Where I’m starting from: responding to impostor syndrome

Photo by Rishabh Dharmani on Unsplash

I am in a seminar called “Where am I in this? Roles, goals, and reflexivity in the (queer) research process”. In this virtual room of young people in academia, we discuss impostor syndrome and how many of us feel it in one way or another. One shares that she is Swedish/Iranian yet feels conflicted about “playing up” the Iranian side of her identity in the research she is doing with Iranian communities. Another speaks about the self-doubt and questioning that came up in the process of starting to identify as non-binary while doing research on non-binary genders. One mentions how she feels like an impostor in academia; she is young and from an activist background and isn’t really sure that she fits. I share my own questions about whether I am “queer enough” to be doing research on queer sexualities. 

Hearing others share that sense of “not quite fitting” and questioning one’s own role in the research allows me to release some of the tension that I am holding around this. I would not question the identities of these people in relation to the work that they are doing; this feels like something that is (mostly) self-imposed. We may be holding ourselves to standards that are unfair, or even impossible to meet. 

This conversation pushes me to think about the ways that impostor syndrome can be both useful and detrimental to a researcher. In the one sense, the anxiety around feeling like an impostor can inspire reflection on how our identities and lived experiences may be significantly different to people that participate in our research. This may encourage us to approach the work with a sense of humility, a recognition that we cannot possibly know the experiences of others even if we relate to them in several ways. It can push us to listen deeply, to move forward with a sense of curiosity and wonder. It can remind us of the gap between self and other, and to commit to continuous reflection on how our identities do impact the work we engage in. 

However, if that anxiety pushes us too far into a place of self-doubt, it will no longer serve as a mechanism for self-reflection. In my experience, impostor syndrome speaks to a need to be “right and good”, a need to meet a certain criterion created by my own imagination or articulated by others. It rejects vulnerability and the reality that I will make mistakes. 

When I express doubts about being “queer enough” to do the work that I’m doing, what I am really saying is that I feel that I have many privileges that make my experience of being queer less challenging than it may be for other people. This creates a feeling of being an impostor; despite being passionate about doing this work, I question whether it is really my place. 

But when I really think about this question, I ask myself- well, whose place is it? Should working towards visibility of queer experiences only be done by the people who experience the most challenges? Those who are the most marginalized? This line of thinking leads me to consider my place here. I begin to recognize how those privileges that can make me feel like an impostor can also be a form of energy, of emotional reserves, and resources that I can put towards this work. 

Moving forward, I believe that taking a growth mindset will be a way to respond to some of the tensions I feel around my identity, self-critique, personal expectations, and fear of making mistakes. I need to acknowledge that I am here to learn, to grow, to develop my skills and perspectives. Discomfort is something I can learn from, not something to run from. I believe the best thing I can do for my own growth and development is to let go of the urge to be “right and good”. To commit to being open to other ways of knowing and experiencing the world.

6 thoughts on “Where I’m starting from: responding to impostor syndrome”

  1. “I need to acknowledge that I am here to learn, to grow, to develop my skills and perspectives. Discomfort is something I can learn from, not something to run from.”
    I think I need to put this somewhere by my desk. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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