Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Considering Criticism, Impostor Syndrome, and Married-People Ethics

1. I'm typically a pretty sane person myself, but I have one area in which I am a little crazy. I'm TERRIBLE at taking criticism, even constructive criticism, even constructive criticism I actually agree with. This has always been something I've struggled with, but now that I've been in the working world a few years, I've realized that this inability to sanely process constructive criticism could really hold me back.

To be clear, I outwardly respond well. I don't argue, I ask for suggestions or advice as appropriate, and then I try my hardest to make changes (with varying degrees of success). But on the inside, I'm totally enraged, and the rest of the day is usually a wash. My internal reaction is often defensive —  Why didn't you tell me up front this was a priority to you? (Sane answer: Maybe they didn't realize it was until now.) How am I supposed to do this to your standards when I was never trained in it? (Sane answer: Water under the bridge; request training now.)

How can I be more sane about this? Both for my career's sake, since 99% of the criticism is constructive, well-intended, and potentially helpful, but also for my own sake, because talking myself down is exhausting.

It sounds like you're handling the criticism you get pretty well, at least in external reality. You just need a little help figuring out a way to think about it that doesn't make you want to die/turn green and burst out of your cute little work blazer, right?

Let me start by asking — have you ever had a job where you worked on a project all by yourself and delivered your deliverables and never heard a word back from anyone about your work? It's horrible, like floating utterly alone in the blackness of space, sending out signals and having no idea whether or where they're landing. So much worse than any but the most terrible team dynamics.

So let us be thankful at least that you are not unmoored in the solar system that is your workplace. You are doing good work and hearing back from people and adjusting your course, all of which is how it should be. You're getting feedback, and it doesn't matter whether it's negative or positive or constructive — it's actually all fantastic, because it increases the ass you are able to kick and therefore the impact and money you're likely to make at work.

In fact, your colleagues' feedback can teach you more awesomely useful information about your job than any other resource. Maybe recognizing that will help you be less bothered and eventually even grateful. Think back — has your boss ever saved you by discovering a mistake, or made you look better by refining your work? I bet she has, and I bet you've done the same for her, too. Honest feedback has real value; it's the thing that makes a team a team. 

It sounds like you are very interested in doing an excellent job, so you get annoyed when people waste your time and effort by not knowing what they want. And I agree — it is annoying and frustrating, and it's no wonder people do horrible things to office equipment. But it's also just part of the process of doing stuff. Action causes friction, and friction is uncomfortable.

From what I've seen in my career of almost 20 (gasp!) years, the people who get great work done are the ones who've learned to bear the discomfort of creation — to listen to all the criticism, integrate the valid bits, and not take any of it personally. Because, unless you work with true jerkburgers, it isn't about you; it's about the work. A simple byproduct of making things happen.

And remember that every single person whose job involves an element of creativity spends a good chunk of time making stuff so that other people can say, "That's not what I want." Most humans are far better at criticizing an existing piece of work than visualizing what they want from scratch. So that particular stressor is probably never going away.

The Jedi-level trick is to get through the iterations of "not this" more quickly, so you waste less time and feel more competent. Have you tried seeking feedback earlier in the process? Maybe do the first 10 or 20% of a project, and then ask for input from key people to make sure you're on the right track. If you're not, you can find that out and fix it without having wasted a bunch of time. If you are, you can fly through the rest of it.

Also, analyze which colleagues tend to offer which kind of input, and think through your project from their point of view. What kinds of questions are they likely to ask and what kinds of things are they likely to want? See if you can't address their criticisms in your work before they even get the chance to make them. It is oddly satisfying.

One last idea — a stressful situation that you're prepared for can feel a little less stressful. So maybe try setting up a formal time to receive feedback. Like, if you have a big task, be proactive and set up the post-mortem meeting to discuss how it went. Then it becomes the team going over things together rather than you getting schooled, and you can be ready for it instead of feeling pounced upon.

So … keep trying new tactics for making the process a little less painful, but also expect a certain amount of pain. Talking yourself down will get easier over time. Good luck!

2. I'm a 29-year-old Ph.D. student finishing up my degree in a social science field. A few years ago, I audited a social psychology class on a lark, and the professor explained something she called the Impostor Effect: the feeling that you've tricked everyone else into thinking you're smarter than you are, and you don't really belong there. She said that a lot of Ph.D. students feel this at first, but then gradually realize they do in fact belong.

I've never gotten over this. I have made it through a program that's notorious for failing people out, and people seem to like my research, and from the outside it looks like everything is going pretty well. But I still feel like I've only tricked people into thinking that I'm a lot smarter than I am, and at a certain point everyone is going to get wise to me. As a result, I'm reluctant to ask for help on my work or ask people to explain themselves, because I don't want to "tip my hand" as a secretly not-so-smart person. But then, not being able to ask clarifying questions only worsens the feeling that I'm not smart enough to be here. And whenever I experience setbacks with my research (which I acknowledge are inevitable for everyone), my first thought is always "This is it. The gig is up, and people are finally going to realize that you're not nearly as smart as they thought." I am in all other respects a laid-back and positive person, except when it comes to my work.

Other than the crippling self-doubt, I really, really love what I do. So what do you think? Should I risk letting people know I'm not as smart as they thought (and potentially lose the ability to get a job doing what I really want to do)? Or do I keep it on lock, and try to convince myself that everyone else is putting up a front of knowing everything and that I'm not any more of an impostor than anybody else?

I don't think you have to do either of those! You just need to understand: What makes you feel like an impostor is that you are far enough into your field to see how deep and wide it is, and also to see how close you still are to the beginner end.

And you must also understand that everyone feels like this when they are learning — however far you get down the field, there will still always be a huge, distant horizon in front of you, and what feels like a shockingly small amount of knowledge and experience behind.

So this feeling that you have, why don't you stop calling it "feeling like an impostor" and instead call it "the humble feeling that goes along with realizing that I will always be kind of a dummy." Because that's what it is.

There may be some small element of pretending to be smarter than you really are from time to time, but wouldn't you have to be pretty smart at least to trick everyone into thinking you're super smart? And maybe they don't think you're that smart anyway, or maybe you're way smarter? And have you noticed how your brain liquifies and leaks out your ears when you think about this? There's no way to know any of it!

These are the wrong questions to focus on. However smart you are is however smart you are, and it's honestly not that important. Far more important than what you know right now is how much you are capable of learning. Which requires enthusiasm and perceptiveness and vision and deep thinking and humility.

Because you don't know everything — you never will. And pretending otherwise will only keep you from your real goal, which I'm guessing is not merely to look approximately as smart as you think people think you are, but to contemplate and research and contribute. To literally widen the circle of human understanding! It is exciting that you get to do this!

So don't try to hide your ignorance so that others will be impressed by you. That will only make you stupider and more insecure over time, as the gap between what you know and what you pretend to know grows.

Instead, you should endeavor to be curious above all else. Ask all your questions, and then make something neat from the answers. And over time, as you cultivate this orientation to your work, you'll start to see that the slightly-out-of-your-depth feeling is nothing to be worried about. In fact, it's good, because it means that something new is about to happen.

You love what you're doing, so just keep doing it! Don't worry so much about keeping score.

3. I'm a 26-year-old, living alone in an amazing city. One of my good friends from an old job is a 40-year-old married man. We were work "spouses" for a while, and started hanging out outside of work: at concerts, for drinks, via phone, via email, yada yada. Anyway, the connection is strong, flirtatious, and has undercurrents of, well, sexual tension.

I'm all for playing the game of: Yeah, I'm attracted to you and you are to me, but you're married so let's still hang out and just be friends. However, he only calls me to hang out when his wife is out of town — which immediately sets up this precedent of, "Well, my wife wouldn't like this, so let's do it 'in secret.'" We recently hung out at his house (wife = away), and things got a little too close for comfort (no transgressions, but let's just say if we had kissed, it would've been natural) before I left and went home.

Here's my crazy: Since we're not transgressing physically, and I'm doing my best to play the friend game, can we still hang out? Or, because he's setting up this basis of "My wife's out so let's hang," and ostensibly our hangouts are kept secret from her, should I stop hanging out with him? I feel like I'M doing my best at playing the friend game and I want HIM to play along TOO, but he's not, and now I'm all like, OMG, am I a psychological adulteress?!? Am I ethically in the wrong, even though we're not kissing or hooking up or anything physical?

Ugh. Thanks.

I co-sign your Ugh. This situation has no winners, and I think the best thing to do is step back from this dude. Before I get into the particulars, though, I want to talk about this oft-asked question, "Am I ethically in the wrong?"

Asking the question in this way is curious to me, because it positions Ethics as this Thing that is outside of us. Like there's a pre-ordained right answer to every ethical question, and your responses sort you into the Good Egg or Bad Egg pile.

