focus on one "issue" at a time, tackle it, master it, then move on. It sounds like you are doing too many things at once, trying to level-up to perfection/your perception of you peers... but reserving most of your energy for attacking yourself. You are going to want to flip that on its head.

A good place to start is by talking through what you're thinking and feeling with someone who can provide better solutions than tutting sympathetically and telling you that you are great - because it's not helpful when you're not in a place where you can hear and believe that - and a great place is either a friend whose work ethic you admire, an advisor you trust, or a therapist who's skilled with your concerns. Or any combination of the above.
posted by sm1tten at 10:00 AM on February 25, 2012


Best answer: bunderful is spot on.

When I was in college I had many of the insecurities that you describe here. I did great work and was generally regarded by my instructors as a smart, thoughtful student. They encouraged me to apply to some of the best graduate programs in my field and seemed confident I would get in.

But...I was so anxious about maintaining this reputation that I eventually froze. I couldn't turn a paper/project in on time to save my life. I became stilted in the classroom because I was afraid to be wrong, to sound stupid, to take a risk and have it flop. I frequently abandoned projects that seemed fabulous one week but trite and unoriginal the next. I was cocky enough to believe that other people's opinion about my intelligence and the quality of my work justified my flakiness.

A professor noticed this and gave me some of the best advice I've ever received. She said that if I sink all of my identity/self-worth into being the best and the brightest, I will invariably undermine that very identity. And I did. Sort of like how some Very Good Writers who hinge all of themselves on being Great Writers stop writing entirely.

It took several years for this lesson to percolate, but it did. I ended up not going into academia at all. In the work I do now I practically attach myself like a puppy to folks who are much better at it than I am, who have more experience, more insight, more skill. I can learn from them because I have zero interest or investment in competing with them.

It is very easy to say "hey, loosen the death grip of having your whole ego planted in this or that" and very hard to learn. Therapy certainly helped as did a few bites in the ass from folks who grew weary of my self-absorbed paroxysms of self-doubt and insecurity.

The tl;dr version. Don't let great be the enemy of good.
posted by space_cookie at 10:10 AM on February 25, 2012 [9 favorites]


Where is the evidence that you're not as good as everyone else? I challenge it because there seems to be a lot of emotional language in your post and not much fact. It may help, when you start to panic and feel inadequate, to stop and say, "Okay, what REALLY just happened?" and think about the facts rather than your emotional response.
posted by amodelcitizen at 10:24 AM on February 25, 2012


Best answer: If you're a postdoc at 26 you really have accomplished things far faster than most people.

I'm going to make an assumption here, which may be wrong and if so I apologize. To have accomplished so much in so little time seems to imply that up till now things have been relatively easy for you. If so, this might be the first time in your life you really feel like the tortoise rather than the hare.

Know that most people end up dealing with this feeling at some point in their lives, usually (and annoyingly) more than once. Your confident, engaging, successful colleagues may be dealing with this now; whatever the case, they're even more likely to have struggled with it during the many years of doing their Ph.D. A lot of people deal with it when they get to college -- former big fish in small ponds, as you said. Maybe they get more humble and more serious, and at the other end of the crisis they come out all right.

Give yourself time to grow into your new environment. If at all possible, appreciate the challenge.

With respect to two other points you made: having a narrow topic does not necessarily make you a one-trick pony (I think in the UK it's actually encouraged); and age does often very much contribute to confidence, capability, and breadth and depth in conversation.
posted by mail at 11:33 AM on February 25, 2012


I think that what you're feeling is absolutely normal (my roommates and I, in a prestigious Ph.D program at an ivy league, used to sit and bemoan the fact that we were stupid and never should have been let in). Especially if you have not grown up 'privileged.' I found that Ph.D students were so secretive about their work and their self-doubt that it was very rare to find someone who was willing to talk about it. My roommates and I were all big fish from small ponds. We trusted each other.

BUT, I think that you need to get help for your anxiety immediately. NOW. I am a big advocate of anti-anxiety meds (and I think something on an as-needed basis is best, but YMMV. I could get slack for it here, but I've found that my antidepressants and other meds interfere with my thinking. But then again, depression and anxiety will cloud your brain as well.).

The reason I say this is that I felt exactly like you did when I was in my program. I let my stress level rise to such a height that I had what you might call a nervous breakdown, left the program on a medical leave, and never returned. I don't like to think of this happening to others. Please get some help and continue down the path you've worked so hard to get to. You earned your place, and you deserve to be there.
posted by kitcat at 1:35 PM on February 25, 2012


You finished your Ph.D. in the humanities at 26? Cripes, you're a rockstar.

Ph.D. program dropout here (philosophy). I came here to say exactly what was said in the above-quoted line. A Ph.D. in a humanities field at 26 is super impressive (more impressive, actually, than having a science Ph.D. at that age).

