Originally, I wanted to write a blogpost about feeling like a fraud. However, during the writing process, I noticed that that does not really capture the essence of the problem I wanted to reflect on. Feeling like a fraud was just one of the insecurities that the little voice in the back of my head induced. Reflecting on these insecurities in general seemed more like what I wanted to do.
Recently, I felt particularly insecure. During the first study of my PhD, things didn’t go as planned. Now the study takes way longer to finish than I anticipated. When writing the preregistration for this study, I felt quite lost making all these decisions. At that point the little voice in the back of my head popped up: Should I not be knowing very well what I want to do in my study? Should I have read more before starting?
Later, when I started the data collection, the data did not look like I thought. And now? Well, adjust the preregistration and add ‘changes to preregistration’ to the manuscript. I want to be transparent, but it’s uncomfortable. The voice started to appear again: “Should you not have known very well what to do beforehand? Obviously, you did not know what you were doing and since you definitely should be, at this point, maybe you are a fraud.”
Because my insecurities are speaking to me quite often, I thought they deserve a face: the face of a devil on the shoulder that whispers insecurities in my ears. On a bad day, the devil already gets to me in the morning, tells me what I do wrong all day and never fails to remind me if I am leaving early.
Is this the imposter syndrome that people talk about?
Looking for others’ descriptions of insecurities in academic jobs, I quickly was reminded of the imposter syndrome. Insecurities that make you feel out of place and not good enough or deserving to be where you are is often described as the imposter syndrome. As Chapman and Kennette write in their blogpost, the imposter syndrome is something usually perceived by individuals who feel less competent than they think they appear. They are therefore scared to be identified as frauds. In academic contexts, the imposter syndrome seems to be very common and is often talked about. I do not really identify with the imposter syndrome, but reading how the authors describe it does not feel unfamiliar. Does the devil on my shoulder want to convince me that I am an imposter?
Back to the original insecurity: Was I doing something wrong when I adjusted my study planning? Was I incompetent when I did not know exactly what to do when planning my study? Probably not. If my fellow PhD colleagues would ask me the same questions about themselves, I would probably say something like: “That’s ok, you’re still learning. It’s great that you even do a preregistration showing your thought process. It’s even better that you transparently change this and admit to not planning everything perfectly. Who is perfect anyways?” So if I know this and can be kind to others, why is it so hard to handle my own insecurities or to shut up the little devil?
The devil’s prime time
The devil especially gets to me when I have a challenging time and I am vulnerable. Because I crave for positive experiences in these times, I especially want to do my work well. While it is hard (or impossible) to tell what is wrong and right in science anyway, I do not think that what the devil is telling me is any helpful. Also, independent of whether the devil has a point or not, bringing up these insecurities time and time again seems rather destructive. It is slowing me down, because I am getting more anxious about my work. This in the end might even lead my work to actually get worse, because I am preoccupied with doubting myself. So if I know this, what can I do about the devil?
How to shut up the devil on your shoulder
Accept that the devil is there
First I – or anyone who struggles with the devil – need to accept that the devil on our shoulder will be there as an uninvited guest, whether we want it or not. You can (as in every good ACT manual) accept that you’re feeling or thinking something. Try not to overanalyse and instead commit to perceptions and thoughts that will make you feel better. Accept that insecurity is a feeling that exists now. However, try to commit to still be growing in the process and that you are always going to learn and improve.
Distance yourself from the things that the devil says
After accepting that the devil on your shoulder is here and will not stop talking, we do not need to take in what the devil says. We could instead distance ourselves from what is said and reflect on what we actually think is happening. It might help if academics as a group share more about our practices and our insecurities. For me reflecting on these things, admitting insecurities to myself and talking to other people generally decreases me perceiving them as a problem. I do that also in the form of blog writing. However, not everybody can find the time and mental space to do so, therefore I do encourage PhD education institutions and PhD supervisors to actively stimulate talking about insecurities (which our university does quite well for example by offering workshops about the imposter syndrome). Also, talking about them will probably not only help you accept your own insecurities, but also benefit the community by normalising them.
Some props to the devil
After some talks with more senior people, I learned that almost every researcher has a devil on their shoulder. Some told me that the devil screamed much louder when they were more junior, because there is just a lot of insecurity starting as a researcher. Could there be something useful to this seemingly unhelpful and unsolicited advice?
After you distanced yourself from the devil by not taking its babbling too serious, you could ask yourself what function the annoying comments have. Maybe they help a bit with finding your identity as a researcher? Maybe you actively standing up against the devil will give you a better sense of who you are by defending your own abilities? Also, maybe the devil did sometimes push you to produce better output by making you work just a bit more driven and focused. I think if we don’t let the devil terrorize us, its advice might even be a little helpful. Maybe we can respond differently to our insecurities: “I see that you’re trying to motivate me to work harder. Thanks for that! But instead of scaring me, just some positive motivation would be enough! Thanks!”
The negative consequences of being open might of course be that your next boss is going to read about this somewhere and thinks you’re weak or lazy. Or maybe they think you’re very honest. Who knows.
I wrote this post as part of a blog writing course by a local university initiative, Mindwise. Thanks to the Mindwise team for giving me extra input and the much needed headspace to write a blogpost again (also check out some Mindwise posts here). Cheers to our illustrator Lisa for the creative writing input and giving the devil a literal face! And thanks to everyone who talked to me about their insecurities.