But living an ethical life is not about being sorted after the fact. It's about you, in the privacy of your own mind and heart, making decisions about what kind of person you want to be, then going forth into the world trying really hard to be that. Or, I guess some people don't decide anything and just go with the default setting, which is do whatever and try to justify it later ... but this doesn't work for me and it sounds like it doesn't work for you, either.

Really, the only way for anyone to sort this kind of thing out is this: Have a good long think, figure out what is and isn't okay according to the standards you want to live your life by, and do your best to abide by those decisions.

So, LW, what do you think — do you want to a person who gets super close to hooking up with a married dude, or not? You get to decide! And your emotions can be a good guide here, so pay attention to them: If you feel iffy or shitty about something you did or are contemplating doing, it's generally because some part of you recognizes that it's an iffy or shitty thing to do.

No one can deny that it's pleasant to enjoy the company of a nice married man who finds you attractive, enchanting, and young ... but it's dangerous, too. You almost kissed the other night, right? And you both feel weird but strangely titillated, playing closer and closer to the line as time goes on, wondering what's going to happen. Which we all know is THE classic recipe for something happening.

Are you 100% totally crystal clear that you don't want that? I'm not sure you are, so think on it a minute. Imagine in great detail what it would be like to wake up the next morning after a sweet and hot hookup with this handsome guy who happens to have pledged the rest of his life to loving another woman exclusively. Is that a morning you want in your memory?

Another test for you: Can you talk to him about how this is wigging you out? Can you share with him that it feels fishy and that you'd breathe easier if your meetings didn't seem so secretive? Because you don't have anything to hide, and sure it's fun to flirt, haha, but NOTHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN?

If you can talk to him and resolve things to the full satisfaction of your conscience — sounds like that would mean with his wife's knowledge and blessing — then, yes, you can hang out with him.

But if you can't bring it up because you are embarrassed, or it feels too personal, or if he's weirded out by the conversation, then you guys aren't really friends ... You're just people who want to do it playing a shadowy game of oh-no-we're-totally-not-gonna-do-it that quite often ends with doing it. In which case, no, you can't hang out with him. At least not anywhere that's conducive to line crossing. Group outings to pubs? Okay. One-on-one scotch tastings late at night in his house when his wife is out of town? What?! No!!

I know it's hard to shut it down with someone you're attracted to, and it feels unfair, especially when it seems like it shouldn't be your job. But fairness is not the big issue here, and I'm honestly not even all that concerned with this dude or his wife. The real danger is you fucking things up for you.

And THIS is why it's so important to have your ethics come from inside rather than outside. Because the goal is not to "be a good person" in some abstract sense — it's to avoid getting into situations that break your heart and dampen your spirit and make you feel awful about yourself.

And this is already happening, even though you haven't, as you put it, actually transgressed. Right now, it's like there's this big oily dark puddle in your mind, and you have to wade through it every time you think about this dude, and it only gets grosser as things between you become murkier.

But it doesn't have to be this way — you can throw some sunlight on it just by developing a clear sense of what you feel is and isn't acceptable for you to do. Then you can step back, or have whatever boundary-setting conversation seems appropriate.

One last thing: Draw your lines soon, because it'll be a lot easier now than it will be after something has happened between you. A thousand times easier. You don't even know.

Previously: Bad Boyfriends.

Megan Dietz wrote a book called 'Be Less Crazy About Your Body' that some people say is cool. She also blogs here. Ask Megan anything.

227 Comments / Post A Comment


So happy to see I'm not the only one that has a problem accepting criticism even though I know how important it is. Even when I agree 100% I still feel totally defensive and angry.
Does everyone feel this way about criticism or is it just a few of us?


@BoatGirl Haha, I replied right below that I am in the same boat. I have a feeling it's a lot of people, because I think getting angry/sad about it is a natural defense mechanism.


Not only do I have this problem, I also have the problem of being terrible at accepting compliments. Go figure.

cecil hungry

@BoatGirl Not necessarily criticism, but I make my living pointing out other people's mistakes (copy editor heyyyyyyy) and whenever someone points out a mistake I made or--somehow worse--missed, it totally devastates me. I'm always convinced I'm going to get fired and as soon as I'm alone, I cry. IT IS TERRIBLE, and pretty hypocritical. But there you go.


@BoatGirl Ugh, yes, my boss once told me that my facial expressions involuntarily betray how I really feel about being corrected/critiqued. Oops.


@BoatGirl It may be just a few of us, but I fall squarely in your corner, ladyfren.

I think part of my problem with accepting criticism is that I have always prided myself on being Smart™. Being smart has always been the one positive, defining characteristic I have that I can point to with utter confidence. So when someone criticizes me, no matter what it's about (work, school, especially anything in an interpersonal relationship), I feel so *dumb*, because a "smart" person wouldn't need to be corrected. Since feeling dumb is anathema to everything that I believe about myself, it's a double-whammy: not only do I have the shame from doing something wrong, but I also feel like I have to question my basic perception of myself.


@BoatGirl When I was a little girl, my mom always told my sisters and I that we were "very, very, very smart". She drilled it in and encouraged us to think of ourselves as superior to kids and families around us. It worked- I thought of myself as Smart. Super smart, smarter than my teachers, even. Constructive criticism used to infuriate me even though I also reacted nicely to it outwardly. I would seethe about it for the whole day. "They don't know what they're talking about! I know how to do it better! My way is superior to their conventional way!"

As I got older, however, I started to notice that other people are smart, too. Even if they weren't so book-smart like I was, or as creative as I was, other people have developed expertise and have other, more practical intelligence. Some other people don't put on airs outwardly but are VERY smart. I figured out that "smart" is extremely relative.

It's good to just take things in humbly, considering them carefully - we are all human and are all intelligent.


@rimy (hope that doesn't sound preachy, but it's been a lot of work for me to change my mentality and I notice my mom's superior/condescending attitude in other Smart People frequently which sucks - other people can totally tell if you are secretly thinking superior things about them, it's not hard to figure out)

no bricks

@cecil hungry Same here! The bulk of what I do for my job is copy editing and I'm always devastated when someone points out that I've missed something...even though logically I know that I can't notice everything all the time.

fondue with cheddar

@rimy I have the same problem, but it depends on the situation. If it's a situation where I Know My Stuff (or if the other person doesn't) I'm like that, but if I don't I feel really insecure and small.


@fondue with cheddar I guess I am extrapolating this to a broader cultural attitude... I was in all accelerated programs and was in IB in high school, and just started to notice how there was SO much emphasis on our "specialness" and the importance of getting into the right schools. Lots of competitiveness, undercutting each other, haughty attitudes from IB administrators. We got all the funding and the "normal kids" were left in the dust. The IB art room had canvases, beautiful paints, sculpture materials, lofty ceilings, drawing from life, and the "normal kids" art room was windowless, flourescent-lit, full of colored pencils and paper.

I was friends with "normal kids" and got so disillusioned by it - they were just as smart as I was but maybe came from poorer or less advantaged families, or didn't have highly educated parents, but they deserved the same resources I was receiving.

I left IB in my junior year and went to normal AP classes at a non-magnet high school. Maybe that was a mistake, but I still hold by my disdain for all the cultural emphasis on Ivy League, high IQ levels, etc etc.


@wee_ramekin I think we might be the same person.


@rimy I totally feel you. I really dislike when others act pretentious or condescending, but sometimes I recognize myself acting that way and am horrified. I think a mentality of superiority can be fostered by your environment for sure, and can be very hard to change.

fondue with cheddar

@rimy In June I watched my boyfriend's son graduate from high school. It's a district in which most of the kids are upper-middle class (not my bf), and the school is very well-funded. They kept talking at the ceremony about how many kids there were who excelled, be it in academics, sports, or extracurriculars. And there were indeed a surprising number of kids who'd gotten some pretty impressive awards or accepted into impressive universities. But all I could think about was: of course they're all coming out fabulous—they've got the best teachers, coaches, materials, and technology; they live in a safe community; and they always get enough to eat. But there are undoubtedly kids as smart and capable as them everywhere, but they might never accomplish what these kids will because they don't have the same opportunities.


@wee_ramekin I'm so glad you said this you have no idea. It's one of the things about smart kids - we get simultaneously egotistical about how smart we are, and yet we are so very fragile when anything even remotely challenges that view. For me, I absolutely cannot handle it when other people seem to think I should know something already. Even when they're just kidding around, even when I objectively have no reason or inclination to know about this thing.

"You don't know the name of this medieval artist whose picture you are gazing at right now? I thought EVERYONE knew that."

And the shame will absolutely cripple me, even though I don't recognize the name when she says it and there is no earthly reason someone who is not an art history major should know it. Still the shame. Still the sudden loss of status as Smart Person.

Seriously, parents, don't tell your kids they're so smart. Just be hella proud of them when they try super-hard, or when they make cool things. Spending your life trying to embody an absolute virtue like Smart or Beautiful or Funny or whatever is so fucking impossible. Identifying yourself as Someone Who Can Make Cool Stuff or Someone Who Keeps Trying Even When It's Hard is just so, so much better.