You have a lot to be proud of. Keep grinding away at your career and you will be fine.
posted by jayder at 1:42 PM on February 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Best answer: Here, let me take a slightly different tack.

Suppose you actually are the dumbest, weakest, slowest junior postdoc in your good department. Nothing you've written suggests this is the case -- but let's grant it.

1. This is basically the same thing as being the worst player on a major league baseball team. You know what the worst player on a major league team is? Somebody who is really awesome at baseball. You are one of the two or three hundred best people on the planet at what you do. You have gotten past obstacles that halted ninety-nine out of a hundred people who started on your path, and you're in the bigs.

2. The whole point of academia is to get to the place where you're right up next to people who have unfathomably deep knowledge of things you don't understand. That is how you learn. It can be uncomfortable and hard on the ego, but in the end it's what we're here for.
posted by escabeche at 7:01 PM on February 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


You're a really good writer. Without even trying (I bet), you've really captured and dramatized what it feels like to be so anxious and status-conscious. I'm also wildly impressed that you finished you're phD at 26, and in the humanities. In the US, this is damn near unheard of.

I've been ABD in English Lit for 10 years; I'm 39. In other words, I basically ended my academic pursuits about a decade ago. I wasn't the dynamo you clearly are. And sometimes I miss it; but I found a fulfilling career and I continue to find ways to live the life of the mind. So, this path, my path, is one possible future for you and I want to reassure you that it isn't that bad.

I can really relate to your feelings of inadequacy, too. I had them, almost as intensely as you seem to feel them now. And this is what I wish someone had told me: "You are going to have a bad year now and then in academics. For any number of reasons, like maybe the article you're too deep into to quit is just not sound or the director of composition at the particular school you're at is crazy, or your current cohort has a shining star and you're not it. Or personal stuff happens to you that throws you off your game. Here's what you need, at that time: the long view. Perspective. Remember that, if you do become a successful academic, WHATEVER you write at 26 is probably not going to please you when you look back on it at 46. Knowing that now can help you look at this moment as a learning experience."

If you're serious about becoming an academic, and it sure sounds like you are, your job is not to be the shining, witty, Superstar of the moment. Your job is to get through the next year or two, with a couple of things that will look, on paper, like you used your time well. In a couple of years, you'll have moved on, learned about yourself, and be more mature overall. Be the ant. Not the grasshopper. (shit, is it the other way around? See- I'm even a terrible armchair academic!)
posted by Philemon at 8:07 PM on February 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: I'm so grateful for these comments. I've marked as best answers the ones which really resonated, but really everything here has been calm, sensible and measured (which is really what I ought to be aiming to be). Some extra thoughts, based on what I've read:

- I think I might feel less desperately fretful if my postdoc wasn't at an Ivy League school, though I can't be sure.

- I did finish my Ph. D. young, and mail is right about that -- though it wasn't exactly a walk in the park, and despite having done it at another top university, I experienced nowhere near as much anxiety as I do now. I think I got through that by keeping a very low profile, putting my head down and just doing my work. But that seems less possible in my current circumstances, as our postdoc program is anything but low profile. I absolutely take bunderful's point that I should re-evaluate my position from "intellectual runt" to "lucky dog". Thank you. It's harder to do than say, but a lot of this stuff is.

- I have very few non-academic friends, though I have very supportive academic friends.

- There isn't a mentor-like figure I would be comfortable approaching with my anxieties. limeonaire is right that I am afraid to ask for help in this particular arena. The people who run my program and who hired me are kind and wonderful, but in terms of my anxiety and their high expectations, are really part of the problem rather than the solution.

- Great question also from limeonaire about what I should try to control and change: I'll need to think about it. I suppose attitude would be one of them.

- I continue to be deeply skeptical about therapy. I'd love to hear specifics from those who have experience here: how it's benefited you in similar "imposter syndrome" circumstances, and how it's substantively different from having the occasional peer "powwow", in araisingirl's words.
posted by starcrust at 8:23 PM on February 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think this Ted talk might help you: http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 9:02 PM on February 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hi younger version of me! I'm in a postdoc at an Ivy school and I'm definitely the runt of the lot in a lot of ways. All around me I see people working insanely long hours, having great projects, great ideas, great papers, way more insightful questions than I ever come up with, and some times it gets to me. However, what has really helped me was to change my perspective on things. Yes, I may be less ambitious, less intelligent, or less put together than the rest of my peers, but I've come to realize that I want something very different out of my life than they do. Sure we all want to go on and become tenured professors/researchers somewhere, but the difference is that I've realized that I don't need or necessarily even want to be a fantastic star researcher. I want to do my work in my field, and try to do good work there, but if I'm never a big name, I don't care. I want to have my job, but have my personal life too. I could work till 3am like many of my labmates, but I'd rather go home and play with my son. I do my work, I do it to the best I can, I try to learn from those around me, but I don't let the need to be the best drive/worry me any more. Sometimes I feel like I've given up or something similar, and that I should be doing more, be smarter, etc., but then I go pick my son up from daycare after working all day and realize that it doesn't matter. I will get a job that I like (though maybe not the most prestigious) and I will have a life out side of it. And that makes me much happier than being the best researcher/scientist/teacher.
posted by katers890 at 6:30 AM on February 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I continue to be deeply skeptical about therapy. I'd love to hear specifics from those who have experience here: how it's benefited you in similar "imposter syndrome" circumstances, and how it's substantively different from having the occasional peer "powwow"
Therapy has not been a magic bullet for me, but it has been helpful. I recently went into therapy feeling like a complete loser and my therapist asked me questions about times when I felt successful. She then pointed out that my previous accomplishments did not sound like the work of a loser. She was right and I walked out with new hope and energy.

