Impostor Syndrome & Mental Health: Hiding or Beginning?

So, you’re in the PhD, you’ve worked so hard to get here, you’ve worked for years and years to get here, you were overjoyed to finally see a dream come true, and for some worries to resolve themselves (yay, funding!) – but, it is not having a positive effect on your mental health. It’s not having a negative effect, but certainly not a positive either. Instead, it’s adding a new hurdle (albeit now I look back, something that I have encountered before) – Impostor Syndrome.

(c) Psy Cartoons

I’m only three months in, but lately, it feels as if I don’t belong. Now, this is in no way the fault of anyone, but yet I have been in a near-constant state of anxiety over being “found out” and told to go home. At times it feels like I’m floating out in space (hello, that scene from Starship Troopers anyone?), or shouting into a gaping void, or stuck in an absolutely freezing West of Scotland slush/rain/snow pour.

So, when you constantly think you aren’t good enough, how good do you think you should be? The notion that you should be an “expert” in your topic is almost impossible to live up. Yes, you know your topic, and you’ll get to know it even more over the next three years, but at the beginning, in no way are you an expert. Personally, I’ve been finding it helping to look at it like a beginner qualification. You would have developed research skills, and have at least your undergraduate degree dissertation under your belt, but in something as specific as your PhD topic, of course your research skills are going to become much more specialised.

If you think of yourself as a beginner, it’s no longer a question of whether or not you’re good enough, but in actuality, how to get better over time. If you embrace the beginner mindset by being open about any weaknesses, it then frees you to ask questions, to make mistakes and to learn. A much more positive outlook.

Really, I’ve found it helpful in framing it as being about identifying problems that you can then do something about. In the long- and even the short-run, this view certainly helps when mental health troubles get in the way.

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