I remember when I enrolled as a PhD student and I was in the middle of my own opting out and in process. I had left a career in business where I felt like I knew what I was doing and what was expected of me, and had stepped into the academic world where I hadn’t set foot for years, not since I was a young, inexperienced Master’s student. I went from feeling competent and knowing what was expected of me, to having zero knowledge of what the so-called rules of the game were. Other academics were very welcoming and everyone seemed to take me seriously enough, but still, clichéd as it may sound, I felt like a fraud and that I was going to be found out any minute.
A few months after I enrolled, I was at a gathering at the department at my university and a distinguished professor emeritus wanted to say a few words. She spoke specifically to the new students and verbalized exactly what I had been thinking. She talked about how when she started out, she, like me, felt like a complete fraud, worried that she was going to be found out. She never was found out though, and the reason was of course that she wasn’t any more a fraud that anyone else. With this story she explained to us that this is the way everyone feels. Everyone worries about belonging, about being accepted, and about being taken seriously no matter who they are or how far they have come in their careers. She assured us that we weren’t alone and no matter what we think or feel, we aren’t frauds, that we belong there as much as anyone else, and that we need to remember that always.
I felt so relieved. My worries were acknowledged and I could relax a bit. What a wonderful, thoughtful woman.
A couple of months after that, when I was taking a doctoral course that was taught by a world-renowned scholar, I saw evidence of how this phenomenon that we also know of as imposter syndrome, really does affect everyone. My teacher was not only globally recognized for his research, he was also just a very good teacher. We always had the most interesting discussions in class and he was pedagogical in his methods. He never made me feel like a fraud or that I didn’t belong.
One day during class the energy level had been low among the students. I myself had a severe case of low blood sugar, which just makes it hard to concentrate. By the end of that class, my teacher, the professor, really looked like he was feeling down. It turned out that he felt the class had gone so badly (which it really hadn’t), that he had failed to engage his students, and he started questioning his role in the course (which was central, believe me). I felt bad for him, but it also comforted me to know that even someone, who so obviously has proven that he is good at what he does, can feel that way. It made me see that when I feel that way, it doesn’t mean that I don’t belong or that I’m not good at what I’m doing, but that I’m just human. It’s human to feel that way from time to time.
I was watching an interview with Brené Brown on her new book Braving the Wilderness the other day and she really summed it up quite nicely. She said, “Don’t walk through the world looking for evidence that you don’t belong because you’ll always find it. Don’t walk through the world looking for evidence that you’re not enough because you’ll always find it. Our worth and our belonging are not negotiated with other people.”
So on that note, don’t doubt yourself. Know that you belong anywhere you want to belong, and most importantly, you’re not a fraud.