Slaying the Impostor Syndrome Gremlin

It’s funny how easily the gremlins can sneak up on you.

Since my first post, I’ve had a small gremlin voice in my mind questioning whether I should blog. Questioning the value of what I have to give. Urging me to backtrack and remove this website from existence.

It’s only today that I’ve recognised that voice for what it is.

Impostor syndrome

This is a term that almost every PhD student and academic would be familiar with. It’s a feeling that you’re not smart enough, capable enough, hardworking enough, that your research and your voice are of no value, and that you are a fraud, seconds away from being discovered.

Just Google “PhD Impostor Syndrome” and a plethora of articles and resources will appear in the search results to detail the problem and make suggestions for managing it.

I rather like the contributions of Jennifer Walker and James Hayton. Jennifer’s article provides an important reflection on how the impostor syndrome can manifest in harmful behaviours, while James’ post provides some helpful suggestions on mindset changes to manage the gremlins.

I agree that mindset changes are important. Viewing yourself as a student and, importantly, giving yourself permission to learn, to make mistakes, to question, and to explore ideas, is the kindest thing that you can do for yourself.

Giving yourself permission to be a student is also the most strategic thing you can do for progressing your PhD.

Logically, when you think about it, you will get nowhere if those gremlins have your ear all the time. People succeed when they feel happy and when they have confidence in their abilities. Out-of-control gremlins erode confidence, and low confidence does not help you to return to work on the PhD day after day.

I feel panicked when my impostor syndrome gremlins are in charge. My chest gets tight, I want to hide away, I question my abilities, I procrastinate and have difficulty concentrating, and I avoid some things like mail and email. I will open fifty-gazillion tabs on my computer in the name of “research”, and then feel overwhelmed by them. I will obsess over the phrasing of a paragraph, repeatedly going over it to try to make it “better”. It makes for a pretty unpleasant experience, to say the least.

So, how do I deal with these impostor syndrome gremlins? For me, it’s a multi-step process. First, I have to acknowledge the gremlins. Second, I rebuild my work habits. And third, I practice self-compassion throughout the process.

To some extent I have to ride the gremlins out. I have to let myself feel them. I have to acknowledge their presence and then construct a new narrative in my mind that says, “Hey, you know what? You’re actually doing okay. You’ve got this.” Gremlins are needy – they like your attention. Acknowledge and observe what they are saying, and then move on.

For me, this means that I start again. I rebuild my self-confidence to work on my PhD. Just small, bite size chunks to begin with. In this regard, the use of the pomodoro technique is great, and I also use the meditation app Headspace to calm my gremlins. I talk about the experience – I talk to friends, to family, to a psychologist, and to my PhD peers. The connection to other people and the normalisation of the experience – it’s not just me – helps me to begin to thrive again.

Finally, the practice of self-compassion during the rebuilding process is integral. A question I like to ask myself when I catch my critical gremlins is, “Would I say that to a friend?” and the answer is always no. I then ask: “What would I say to a friend in my situation?” In a way, this allows a deeper truth from myself and about myself to emerge that is separate to my gremlins. This deeper truth is kind and forgiving, and it is supportive of my abilities, my contributions, and my value.

Of course, I am not perfect at following these steps. Like all things in life, the experience is rather haphazard and it can feel like taking two steps forward and then one step back. The important thing is to give yourself permission to feel what you’re feeling without letting the gremlins to take control.

Meditation and connection to people can calm gremlins. A self-compassionate narrative also soothes gremlins. If gremlins are something you experience, then, chances are, they will always exist in your life to some degree or another – PhD or no PhD. It’s up to you to recognise them and soothe them, but it does not have to be a lonesome task. You can be a slayer too. We can be slayers together.

Slaying those gremlins

The PhD is a wild ride.

On the one hand, it is wonderful to spend so much time exploring what is an interesting topic. I mean, it has to be interesting for you to want to spend years understanding it, right? For me personally, it is exhilarating to create, challenge, and build upon ideas; to contribute to knowledge and to think about a topic in a way that it may never have been thought about before. It is these feelings that brought me to academia in the first place.

On the other hand, it is no stretch to say that the PhD can frequently be monotonous and isolating, especially for those in the social sciences and humanities where research is not team-focused. And it is these feelings that have had me, at times, contemplating quitting my PhD program. And not only contemplating quitting, but also consumed with anxiety, questioning my self-worth, abilities, and capacities to do the PhD.

It is in these moments, lost in the maze of my mind, that my inner “gremlins” have run wild and free. These gremlins set vague and high expectations, always sneakily moving the goal posts. These gremlins sit quietly on my shoulder, whispering comparisons and criticising my performance. They throw parties at night while I try to sleep, reminding me of all the things I have both failed to do and still need to do. These gremlins cause me to re-write a paragraph over and over and over again, trying to find the perfect phrasing to “make it good enough” for my supervisors’ time. They grip at my chest, either paralysing me in place or causing me to work at a frantic pace.  Needless to say, the gremlins are exhausting and the experience has definitely not fit with my romanticised image of the PhD process: lazing about, reading interesting books and articles all day, doing some writing, and engaging in academic debate  over a pint with my peers in the evenings.

I feel that only now, at the tail end of my PhD, I have begun to understand my gremlins. Yet, with that understanding has come a desire for connection with my peers, for learning, for support. I believe that we are stronger together. Too often we think that we’re in this alone. That no one else is going through the same things that we are going through.

In my experience, however, virtually every other PhD student I have encountered has, and is, struggling with their inner gremlins. I’ve also found that a theme of “struggling alone” is inadvertently fostered by some universities, in that there is a lack of support programs in place to genuinely nurture connection and “real talk” between students, professional staff, and academics. In some instances there is an attitude among established academics that the struggle with the gremlins and the isolation of the PhD is a compulsory experience, a kind of hazing or baptism through fire, in order to weed out those who are perceived to not have what it takes to walk within the elite academe.

I’m not saying that doing a PhD is easy, or that it should not be challenging, or that there is a complete absence of supportive researcher education programs out there. I am saying that the struggle with the gremlins should be more widely acknowledged and spoken about in order to develop more resilient researchers. I am saying that the attitude that the PhD should be some kind of mentally traumatic and isolating experience is one that only produces broken academics.

So, that is what this blog is for. To foster some kind of connection with my PhD peers, to share our experiences and resources, and to learn from each other. I hope that you will join me in slaying these gremlins, one by one!