@Linette "Seriously, parents, don't tell your kids they're so smart. Just be hella proud of them when they try super-hard, or when they make cool things. Identifying yourself as Smart or Beautiful or Funny or whatever is so fucking impossible. Identifying yourself as Someone Who Can Make Cool Stuff or Someone Who Keeps Trying Even When It's Hard is just so, so much better."

Totally. I think I'm going to teach my (hypothetical future) children that learning is a constant battle and the honor comes in fighting valiantly, and with integrity.


@rimy My boyfriend's mom is like this. I think I definitely see her attitude's effects on him, and it also makes me uncomfortable because some of the members of my own family don't have college degrees. :(


Requesting permission to join all you fine people aboard this boat. Never has a boat had so many captains. ;)

I grew up as the Smartest, biggest fish in a little pond....so, basically an over-trained aquarium dolphin. (I know dolphins are mammals) (SMART!!!) So many comments here ring true for me. I actually think the LW is doing just fine.

fondue with cheddar

@Linette This is me! Agreed, don't praise your kids for being smart. Praise them for working hard. A-fucking-men.


@rimy Ok, ok, one last thing (sorry if I'm being a bore!): even now if I can't grasp a subject immediately or within a few hours of studying etc, I lose all motivation to even try to learn it! A lot of subjects came easy to me, so if I experience any frustration I just shut down! It is a horrible characteristic that I am pretty sure comes from the fact that I expect myself to be smart enough to understand everything immediately! I really admire people who can plug away at a subject they can't grasp easily (for me, it's physics, advanced math, chemistry) until they come to an understanding. I am still working on this...

/rant for real this time


@rimy Hoooo boy, yes. That first time you realize you actually have very little idea how to study/learn, as opposed to just knowing/understanding is a doozy.

fondue with cheddar

@rimy OMG this is me, word-for-word. The other problem with grasping things easily as a kid is that you don't learn study skills. College is really difficult when you don't know how to study!


One of my bosses recently pointed out that everyone at the organization where I work was "the smartest kid in their class at some point." I imagine that's probably true of a lot of circles 'Pinners move in as well.

My main problem, however, is accepting praise gracefully. (Also I am too thin and handsome.)


@wee_ramekin Yes, I completely identify with this. I was always "the smart one" - school felt like the only thing I was good at - and getting anything wrong always really upset me (especially as the kids in my class would start yelling, "Oh my god, Verity made a mistake!" or whatever. THANKS). I have an awful time accepting criticism, and when I started university and had it really hammered home to me that there were lots of people much cleverer than me, and that a lot of the work was over my head, I completely fell apart mentally.


@Linette NPR just did a piece on how American kids, when they succeed, are told that it's because they're inherently smart, and how Taiwanese kids, when they succeed, are told it's because they struggled through the task and came out on top. Your post reminded me of that segment!

Crackity Jones

@cecil hungry Ah, fellow editor here who was just about to confess to the same illogical hypocrisy... Somehow anyone pointing out something I've *shudder* missed instantly negates all my wondrous editrix powers. Recognising the ridiculousness doesn't seem to stop it tho. Ugh.


@Verity (are you verityburns? because if so, i read your fanfic and love it! hee!)


@wee_ramekin Sadly, I am not.


@cecil hungry Me too with the copy editing, and right on with the other people finding our errors! And it doesn't help that I work at a place where most people (and I'm sorry this sounds so mean) cannot write the simplest sentence to save their lives (and this goes for the bosses too). These are also the people who say, "Hey, look; I edited an editor; I could do your job!" As if that mistake they found were the only one there to begin with, and I missed it. I know it's just office small-talk more or less, but I hate it and it makes me mad. And, @Alli525, I too have no poker face and do not disguise my inner thoughts too well!

I was happy recently, though, when my department supervisor (who is not one of the above-mentioned bad-sentence writers) agreed with me that the bosses were ignorant about the correctness of a piece of writing and said, not even sarcastically, "Well, you're just gonna have to put your intelligence aside; this is what they want." (And oh my goodness, so not get me on a tirade about how stupid some of the things they want are.)


@Hellcat And that last "so" was supposed to be "do"--oh, the irony. Maybe the people at my job are right after all...


@TheLetterL I am on this boat 100%. It was nice to be called the smartest kid in the school, to skip a grade, to be told by the "smartest boy" that I was the "smartest girl" (and to beat him at most academic things)... until I graduated from high school. My sister (similar to me) and I talk about this a lot.


@rimy OH oh oh this SO MUCH. I *did* understand everything (at least to the point necessary to get an A or B on the following test) quickly and easily pretty much through high school (I blamed my problems with pre-calculus on the shitty student teacher and the fact that I missed a lot of class because my grandfather was dying on the other side of the country and I had to travel a lot). Then I hit college and I had (still have) no fucking idea how to study or what to do when something was difficult (and to be honest, it took a little while for even that to hit, and the things that are difficult to grasp for me are things everybody classically finds difficult, like organic chemistry and molecular genetics, vs the things that are hard for me to *do* like sit down and plan out and write a paper or do a project because while I am managing my ADD I've only been diagnosed for a few years). And whenever something is difficult I can't process that blow to my "but I am a Smart Person and Smart People instinctively grasp all things!" and either decide that I must be stupid, or the thing I am trying to do/understand is stupid (this is how I coped with the ADD in primary and secondary school - the content of the homework is easy but the actual time and mental effort of doing it is hard and boring, therefore, homework is stupid, fuck it! - not a good plan). I am getting better at how I cope with this and have intellectually grasped that being smart is about working hard to learn/do things, but I am still emotionally sometimes stuck in that world.


@squishycat I'm surprised no one mentioned ADD on this thread yet, because I discovered I had that in college. It was such a revelation.


@rimy These words are lovely, and have hit me in a teachable moment. Thank you.


Thank goodness I found it@n


I love the accompanying picture, first off.

And second, LW1 could totally be me. Except my inward reaction is more a mix of rage and sadness than just rage. I always feel like crying due to crippling self-doubt. "I'm just not good enough!" pops into my brain pretty often.

So, even though I didn't write the question, thank you for the advice!


Ugh, impostor syndrome is my nemesis. As is constructive criticism (at my current job more than in general, but that's mostly because my boss doesn't actually understand my job so her criticism is rarely constructive). I can really use all of this advice!
I really like the idea of scheduled debrief. That puts you in control of the conversation, instead of them ragging on you. Maybe bring a point or two of your own, to even the power even more. And it will make you look so on the ball! Something like "I made X choice on this part of the project. Looking back, I think it might have been better to do Y. What do you think?"


LW1, what is it about the criticism that makes you so angry? Do you feel like it questions your competency? Your worth? Maybe tapping into what's really going on that's making you feel so angry can help you deal with it-knowing that your anger isn't about what's on the surface, but what's below.


the goal is not to "be a good person" in some abstract sense — it's to avoid getting into situations that break your heart and dampen your spirit and make you feel awful about yourself.

i love this advice. for anyone. about anything.


I copied this line and e-mailed it to myself before even finishing the article.


@wearitcounts Agree, love this so much. Copied and pasted on my dashboard stickies.


Very excellent all around.
From now on, whenever some lady is pulling that "well, if he's going to cheat on his wife, why shouldn't it be with me? why is shutting this down my problem?" moral relativist bullshit, that lady should be sat down with this answer. HERE'S WHY.


@City_Dater Of course, they may read it and go, "Well, it is something I can live with. Let the mistress-ing commence!"
This is moral relativism. Our standards are all different, and we do what feels right to us, hopefully after giving it serious thought.



But fortunately, bonafide sociopaths are still only about 1% of the population.


@City_Dater Although I'm not morally ok with sleeping with someone who's cheating, I don't think it's fair to say that you have to be a bonafide sociopath to be willing to do it.


@City_Dater #1. I say any married 40 year old dude who wants to hang with a woman, - 26 year old at that, when his wife is out of town is a scumbag. #2 Uh yeah, you are participating in emotional infidellity. And LW#3 is either playing dumb to a degree which I find pretty unbelievable or she needs to seriously wise up. To me the issue seems to have started here back when LW3 was a ' ' work spouse" What she is leaving out is the boundaries she did not draw, the hints she did not drop that she was friends only. If its getting to almost kisses, then she is 50% culpable. Being in the morally unambigious friend zone means saying " I want to meet your wife, you guys should come to dinner", being in the ego boosting flirt zone means saying ' sure I'll come visit with you on our couch when your wife is out of town." We all know when to draw a line and set a boundary between friends and lovers - and she did not set that boundary or draw that line. Seems like enjoyed the attention and the ego boost of this dude chasing her, with seemingly no consequences- to her. But IMHOP she has been on the slippery slope into being a scumbag herself all along. She could put the shoe on the other foot and ask herself how she would feel if her B.F. hung with women while she was out of town. However if she does not w ant to take a look at her own behavior, she can by all means have an affair with this dude- and they will deserve each other.


