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Earth to Society: Women Scientists Exist!!!
You are not an impostor!

About a month ago, I had to submit a research project I have been working on for over a year.  I had to submit it for review so it can be tested and published.  Around the time of the deadline, I felt myself getting extremely nervous.  Then, on the day I submitted my project, I had a breakdown.  The premier thought in my head was, “What if all this time I have been doing something completely unrelated and the moment people see my code, they are going to find out I am an impostor?  I will be exposed and my life will be over.”  I felt ashamed and embarrassed.

To make matters worse, the guy who was supposed to test my code was extremely busy so he did not reply to me for two weeks.  What was I thinking in that time?  “He saw my code, decided it was beyond adjustment and just gave up.”  My anxiety grew even more.  Then, I finally had the courage to ask him.  Turns out he was busy with his own projects so he did not get around to it.  After that, he constantly started giving me feedback and asking me questions.  My project needed some tweaks here and there but nothing major.  Yet, with every notification I got from him, my heart would skip a beat.

What made it worse was that I could not talk to anyone about it.  I couldn’t even have the courage to reach out to my best friend whom I meet almost every single day and talk to about the most embarrassing things you can imagine.  I couldn’t talk to my parents because I was scared they would be disappointed in me.  I finally decided to reach out to my research adviser, but she was too busy and did not even see my texts.  Confused, I just drowned myself in more work.

Why was I feeling that way?

There is a perfectly reasonable, scientific explanation for what I was feeling.  It is called the Impostor Syndrome.  When you have it, you get the idea that you have only succeeded thus far, not because you are qualified or talented, but because you are lucky.  You feel as if at any moment, someone will find you out and you will be exposed for the fraud that you are.  As a result, you check and recheck what you did, procrastinate when you reach deadlines, and fear anyone who is going to examine your work.  Even if you succeed, you tell yourself you had another free pass and at any moment, you will be exposed.  The impostor syndrome comes in various types, and different people might react differently.  Some people go into over-preparation mode and others go into procrastination.  At the end of the day, people with impostor syndrome will spend their time worrying over their capabilities.

Who gets impostor syndrome?

It is estimated that 70% of the population struggles with impostor syndrome in one form or the other.  Studies also show that women are more likely to experience it than men.  One research showed that women tend to feel like impostors when their performance is questioned, while men feel like a fraud when it comes to being successful or good enough.  And if you are a minority in your field, you are in for quite a “treat.”  Not having role models or people who come from a similar background puts the fuel on the fire of impostor syndrome.  When you don’t have someone to look up to (or straight forward as a mirror), and you feel like a fraud, you will start justifying the thoughts that you are in fact out of place.

What helps?

When my research adviser finally saw the text I sent her, she called me and we had a conversation about what I was feeling and why I was feeling that way.  Even though at this point I was somewhat better, I was still holding in a lot.  She asked me, “Why didn’t you talk to anyone?”  I replied there was no one I could talk to.  I was scared of disappointing my family and I was scared of letting down my best friend.  After my conversation with her, she informed someone to reach out to me and told him that I needed a mentor.  He calmed me down with his own experience and some words of reassurance.  Since he had already seen my work, I felt even much better.  Finally, as I was writing this blog, I reached out to my best friend and told her everything.  I wished we could have had one of the “mental toilet” sessions on our dorm bed with coffee and blankets.  We had a virtual version of that instead, and I felt so much better afterwards.

Again, you are not an impostor!

To anyone that is reading this, whether you stumbled up on it or you follow my blogs, if you are dealing with impostor syndrome: first, remember YOU ARE NOT ALONE!!  You are surrounded by people who will understand how you are feeling; you just need to have the courage to open up. People who really care about you will help you recover.  Second, don’t try to dismiss your feelings—explore them and check their validity.  Third, use self-affirmation words to help you get out of the anxiety and depression.  Don’t be fooled by your ability to put on a straight face; you still need to deal with your feelings.  Fourth, know that it is not the end of the world.  In the words of my adviser, “What if it was all wrong?”  It does not mean you were a fraud; it means you made a mistake.  You will learn from your mistakes and do better next time.

Written by: Hellina Hailu