Talking with your peers is different. They may on occasion devote their energies to helping you feel better and overcome your mental blocks but 1) It's not their job to help you - you are paying your therapist for their full attention and assistance. 2) Friends have their own needs which are part of a reciprocal relationship - you help each other. In therapy, the therapist helps you. You do not help the therapist. 3) Peers tend to give a lot of advice, often very well-meant but not effective. A therapist is there to support you while you find your own answers. 4) You have no mutual friends with your therapist. What you tell them is completely confidential.

There's no law that says you can't try therapy for a few weeks and quit if you feel it's not helpful.
posted by bunderful at 8:12 AM on February 26, 2012


Yeah, I don't know that it has to be therapy, but I think you need someone to talk to and some way to relax. Since most of your friends are in academia, maybe you just need to do something deliberately out of that realm, like joining a darts or shuffleboard league at a pub or a meetup group for a nonacademic interest. Actually—does your city have a regular MeFi meetup? If so, maybe you should go; if not, maybe you should organize one. Not so you can talk about work the whole time (or at all, necessarily), but so you can get exposed to new perspectives and jolt yourself out of your own thoughts for a while. I know—you already feel overwhelmed. But sometimes, counterintuitively, putting more on your plate, when it's not an essential more and it's something you choose to do (remember Mark Twain's line: "Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do"), can sharpen your focus when it comes to the things that matter.

The thing that's worked to drag me out of deep, debilitating anxiety in the past has been changing things up a bit. Usually, it hasn't been deliberate—it usually starts with me feeling disgusted with myself, then finding the strength, however briefly, to focus on a new hobby or set of goals, achieving something in the process, and sometimes making new friends along the way. Soon, I start to feel more on top of things. I think it works because I'm pretty achievement-oriented—gamification really works well on me—so even achieving small goals outside of my career path ("feeding the soul," I think some would call it) kind of helps stimulate the part of my brain that seems to need that. It sounds like something similar, something that helps you recapture the great feeling of achieving something, regardless of what it is, might help you refocus as well. And it might, again, help you relax—if you're working hours and hours right now just trying to catch up, in some sense, with older colleagues, you're probably burning yourself out.

The two questions at the end of my post? They're exactly what an older and wiser colleague told me to consider a week ago when I told her I was at the end of my rope with things at work. Making that list of things I could change and things others could change almost immediately made me feel more relaxed, because 1. it wasn't all riding around in my head anymore and 2. it helped me remember that I have options. It also helped me organize my thoughts to the point where, when opportunities came up later that week to have constructive conversations addressing some of my frustrations, I was way more prepared to converse like a human being, rather than a howling ball of misery.
posted by limeonaire at 10:51 AM on February 26, 2012


It is very easy to say "hey, loosen the death grip of having your whole ego planted in this or that" and very hard to learn.

Quoted for truth! One lucky thing that I've gotten, as I age, is a sense of perspective. Even if I did really say something stupid in that last book talk, it's ok. A lot of my identity was wrapped around being a "smart person", and I still struggle with that and hate to feel like I've made a mis-step, but I remind myself that no one remembers what I say as vividly as I remember it. And I'm just not always going to be the smartest cookie in the room because, you know, I'm a person and not a disembodied robot brain.

One thing I've been trying to work on, if it resonates, is what I think of as the "confident oops". I'm not a faculty member but have a job in which I work quite a bit with faculty-types, and the most impressive are those open to experimenting with new ideas, which of course entails risk. I'm not sure if I can explain it well, but they have an attitude like "well, I said something silly, tell me about how silly I was so that my big confident brain can grow even more".
posted by lillygog at 11:01 AM on February 26, 2012


I agree with 4ster. Anti-anxiety medication and exercise.

I've been taking the same anti-anxiety medication for six years and don't intend to stop ever.

I ran four and half miles today and it put me in my happy place. It made me too tired to worry about the small things too.

And Eleanor Roosevelt said "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent".
posted by qsysopr at 5:04 PM on February 26, 2012


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