LW3: I think Sane Person is right on the money when she says that if you feel uncomfortable, then a line has been crossed (you make the lines) - if for no other reason than this guilt or doubt is going to taint your hangouts.
But I don't think you need to drop him entirely, or necessarily talk to him explicitly (I find I can talk to my best friends about everything except our own relationships).
I'd recommend just backing off a bit. Make a point to be less flirty in your texts, and only hang out in groups. Invite his wife out with the two of you, at least once or twice - it might make her feel better in case she's noticed something. Just make the FRIEND signs really explicit and this could all clear up tear-free.

polka dots vs stripes

@gobblegirl I would say the opposite, I think - when lines are fuzzy and maybe-crossed, maybe-not, I find it's best to lay flat out what you are and are not comfortable with in your relationship.

I recently had to tell a guy friend of mine it would be inappropriate for him to write me letters, even though he writes them to all his other "friends," because I'm in a serious relationship and my partner would never let that fly. If I said "oh teeheehee don't worry about it! you don't need to write to me!" or some other avoiding kind of language, he would have never gotten the picture.

But, I also know my friend well and knew how to say something like that to him, and I am also 100% an advocate of just saying what's up rather than modifying my behavior and hoping the other person notices, because they rarely do, especially romantically and even if you think your actions are explicit. Or they notice and conveniently ignore it. If you tell this guy where you stand, he doesn't have an excuse when he crosses a line.


@gobblegirl LW3 stole my life.

Daisy Razor

LW2, I used to be terrified of asking questions too. But now I ask them all the time, because I realized that people LOVE telling you about their area of expertise. They're not standing there thinking, "Jeez, I can't believe she doesn't know this." They're thinking, 'Yay, she's interested in this subject I love! This stuff I spent years learning is fascinating and helpful to someone!"


@Daisy Razor Yes. I work in management consulting, and despite being an "expert," more than half my job is asking the right questions and then really listening to the answers.


@Daisy Razor This is totally my experience. Also people seem to find you a lot smarter if you let THEM do all the talking, because if you ask one or two questions on their topic, they are like "gosh you know so much!" Tempered, obviously, by the condescending blowhards who want to pat you on the head, but let's face it-- they never did and never will think you're smart, so there's no impostering happening except their own.


@Daisy Razor I'm thinking that another good reason to ask questions is that it might actually help the person who's being asked. They might realize that they either need to clarify or expand on something in their work, or it might even inspire them to follow up some thought/idea/direction they hadn't considered before.


@Daisy Razor From a very young age, I have been a person who just *cannot* keep quiet, especially in class. It's sort of horrible, actually, and I have a pervasive fear that everyone I talk to wishes that I would just *shut it already*. BUT! The one upside is that I have asked professors and teachers and bosses a lot of questions in my day, and I cannot count the number of times that other students or employees have come up to me and thanked me for asking a question that they also had but were afraid to ask.

LW #2, you are smart - I have no doubt about it. You can't "imposter-size" your way into a really good grad school with well-reviewed research; you just can't. Please know that if you don't know something, there is at least one other person who doesn't know it and would love it if you asked a question. Or perhaps the person who does know the answer knows that answer, but doesn't know the answer to another question that you know like the back of your hand. I have rarely asked a question in a class or at a meeting without seeing heads nod in agreement with my question, or without having someone come up to me later and mention that they had the same question.


Yep, I really agree with this. I cannot recall a single time where I regretted asking a question. I can recall dozens of times where I regretted not asking a question. When people ask questions at school or work, it is a sign of interest and engagement. I have never thought anybody was stupid for asking a question. Seriously, never.

I will add in the caveat that I'm generally a somewhat shy person, and asking questions used to be much more difficult. It gets easier with practice, I promise.


The best advice I have ever read, anywhere, in my life, was on the Hairpin, and it wasn't even in one of these banging advice columns, which I love. It was in the interview Chiara Atik did with Caitlin Moran a while ago. I have kept it with me in my head and I go back to it when I'm anxious and it calms me in a way that no other single piece of advice has ever done. As an insecure grad student who cannot receive even a hint of criticism without wanting to throw myself off of a cliff, I feel like it might be worth it to (re)share it with some of the letter-writers here. Or maybe I just want to read it again, because I love it so.

"The trick is, and there's a little bit of heartbreak, you have to just give up on the idea of being a princess. You have to give up on the idea of being fabulous. My kind of base position on existence is that you just have to admit you're a bit of a twat. You're a bit of a div, you're a kind of sweaty, stumpy, well-meaning idiot and you're trying your hardest, but it's just enough to be a sort of pleasant, polite person who's working quite hard and tries to be nice to the people they're nice to. We don't need to have any more ambitions than that! ... You've got to be on top of your shit twenty-four hours a day. THAT is exhausting. It's just far better to go, you know what? I'm just basically a monkey in a dress, and the best I can hope for every day is just to be nice, to smile as much as possible, to be gentle, try and be a bit understanding, work really hard, go and smell some flowers, have a cup of tea, ring your mum if you get on with her, just kind of dial it down a bit. There's a more sustainable idea of being a woman rather than feeling like you're in a fucking movie twenty-four hours a day."

"I'm just a monkey in a dress. Monkey in a dress. Monkey in a dress." I whisper some version of that to myself every. single. day.


@Kristen Have you read her book? It is full of 24-carat gold just like that.


@Kristen I am emailing this to myself so I can read it EVERY DAY.


@Kristen Wow! I am really impressed by how self-confident you must be to find that advice useful. (Sorry if this sounds weird, but I am *genuinely* impressed!) I can't even imagine being able to give up on the idea of myself as princess and how I can make everyone else recognize that if I just work hard enough at it. I feel really ill-adjusted now.


@Ellie I feel like that makes you possibly more well adjusted than I am, because I kind of thought 'monkey in a dress' was too flattering for me. I'm more of a 'monkey in the same t shirt I wore yesterday except backwards'.


@Ellie Yeah, me and my new Latisse prescription are going to be over futilely striving for princess-hood. I'm halfway to accepting Caitlin Moran's advice as gospel, but in the meantime, a little voice is going, "What about a monkey princess?"

Kristen, I'm co-signing on admiring your sanity.


@Kristen Thanks for reiterating this.


@Kristen i love this, and i love caitlin moran, and i totally agree that in some ways we really are (as eddie vedder says) mammals in pants.

but there's more to it than that, too. a monkey in a dress doesn't have the capacity for good or for evil that we have. you don't see monkey hitler or monkey pol pot or monkey harriet tubman or monkey hillary clinton. we have a lot more complexity and freedom to make choices, which means we have more responsibility too.

i guess i just think that the whole monkey in a dress thing can sometimes be kind of a cop out. what moran says about this being the era of the shrugging, reasonable, cardigan-wearing person resonates a lot more with me.


@Ellie Thanks, I think! I would love to lay claim to being well adjusted, but the number of spazzouts I've had just today make think it might be premature.

If it helps, Moran frames the insight as one that came to her as a result of age, and in my experience, that is true. I'm in my early thirties now and at some point, it started to feel like I'd been lugging around the exhausting burden of my overweening ambition-insecurity complex for so long that it was just a relief to set it down.


@TheclaAndTheSeals not to take this off topic (but I will) but I am always wanting to hear Latisse results. Is it really worth the $100 plus for a tiny bottle?


@beanie Two days in, but holler at me in a month or so and I'll let you know! My friend's eyelashes went from average to fake-looking (in a good way), like I had to touch them to believe they were real. I'm optimistic.


@Kristen Moran also says in her book that yellow shoes go with everything, and I bought some and THEY TOTALLY DO. She is so wise.


Letter 2 is so relevant to me.


I'm kind of surprised imposter syndrome is such a problem for people in graduate programs. It only took me a couple of months of hanging out with the other people in my program to realize that 1) everyone feels dumb and 2) a good proportion of the other students, not to mention profs, actually are kind of useless. Then it switched from fear that they'd "send me back" to "how the hell did that guy get a degree?!"

The Lady of Shalott

@MilesofMountains I feel this way, I really do. As much as I TOTALLY FELT like a useless impostor for a while, and I felt like they'd Figure Me Out, and the crushing disappointment when I didn't get into my dream Ph.D. program....there are lots and lots of LOTS of useless, dumb grad students out there. In every program. And seeing so many whackjob profs out there ALSO made me feel much better--fuck, if some of these complete lunatics can do it, so can I.

I'm sure that some programs are full of amazing, smart, intelligent people. But the thing is: odds are, YOU are also an amazing, smart, intelligent person! Ergo: you are not an impostor, you belong there, and if complete lunatics can do it, YOU CAN TOO.

polka dots vs stripes

@MilesofMountains Yeah a (un)healthy part of my ego came from grad school.

