Grandma Philososaurus is apparently infamous for this phrase. Unfortunately, I appear to be the only grand child who didn’t hear these words of advice, and perhaps the one most in need of them.
I started my MA program at my dream school three semesters ago. I’m nearly done now. I’ve established myself socially, traveled abroad to present my work, and have built relationships with my professors. Since coming into the program, I have received praise and reassurance from peers and faculty, not to mention my wonderful support system cheering me on. Nonetheless, I’ve spent nearly three years thinking, “alright, today is the day they realize I’m fooling these bastards and kick me out of the program.” Never mind that this would be the first time in the history of ever someone was kicked out mid-semester, despite managing excellent attendance and straight As. Never mind all the qualifications and support I’ve mentioned above…. Nope, it doesn’t matter at all.
I would come home in tears, convinced I was inadequate. Further, it wasn’t about feeling “further behind” than everyone (though that was a sensation I felt) such that all I had to do was become familiar with Nietzsche and then POOF! I’d be less of a faker. No, it was deeper. I felt as if I would never, could never succeed in philosophy. Why? Not because I’m less smart, less dedicated, less creative than others in my program, it was because I was a faker. I came from a small undergraduate school where I never learned to read well. What I did learn there, I couldn’t even remember! I slept through most of my classes (I later found out this was because I was allergic to all the food I was eating), and now I’ve conned my way into my dream school.
I’ve pictured the moment that everyone found out I was faking it a hundred times… It’s a last-kid-picked-at-kickball nightmare in which all the kids are dancing around singing, “liar, liar, pumpkin eater.”
I just. felt. fake.
In addition to being absolutely sure I’d be kicked out of the program any day now, I also was pretty set on the fact that I was the only one ever in all the world to have dealt with this emotion. It was affecting my partner, who had no idea what to say or how to respond when I’d get myself so down. It was certainly affecting my school work. In a state of utter terror and panic, I posted on a message board about a particularly deep spiral of self-hate. It took some convincing, and about 15 first-person testimonials, but I was finally convinced there was this thing called Imposters Syndrome. It’s exactly as it sounds. You think you’re an imposter, that you’re not cut out for whatever it is you’re pursuing, and, generally, are made to be anxious as you’re sure that tomorrow is the day you’re discovered.
After a lot of soul searching, I realized what was particularly hard for me was that I didn’t fit the mold of a graduate student. First, I have a chronic disease that makes things that are essential to what I do (like reading and writing) impossible for any real length of time. Second, I didn’t even know where the library was. Third, I was a faker and therefore like no one else.
I decided that, without professional help and some time logged in my department, I wasn’t going to be able to overcome this. There was not going to be a day when I woke up and all of the sudden I believed in myself. On a daily basis, I was setting in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy; “I bet I don’t get any work done today, because I’m not a good graduate student. I’m not ready for this program. I’m not cut out for it and today is the day everyone realizes it,” became me actually not getting any work done.
So I decided to – get this – fake it.
Sure, I didn’t feel like I looked like a graduate student. I can fake that. (It’s called a blazer, betch.) I didn’t feel like I read enough. I realized I could fake that, too. Instead of self-hating and scolding myself for only having read eight pages, I relished in the fact that I took the book to a coffee shop and surrounded myself with other studiers. Something about it made me feel legitimate in a way that no amount of outside reassurance was able to do. I began to sit down for, actually, a pretty long time. Each time I went, I sat down for a little longer. I didn’t always work productively, but I pretended like the whole time I was sitting there I was reading and not at all dreaming about running away with Adam Scott (of Party Down and Parks and Recreation). Then, the craziest thing happened: I realized, upon leaving the coffee shop, that I had actually worked the entire time. I had read, and read well, and was now done for my work for the whole day.
Furthermore, I found out how easy faking it really was. And, this is just a wild guess, but perhaps its because I was never such a faker to begin with.
What I mean by faking it, is to walk the walk and talk the talk. What I don’t mean is to be disingenuous. It may be hard to see this distinction, but the difference is WHAT you’re trying to fake. (I’m currently resisting the urge to reference Scrubs as a way to clear this up…must…resist…) You shouldn’t pretend like you have no problems, ever, and you’re the most perfect graduate student, but what is helpful is to fake the confidence for awhile. It doesn’t mean “don’t ask for help” if you’re at a new job, but it does mean to go through the motions until they feel like your motions. I bet you’ll find it comes pretty naturally.
I’m not sure I’ve fully recovered. I do know, however, that I’m getting there. My first “gold star” on the road to recovery was when I really pretended to know what the hell I was talking about and took up an incredibly gutsy research topic. (If you’re wondering how the story ends, it’s the one I’ve presented abroad.) And today, well, today was the day that I spoke in class.
I have no doubt that some of you have felt or are feeling a similar way. I encourage you to talk about it, be it here at Persephone, with a professional therapist, or in a journal you keep hidden deep in a drawer, lest anyone find it and discover your secret. Really ask yourself what it is that you fear (aside from, you know, getting caught being an impostor) and why it is.
And, when in doubt, fake it ’til you make it.