The Imposter Syndrome: Fear and Loathing at the Annual American Society for Bioethics and the Humanities Meeting in Kansas City
This last Thursday I arrived at the American Society for Bioethics and the Humanities annual meeting in Kansas City. This is my not my first bioethics conference rodeo, not by a long shot. I have been active in the field for twelve years and working as a professor of bioethics for ten years and still, a doctoral degree, a master’s in public health and a master’s in bioethics later…I feel like an imposter.
I always arrive at these gatherings with a strange knot in my stomach and fear that this is the year…this is the year that I am going to be exposed for the idiot that I am…the idiot who has been play acting at this job for the last decade. I go to the affinity groups (mixers for people who have similar research interests) and look around the room at the name tags that show institutional affiliation. An inferiority complex develops when you see people who have published way more than you and who appear way more successful than you and surely collect way bigger paychecks than you, mingling with one another. No one else is laughing or smiling, just speaking a language known as Academese, where jokes are not allowed and everything is a potential micro-aggression so words are chosen with scalpel-like precision. Ten years in and I still don’t know how to act. Do I start cracking jokes and referencing Will Ferrell movies to lighten things up or adopt the serious head tilt and nod everyone else is exhibiting? Or are the serious faces and monotone conversations just evidence that everyone’s nerves are on edge too?
I got my answer this morning in the elevator on the way up to my room following the breakfast session. A confident-looking woman got on the elevator with me. I glanced down to see that she had the most impressive name badge a human could realistically have. Without naming names, she had an educational and professional pedigree that would intimidate most people to the point of stuttering and stammering and of course I immediately felt inferior. To make matters worse her immediate words to me were, “Oh let me help you!” as she reached around and tucked the tag of my shirt back into my collar (a perpetual problem for me) and then as she stepped back she whispered, “You might want to brush those out.” I looked down to see my long unbrushed hair was full of croissant flakes from breakfast. Great. I felt like a real pro.
I started to pick the croissant flakes out of my mane and apologized for my appearance, saying, “Sorry, I really am not mature enough to be allowed to be out of the house on my own. At least I remembered to wear pants. So, there’s that.” She chuckled and said, “You’re fine, it’s just nice to look out for each other. I went to your presentation by the way, and you seemed like an easy-going person who wouldn’t mind me saying something.”
“Do I have spinach in my teeth too?” I asked. She laughed and shook her head and I assured her I didn’t mind her personal grooming assistance at all. In a lovely turn of events she told me she had enjoyed the talk I had given earlier and found it very informative and thoughtful. I thanked her and said, “It was an honor to present but if I’m honest I always feel like an imposter, like somehow I snuck into the party and everyone is just indulging me because they are too polite to call the bouncer to tell me to leave.”
The woman chuckled knowingly and said, “Me too! I’ve been coming to these things for twenty-five years and I still feel like an imposter. I am just trying to enjoy all the free cheese and croissants I can before they find out and revoke my membership.” I smiled but was actually in a significant amount of shock. This woman, this pillar of the bioethics community, this peer-reviewed publishing powerhouse, this credentialed crown jewel of medical academia still feels like an imposter?
Okay, if she feels like an imposter, how many other people do too? The thought occurred to me: Is everyone just pretending to feel like they belong so as not to arouse suspicion? And where did this concept of imposter syndrome come from? Thanks to Google I quickly found out that two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, coined the phrase in 1978. They described it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” While these people “are highly motivated to achieve,” they also “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”
The elevator ride and the conference now long over I was back in my room before the disturbing thought settled in that maybe this feeling never goes away. If after twenty-five years and myriad accolades my esteemed elevator companion still felt an angst upon entering professional conference sessions what hope do I have of ever feeling good enough?
I flopped in the chair to watch the NASCAR race at the Kansas Speedway (appropriately enough) and texted a friend who is also a fellow bioethicist and NASCAR fan about my perpetual inferiority complex in my professional life and frustration that Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t won a race yet this season. I wasn’t sure which I was more upset about.
She texted back, “Well maybe that is a good thing, it means you are smart enough to know you aren’t really that smart and aware enough to know just how much you don’t really know. If it keeps you hungry and trying to be better and learn more then why would you want to change that? Obviously, it’s been workin’ for the rock star you met in the elevator. Remember the line from Talladega Nights? “You gotta drive with the fear…”