LW2: You are clearly smart and capable! I'm willing to bet there's some early PhD students in your program looking up to you and your abilities and hoping they end up in your spot.


@MilesofMountains & @The Lady of Shalott - I think you are kind of validating the LW feeling like an imposter? Like, how do you know you're *not* one of the useless grad students?

The Lady of Shalott

@themegnapkin Well, I don't think you can ever KNOW it know for sure--I mean, they gave me a Master's degree, and I still feel like a useless doof most of the time. But for me it was just looking around at the other students I was with, and realizing that I was busting my ass and working hard and achieving just as good results as anyone else. Learning to trust my own judgment on my own academics made a big difference.

So you can't KNOW for sure, the way you know 2 and 2 absolutely equal 4. But you can do your best, try your hardest, and then trust yourself. That's as good as it gets for most things in this life.


@themegnapkin Agreed! The thing about the "useless," "crazy" professors and students is that no one tells them to their faces that they are lunatics. So it's very (hypothetically) possible that YOU are equally useless and no one wants to tell you! I think it's much more helpful to think in terms of the Caitlin Moran quote above--we're all imperfect, but we're also trying hard, and that's great. That's all we need.


@MilesofMountains Intellectually, I know I belong in my program, and that my marks are good, and that I am as smart as (or smarter than) many of my colleagues. That has nothing to do with the feeling of being an imposter; it's an emotional reaction that's hard to reason away.
Right now I'm at the stage after I've realized that I'm surrounded by some doofs, where I'm like "I think I'm so great, but what if I'm wrong? Maybe the reason I feel so confident is that I don't actually understand the concept/assignment?"
It's just part of being your own worst critic, and the only thing that helps (me) is working hard and reminding myself that it never helps to compare myself with others. Being reassured that everyone felt this way was also helpful.


@polka dots vs stripes Yes! Ask questions! I'd rather ask questions than just do something wrong.


@themegnapkin I guess you don't really, but mostly it doesn't really seem to matter, and really, there are only a few really really smart people in any department and the rest of us seem closer to the useless ones than the really smart ones. I don't believe the LW would be anywhere near as stressed about this if she actually interacted with her fellow students much, but it sounds like she's living in her head, hiding away from everyone else in case they realize she's a regular person and not finding out that grad school isn't full of Gods of the Mind, it's full of regular people who have a deep interest in a particular academic subject.


@aaaaanyway In my experience as an administrative witness to the complete shenanigans of a highly regarded and very competitive Ph.D program/academic department, a lot of it comes down to delusion. Believe me, these people have been called out. I have witnessed it in faculty meetings, tenure and candidacy reviews, job interviews, and public lectures. I have literally heard one faculty member say to another "just repeat what you just said and tell me that you seriously believe that." And they did, and they do seriously believe that. There's just so much incredible isolation and lying to oneself in academia. There's also something that hasn't been mentioned, which I actually saw much more of: you can be genuinely super smart and your work can be high quality, but you yourself can be a legitimately terrible human being. I'd say that for my money, it's worth so much more to be kind to those around you and do the best you can than to be brilliant and awful.


@roadtrips I'm a practicing attorney, so my focus is a bit different. I interact with all kinds of people - lots of genuinely awesome attorneys, but many who are terrible and deluded about their abilities. There *are* imposters out there - people who somehow managed to get themselves into a job that they are not capable of performing, and I struggle a lot with whether I fall into that category. I haven't figured out a way to beat imposter syndrome (is it really a syndrome if you're actually an imposter?), but I do find that I'm less crazy when I can remind myself that: (1) while intelligence is important, as long as you meet a certain baseline of intelligence, it's the other qualities and skills that will help you succeed. For example, one of the smartest people I've worked with was not a good attorney, because even though he could immediately master concepts that would take others much longer to figure out, he never learned how to create a product that would be helpful to our clients. Like, he would be asked to write a brief, and would hand in a scholarly-type article instead. And (2) Almost anything is learnable. In the worst-case scenario, even if you are absolutely terrible at what you do, you can learn skills to make yourself better.


@themegnapkin your point #1 is something I've definitely found a revalation since I've left academia. I'm an applied scientist, and it's amazing how little intelligence counts compared to some other qualities. My company also has a few very smart people who have come from high up in academia and are completely lacking in things like the ability to manage people, to write reports, to manage projects, to collaborate effectively, to have basic common sense, or to be decent people in general. All of these things matter just as much as being "smart" and sometimes matter a lot more. Many of my coworkers are responsible, sensible, capable, reasonably clever, nice people, and I wouldn't trade one of them for a genius. Maybe if academia valued those other things more, I wouldn't have left it because I didn't like what it seemed to do to people who stayed too long.

mari d


Its very interesting to read these comments from academics. Given the criteria you operate under, I can understand why incredibly smart people can feel so much self-doubt.

Whereas in the regular business world, you find out REALLY quickly if you're an idiot or not. Especially if you interact directly with the marketplace, without layers of management to cover for your mistakes or to steal your glory.

Either the market likes your product or service or it doesnt. That's pretty much it.

If it seems to like you on a regular basis--everyone screws up sometime-- you and others will declare yourself smart. No matter what your GPA was in college.


@MilesofMountains I would assume that to be 29 and almost have your PhD completed means one has spent little to no time outside the academic world. Which from my anecdotal experience, is really what breeds the impostor syndrome. I suffered from this feeling through my undergrad and graduate degrees, which I did back to back, but once I started working in the "real" world, I realized that most people are (barely) posturing dumbasses and academia was encouraging me to hold myself to an insanely high standard.


@MilesofMountains I'm doing my MA at the moment and feel like suuuuuch a shady imposter. Knowing other people feel like this is a help, slightly, but doesn't completely take away the feeling of being a giant fraud.


@piekin Depends on the country - I will be finishing soon (ASSUMING I DON'T FAIL! ;)) and I'm 26 - I did a masters and took a year out to have a real job. In the US it takes a lot longer I think.
But, yeah, for me, being in a bright, shiny institute with no undergraduates, full of some really, really smart people (who are not always the best human beings in the world, but hey) made me feel like a moron half the time. Having friends outside of science has been one of the best things for my mental health. I think the pressure of academia sometimes doesn't encourage that (because you are supposed to spend your entire life in the lab of course!), and it means you maybe lose perspective. Which personally I think is bad for your research, but I doubt the big professors would agree with me ;).


@angelan Yeah I had a master's degree at 23, but a PhD is usually another 5-7 years on top of that, at least in the States. But I think getting a PhD by 30 in any country is pretty impressive! I'm in the arts/humanities, but I've heard the sciences can be even more neurosis-inducing. Maybe because you guys use numbers and facts and fancy things like that? Congrats on your impending graduation!


@Slapfight I wish, wish, wish asking questions at my job would be seen as normal. In addition to copy editing, I also do a lot of copy writing with little to no direction other than "make it pop!" or "tell more of a story" or "it should sound special"--and all of this is aimed at various products and events that are more or less the same, and no one says why Event A should be more special than Event B, or why Item A should "pop" more than Item B does (knowing the whys would help me write effective copy, I'm sure of this!) On top of that, asking questions seems to be viewed as not being a team player or, worse, trying to get out of doing the work. While I admit to being a bit of the former, I am certainly not the latter, and my questions are (or would be) for the purpose of doing it right the first time so as to not waste time in starting whatever is next on the list. Ugh, it makes me mad and sad... but this week mostly sad.


@Hellcat Awww...I'm sorry! That does sound frustrating. I hate working for people who expect you to read their minds. Is there any way to frame it to make it seem exactly as you describe? You know, that you want to do a great job and need more info? I find it's easier to communicate enthusiasm for the topic with questions in written form, because they can't see my face. ;)
Sorry if you've already tried this. You have my sympathy regardless.


@Slapfight Awww, thanks. I don't know what goes on there, really--and I've been there for a decade. It's certainly unconventional to say the least, and it is always so hard to try to explain to anyone who works in a normal(ish) office environment (which I have in the past) why we "can't" do the logical things in these situations. I could write a book on this place and its idiosyncrasies and bizarre ego battles and disorganization and inefficiency.

But, at the same time (and these are the things I have to push to the front of my mind when I get rattled), I can work from home when I want/need to, I do get to do creative (within limits) stuff, and I did just buy a condo. So while there are not what I'd label "perks," it's not a totally dead-end thing I've got. Still, come on, man--I'm asking because I legitimately want to know, not 'cause I'm sassin' the higher-ups!


@MilesofMountains Cue the anecdata! Megan is totally right. I am in a PhD program that I changed fields to be in, which sort of cuts the impostor syndrome off at the knees. I knew I was an impostor, and I told everyone about it... which made me not an impostor, because I wasn't pretending? Anyway, it helped me give myself permission to ask questions all the damn time of everyone who knew more about stuff than me. And you know what? Now people ask me questions, and it makes me so happy when I can answer them. I still ask a lot of questions, though!

Anyway, what I really wanted to say was that there are two types of people (generally) in my program. There are cool people who don't need to remind anyone of their brilliance. They ask questions and they are interested in other people's research. They don't know everything, but they want to try. They take their work but not themselves seriously. They are great to hang out with.

Then there are people who are afraid. They don't know everything, but they feel like knowing everything is an achievable goal and that they need to be further along that road than everyone else. They take everything--their research and themselves--seriously. They ask questions, but they are always waiting for an opportunity to remind everyone about their work and how Important it is. They struggle to grow because they view criticism as a challenge to their ego rather than a chance to think about their work differently and make it stronger. And no one really likes these people, because they're a little insufferable. (Trust me, I was a little bit like this at my MA program, and it was the worst, and I was the worst.)

Now, those are extremes of a spectrum, and I'm sure that we all fall somewhere in between. But the thing is, you don't want to let your insecurities turn you into that second kind of student. You're awesome! You read TheHairpin, which means you are probably brilliant and funny and clever and have awesome taste in music. I bet your research is wonderful, and if I ever run into you at a PinUp, I'd love to hear about it.


@MilesofMountains I was I think the only one of my friends in grad school who didn't suffer from serious Impostor Syndrome outbreaks. Then I switched careers and I started to get I.S. in spades. I actually have come to think it's a good sign that I feel that way - that it's a sign, as Sane Person says, that I still have more to learn - especially since I've learned that some of the most accomplished women I know, in a range of fields, feel the Exact Same Way. Everyone feels like they're faking it at some level. The trick is to work with the ones who really aren't.


Oh, LW3, I feel you. Truly, I do, and what Megan said about "I know it's hard to shut it down with someone you're attracted to, and it feels unfair, especially when it seems like it shouldn't be your job." is so on the nose!

But if you're anything like me, the closer you get to this guy, the harder it's going to be to extricate yourself and reclaim your sanity. And the fact is that if this guy was actually your friend, and really cared about you the person (as opposed to you the chick he would like to bang), he wouldn't put you in this position.


@SarahDances Also, I feel like if he was just your friend, he would also want you to be his wife's friend. More friends for everyone, instead of keeping you to himself in a private little corner.

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

@smidge Yes. Dirty little secret corner, most likely.

baked bean

@SarahDances Yeah, spot on with your advice. Even if you trust yourself not to do anything, if you get too close you're going to get frustrated and hurt despite how much control you have.


I suffer from impostor syndrome, but in a social sense rather than in an accomplishments sense. I am unconsciously convinced, despite at least some evidence to the contrary that I can acknowledge with the logical part of my brain, that people who have liked me in the past will not necessarily continue to like me in the future because I have somehow tricked them into liking me, and that all it will take is one incident of inconvenience or stupidity on my part to expose me for the unlikable, awkward, embarrassing creature that I really am, and then I will be friendless and alone. I don't want to think this about people! But this imagined tenuousness on my part regarding the relationships I've made causes me to struggle out of proportion with little personal failings for fear that the people I love will see them and realize they've made a huge mistake.


@frigwiggin OMG Are you ME?!

Every friggin week I discuss this with my therapist. And every week she tells me that I'm totally wrong. But in the back of my mind I go,but you don't know that for sure. Ugh


@frigwiggin Ugh me too! But my social imposter syndrome carries over into academics/work. When I was little I would go over to my best friend's house and if one of her brother's answered the door they would say something like "she doesn't like you anymore, go away!" And instead of being like, ugh, brothers are lame, I would think, oh god I'm forcing my way into this girl's house and she doesn't even like me! Sometimes I would even turn away and do the sad Charlie Brown walk across the street.

Judith Slutler

@EngNaturalBeauty@twitter Hah, me too. I always get to this point in therapy where I want to ask, "But what if I actually am the worst? You can't PROVE I'm not!"


@frigwiggin This. Not so much friendships, but romantic relationships. Evenutally they will find out that I am a horrible person and unlovable, so the solution is to avoid intimacy and show them only the best parts of yourself so they never really know you and thus, if they reject you, it's not because of they discovered the truth about who you really are, though they probably suspected. I've managed to deal with some of this, but anytime anyone tells me/indicates they like me, my self-doubt tells me they're lying to get what they want, they are playing a game, they'll soon be bored and move on, and of course, they only like you because they don't know you. And by all of these "you" statements, I mean me. And to think I am dramatically better than I was in my 20s!!!


@frigwiggin Sooo me. My main stress with friends is that they'll discover they won't like me and won't want me around, and that stress leaks into my interactions with them and makes me act stupidly and probably unlikeable.


@frigwiggin @swirrlygrrl YES. 100% yes. (Of course, it totally impacts my work, too. But I feel it most in my social life.) It's so hard and while I love my friends and hope they continue to put up with me, I've never had a relationship. I can't get past a second or third date. Why bother? They won't like me. And if they do, it's my cue to run faster, before they realize how wrong they are. :/

...my therapist and I are going to have a long relationship, aren't we.


@frigwiggin This is so true! Argh! I feel like I've finally managed to get over academic imposter syndrome, but only recently realized how irrational my social imposter syndrome is. Clearly everyone is just putting up with me to be polite, and secretly find me super obnoxious and annoying! I must be ever vigilant, or they will realize that I am secretly a terrible person!

It's kind of exhausting, but I don't know how to stop? I would suspect that it's the result of being deeply unpopular as a child/teenager, but I get the impression that people who have always had lots of friends still feel like this.


@Emmanuelle Cunt I really like one CBT response to that, which is more or less to ask "Okay, let's say you really are the worst. Let's say tomorrow, you say something to your best friend and she says 'Ugh, you are so stupid. I don't want to be your friend anymore.' What would happen then?"

It forces me to get more specific than the amorphous "My life would be OVER!" panic. If I mentally play that out as if it happened in real life, it's not like I'd die on the spot. I'd have to do something. Even if that was "Stay in bed and cry for a week," then I'd still have to do something after that.

Usually, it ends up with me realizing that okay, that would suck, but it would be survivable.

It's not an insta-cure. I still worry about things. But it helps more than it might seem like it would.


@frigwiggin Goddd, this is so true. And this is going to sound really sad and kind of drama-queen-y or whatever, and I promise I don't mean it that way, but whenever people say that they want to hang out with me or hear from me more, my response is always, "really?" I mean, I know that people I hang out with have fun while I'm hanging out with them, but it's hard for me to internalize that into them liking spending time with ME, as opposed to just tolerating me because we somehow happen to be part of the same friend group.

Mostly it's fine, because I'm an introvert anyway, but I'm willing to bet I've missed out on some pretty good friendships (...and family relationships? I think so. sad face.) because I automatically assume they don't actually really want to hang out with me.

Good thing I have the internet! Let's all be impostors together?


@frigwiggin Oh my GOD, I'm exactly like this except with people who are attracted to me. Like, I'm deathly afraid of people finding me attractive when I'm drunk/being my social self/looking put together and then later being like "Whaaat? Why was I ever into you?!"


@frigwiggin and @SarcasticFringehead Just joining the impostor party... it really is awful/exhausting. And apparently sadly common. [For the record, I actually just thought: "aw, they're not impostors! I see their comments; they seem like cool people. *I*, on the other hand... faaaakerrrr".] And YES on the "really?" - I do the exact same thing. Something does not compute. Arrrgh.


Everything about the response to LW3 is so powerfully good. THIS: "Imagine in great detail what it would be like to wake up the next morning after a sweet and hot hookup with this handsome guy who happens to have pledged the rest of his life to loving another woman exclusively. Is that a morning you want in your memory?"

Maybe it feels OK for some ladies? I don't know. I cheated on a guy once (only once!) and felt terrible. And I did have that exact moment of waking up next to the Other Guy and going, "oh my god, now I'm a person who cheats. I can't take that back."

So basically, I needed this column to have been written about a year and a half ago. Sad face.


This is excellent advice. Even though I've been in the workforce longer than Megan, I still suffer (more than I like to admit) from both defensiveness against criticism AND "impostor syndrome." It can be hard to put her great suggestions into practice, but when I am able to shut off my stupid brain and do it, I am much more productive and happy.


What does "the jig is up" mean, anyway? Where did it come from? (I could probably look this up but I like crowdsourcing my questions better than just asking Google.)


I don't know, but I do know that every time I hear those words, I want to sing/scream "THE NEWS IS OUT, THEY FINALLY FOUND ME."


@frigwiggin It means the jig is over. The dance is done! So is your fun.


@SarahP OMG that's the most sinister-sounding accidental rhyme I've ever made.


@SarahP The dance has come to a head! Now you're dead.


@frigwiggin Thank you for spelling it correctly. I did a search to confirm the correctness of my lifelong understanding of the phrase as "the JIG (not GIG) is up," and I found this: http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/55/messages/720.html

It makes the additional point that "jig" can also mean "a bit of trickery," which is somehow (despite the ancientness of that sense) what I always associated with the phrase. I probably got it from an old Warner Brothers cartoon in which gangsters warned each other (or were warned by police), "The jig is up, Mugsy," and such.


@SarahP "It means the jig is over. The dance is done! So is your fun."

I just laughed uncontrollably loudly.


@frigwiggin No idea but I'm pretty sure it's racist.


Words cannot express how much I love the answer to LW3.

She was a retail whore

@Dancercise Agreed! It was so reasonable, and although she did a great job of explaining how the advice worked for this situation, I think it could easily be applied to other situations, too. "Murky" and "Iffy" are now considerations, along with my all-time favorite, "seems legit."


LW 2, after feeling like an imposter for the first 2 years of college (I got into a good school where a majority of my peers were either from private schools or were international baccalaureate students...I went to a mediocre public high school), I was totally frustrated by something, and FINALLY grumped about it to someone in my class. His answer? "Oh, really? I feel way better, because if you don't get it, then I'm not an idiot like I thought." Which was just an amazing way to learn that EVERYONE, even the quintessentially perfect students, feels the same way sometimes. I think you'd be surprised how often "imposter syndrome" lasts (maybe not to the severity you described, but it certainly crops up from time to time for me, even though I'm 10 years out of college and have worked in the same industry this whole time).


I knew someone in college who was crazy smart, and they would always say "I'm not smart, I'm just a good bullshitter."

They totally had the impostor syndrome - they were convinced that everyone else really 'got it', and they were just bs'ing. But at a certain point, it's like - look, you're a med student. You keep talking about biology. You know what everyone else is talking about, they know what you're talking about.

You're not a bullshitter. Very few people are actually 'good bullshit artists' - some are, and they're usually assholes. A lot of times, you just know your shit, but it's a confidence thing. You think because some people are smarter than you, you're not smart.

The best advice I got as a kid was "You'll probably never be the best, at anything. You're not going to be the smartest, or fastest, or best looking. You'll probably be somewhere in the middle on most things, ahead of a lot of people in a couple, and behind most people in a couple. It's just how it is. Don't worry about staying on top, just worry about moving forward." --

Not exactly uplifting, but it worked. You can't compare yourself. You just....do stuff.


@leon s I think the problem comes with knowing, from the inside, that you'll probably never be the best and trying to manage that knowledge with the way people react to you. Which is why I've had imposter syndrome all my life.

RK Fire

@leon s: But if you can't compare yourself with others than what is the point of it all??? /tongue-in-cheek

Seriously though, I got that advice when I was a kid too and it's never been able to stick with me. I have this desire to be the best at everything, forever, which I know is irrational.

Passion Fruit

@leon s "Don't worry about staying on top, just worry about moving forward."

I really liked your advice, especially this; thanks for sharing.

The Lovecats

@leon s
Sometimes I think people in my program are just lying and saying they don't get it and then the next person has to say, "I don't get it either" in order to not look too confident... and then everyone is always talking about how they're not getting it - when really they are (and know that they are) but are lying about it in order to not look like a pompous ass.

baked bean

There's this Ira Glass thing where he talks about that in every field you get to the point where you know how to recognize something that's really good, and you know you're not there yet. So everything you do frustrates the hell out of you becuase it's not good enough. But then if you keep doing that stuff and keep working on it, you're practicing, and you'll get over that hump and you'll be good.
I have to remind myself of that all the time now, because I am in that "ahggghh nothing I do is good enough!" rut.

Elizabeth Switaj@twitter

LW1: I'm a lot like you in terms of taking criticism. What I've decided to do is to let myself off the hook for feeling defensive. I have rituals that I use, for example, when I get feedback on articles sent off for peer review (it's amazing how nasty some of it sounds even when the overall judgment is positive). I let myself feel the anger and the sadness, and then I set out to use the feedback. It is OK to feel upset, as long as you don't let the feelings control you.


LW3 - I'm not sure that talking about the awkwardness you feel with him is the best measure for whether or not you can be friends with this guy.
It sounds like this guy tends to call you up when his wife is away, but he is (or are you) against the idea of the three of you hanging out together? I find that that is the best (maybe even the only) way to be respectful of a friend's relationship, and avoid creating a kind of parallel world where he is ostensibly single. If you can hang out with her and still have a good dynamic with him, I'd say the possibility of friendship is there. But if you're just in it for the "game" of flirting behind her back, I'd say you should back away.


@Midie "parallel world where he is ostensibly single" is a really good way of putting it.


@smidge It really is. Even if his wife doesn't mind, it could be unfair that he only calls you to hang out when she's away, like he's living vicariously by using you as an other-girlfriend figure. And even if he doesn't see it like that, you might in the back of your head, and you could end up getting the emotional damage from it.


I once read that one of the "symptoms" of ADD is essentially impostor syndrome. So you're totally not alone. In fact, many people say as soon as you feel comfortable and like you really know what you're doing, you need to start doing something else that terrifies you and makes you feel dumb. You should never be the smartest person in the room. If you are, you're doing something wrong.


Wait, a professor told you that impostor syndrome just goes away? That is a damnable lie. "Fake it 'til you make it" is a mantra for a reason.

Impostor syndrome is completely normal for years and years. For a full year after I defended my dissertation, part of me was convinced someone was going to find errors in the math chapter and TAKE AWAY MY PHD. Like defrocking a priest.

So don't feel bad about still feeling bad. :) That's normal - every academic I know feels it sometimes.

Clarifying questions are good and valuable. One thing that helps me is to remember that it's the AUTHOR'S job to make their point clear. If you're confused about what an author/speaker means, half the time it's their fault. That doesn't make the author an idiot, but it doesn't make you one either.


@lalaura That's been a lot of help for me. Namely, realizing that often when I can't understand a plot or a paper or a talk, it's because people in academia are often really crap communicators! And that folks are often grateful if you ask "What the heck does this mean?"

I've often worried that I don't have a good enough grasp of statistics to do the work I'm doing. I feel better when I realize that almost no one I work with, except maybe my 70-yr old statistics-expert advisor, seems to have a perfect grasp of how to do the statistics.

(Then I get worried again, because, shit! No one in my field knows how to do statistics!)


@lalaura Yeah, if anything, my impostor syndrome has gotten worse as my PhD program has progressed.


Wait, I don't see how the dude in LW3's situation is really being a "friend" at all? I'm kind of seeing this exclusively as "pre-cheating" where he is conveniently setting shit up so that he can easily cheat on his wife. If you were friends, he wouldn't have to keep you or your hangouts a secret or only invite you over when his wife is gone. How skeezy. I think instead of "am I engaging in psychological cheating?" the better question is, do you want to even associate with this skeezy dude? I mean, imagine being the wife in this scenario & finding out your husband was inviting other women over while you were away without telling you. Even though nothing physical happened, that's a pretty bold line to cross, no?


@fabel Yeah, the part where they seem mostly to hang out only when the wife is out of time struck me as shitty too. I understand that when your partner is out of town it gives you free time to hang out with people you ordinarily don't see as much of as you would like, but that doesn't mean you can have friends you only ever hang out when your partner is away. You can't put your friends in storage and pull them out when it's convenient.


@fabel I am going to admit it (and this probably comes from getting only 4.5 hours of sleep last night): LW #3's question is making me really irritable. What exactly is unclear about this not being an OK situation "ethically speaking"?

It really grinds my gears when people pull faux-ignorance around textbook cheating situations like this. Like, girl, either own that you want to bone a married dude and are sliding closer and closer to that point, or own that your behavior is headed in that direction and change it. WTF did LW #3 want A Sane Person to say given the details of this e-mail? "LW #3, you are super special and should continue being friends with this dude because YOU aren't doing anything wrong. If anyone is doing something wrong here, he is"? In what possible universe is the answer to this e-mail going to be anything other than some version of "Stop what you're doing (numpty)"? Gah.

[As I said, 4.5 hours of sleep, so please excuse the whingeing.]


@wee_ramekin I get it, but isn't that what advice columns are for half the time? "Here is my situation. I already know what to do about it, but would like someone else to tell me, so that when I actually do it I can say 'An expert told me to do this!' rather than relying on my own kind of waffly internal motivation."


@Elsajeni Is it? It seems a little like LW3 is engaging in the emotional equivalent of a Penthouse letter. It seems to me that she is finding the whole thing rather delicious, when in reality it already seems pretty banal and gross.


@wee_ramekin I agree. While I generally liked this advice, it was too focused on the LW's well-being. I may have misunderstood, but the advice seems to say that as long as LW is ok with being a mistress (I feel like a grandma typing that), then she can go ahead and do it. What about the husband and the wife, though? Like it or not, her actions can have tremendous impact on their lives. The affair wouldn't obviously be my choice, but doing going ahead with it demonstrates a clear lack of compassion for other human beings.


@BosomBuddy I think the thing that really irks me about this particular letter is the seemingly willful blindness of it all: I'm his work wife! We only hang out when his real wife isn't around! We're just friends but we almost kissed when he invited me over when his wife was out of town! I'M behaving; why can't HE (*tee hee*)?! I just want to be friends!

I mean, c'mon girlfriend. You are either exerting so much energy into consciously "tricking" yourself into believing that you are just friends that you could power a small city, or you're well aware of what you're doing and just being salacious. Either way, stop it out and find some other folks to befriend / unattached dudes to bone.

Ugh. I guess I just hate it when grown-ass people try to pretend that the world is just happening to them, instead of owning the fact that in situations like these, they are an actual driving force. I think I'd be more lenient if this LW had started with "I'm 17 and...", but girlfriend is 26. Come on, dudette. Just...COME ON.

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

@wee_ramekin You'd think that by typing it out and admitting to herself that the dude only wants to see her when his wife's away would knock some realizations loose, but alas. ALAS.


@wee_ramekin yeah I think this letter frustrated me is because I saw myself at 19, when I was relatively clueless, especially about relationships, to now (at 25, so a bit younger than the letter reader) and thought she had to know what was going on. Not to say that I'm an expert (by no means) but I have a hard time believing that LW3 is that naive.


@Elsajeni I think also there's an element of wanting someone to "say it isn't so". Like, okay, I'm in this situation that is sucky, and I can see that it is sucky, but I don't WANT it to be, so I am hoping someone else's perspective will fix it. If you have a friend that you genuinely want to be friends with, and they are fucking it up, I can see wanting to find a way around that.


@Blushingflwr Yup. It's "no no no wait, this impending train wreck? That I am so invested in seeing as a salvageable situation, it's salvageable, right? Right? Right? Oh damn it to hell it isn't all right, is it?

Girlfriend, we've all been there, whether in this kind of deal or some other. My boyfriend isn't being terrible is he? I don't have to apologize, do I? My BFF isn't taking advantage of me, right? It can't be the case that I could have handled that better? Yes, he is. Yes, you probably should. Actually, yes, they are. And, yes, you could have. It sucks, but it's true. Have a sympathy beer/ G&T and some fries and go fix this before it's way too late.



I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

@piekin I hate that term. A lot of my friends have "derby wives" in roller derby, and while I'm all for female companionship, I think that shit's annoying.

This is my new username

@piekin Work spouses are a bit weird. Although in my office, we have a few "work relationships" but they are family type relationships. There are a few "work siblings" and a few work moms and dads. Our office family tree actually has quite a few branches now, come to think of it.

baked bean

@This is my new username That just reminds me of playing house in elementary school.
I love how when I was a teenager, adults tried to say WE were the dramatic ones. Dear God, drama never goes away! That was a disappointing realization to me. If anything, grown-up drama is worse because it's bigger things. Things that actually fuck up families and stuff.


@fabel Yeah, when I had a friend who would sort of lead me on and invite me out a lot and flirt a little, all the while getting back together with his ex, at least we actually went out and did stuff. I guess that's why I let it go so long, because it was a lot more ambiguous. This stuff seems way more obvious. He's sneaking around on his wife!


"did stuff" = "went to movies with friends, went to parties, etc."

baked bean

@whateverlolawants I feel like it's extra hard to let go of people like that because they are providing you something to do that's fun. And yeah, you were in public, not at home alone!


@fabel Exactly! And he was one of my only friends at the time where I was living, so it was even harder to let go.

prefer not to say

Imposter PhD,

I am the academic you ten years from now, with job and job security. Here is what I learned:

1) Not everybody DOES feel that way. There really ARE people who are just naturally more confident, not as self-reflective, had a ridiculously affirming upbringing, whatever, and they do not feel like imposters. Every time I try to tell myself "Oh, everybody feels this way," when I'm feeling insecure, it just plain doesn't work, because there's too much evidence to the contrary.

2) What works more is just acknowledging, yeah, I'm going to feel like an imposter. That's sort of my thing, kind of like how my dad can't stop telling stories of when he was in the Navy, or my husband always criticizes how I load the dishwasher. It's just a thing I have to adjust for.

3) The way I've adjusted for it is: a) never apologizing for or making disparaging comments about work I've done, no matter how much I feel like it b) watching how other people receive ask questions, receive criticism and feedback in a way that telegraphs both their authority and open-ness to feedback c) imitating them in situations where I'm presenting my work d) Forcing myself to seek out feedback.

4) When I am unsure whether I am about to ask a stupid question, I try to frame it as an inquiry specifically related to the project at hand, ie, not "I don't know what you mean by "hegemonic realism" (because, really -- I don't know what you mean) but "So, I'm interested in your use of the term 'hegemonic realism' and why you thought it was relevant for this project?"

4) Just stay passionately interested in what you are doing. Real interest and commitment compensates for many neuroses. When you're afraid you're doing it wrong or you're about to be finally found out, just ask yourself "Was I interested in what I was doing? Did I try my best to find out what was true about this project?" And if the answer is yes, just keep going. Because in the end, that's all any of us have.


@prefer not to say
To elaborate on point 1: there is not necessarily a very high corellation between the people who don't feel like imposters and the people who are really smart. Some of the most confident people I've met in my program are the people who seem to get it the least (and do the least work).

prefer not to say

@gobblegirl But you know what I've learned? Trying to identify "the people who get it the least" doesn't actually help me feel less like an imposter. It just makes me judgy and impatient. Once I let go of the need to pigeon-hole people as "smart" or "dumb," I actually was able to listen to everyone a lot more attentively, and even learn some stuff from people that I would have otherwise just dismissed.


@prefer not to say ack so when people say things like that, then i start thinking that when i've convinced myself to be a little competent about something, i'm clearly one of those people who acts confident but doesn't get it. neuroses will always find a way!

it's true, as megan says, that you just need to do your thing, because that's all you can do.


@prefer not to say Re: 1) - What evidence to the contrary? Is it just that people don't verbalize their insecurity?

I can relate to a bunch of commenters who grew up as the smart kid, never tried that much and felt a lot of pressure to just "get" stuff with out trying.

Freshman year in college I was lucky enough to have the chair of the physics department as my adviser (I went in with the major declared and never looked back). He gave me the best advice of my life. Something along the lines of "If you're going to stick with this subject get used to feeling stupid. It's hard, everyone feels stupid 90% of the time and then there's a tiny moment where you figure something out and feel smart and then you have to start over" He also told me that a professor that I loved and respected had nightmares for 2 years after he got his doctorate that Yale would call and take it back.

So just knowing that was enough to feel like an imposter, but have the confidence that everyone else did too so it was ok to ask questions or mess up and what ever.

Which kind of leads into your point two, except you can say like not just you but EVERYONE feels like that. Maybe for some people it goes away and some people it never does but I think it's universal.

Gef the Talking Mongoose

@gobblegirl : Allow me to introduce the "Dunning-Kruger effect". In short, it holds that people incompetent at a given task tend to rate themselves above their actual skill level because they don't know enough to recognize their mistakes. The flip side, pertinent to LW2, is that skilled people tend to rate themselves below their actual level of competence because they tend to assume that everyone else has an equal skill level. Dunning and Kruger don't specifically speak to it, but I also think that people competent in a given field know enough to realize how extensive and tricky that field is, while incompetent people don't, and happily assume "oh, it's easy!"

the angry little raincloud

@Gef the Talking Mongoose Yes! This! I used to teach college: the most trying part of my job was explaining to a student-- who had been a pampered little special snowflake his or her entire life-- why they were not getting an A, as s/he expected, but a C-. I tried to be kind, encouraging, etc., but for one particularly obstinate student, I had to break out, "You don't even know enough to recognize what you don't know. That's why you're failing."

And that's why asking questions is good: you know you don't know everything. It doesn't make you look stupid, it makes you look open to the world.

Also, that is the source of my crippling writer's block these days, or inability to send papers out for review. I know there is a lot I can't answer. I know I should have read sources in this other language. I'll send something out and next year I'll read the one key source I missed that totally overthrows everything... Deep down, I know scholarly work (thinking) is never complete, but it's these gray areas that terrify me.

the angry little raincloud

@prefer not to say
PS, What the hell is "hegemonic realism"? I have a PhD in a humanities field, and I feel like this is something maybe I should know, but certainly sounds like the point when my eyes glaze over in conferences...


@Gef the Talking Mongoose My rubric for gauging someone's depth of knowledge is when you ask them a question a layman might have about their field (e.g. "So what really caused the financial crisis?" or "Why do so many more people seem to have allergies these days?"). If their first response is "Well, it's really complicated..." then I tend to think more of their expertise than if they immediately rattle off an answer, even if it sounds convincing.

ETA: For humanities fields it will usually be more like "So who is YOUR favorite [Medieval Italian poet or whatever]?" Usually the answer is "Well I wrote my dissertation on X but really it's Y."

Gef the Talking Mongoose

@stuffisthings : Clifford Stoll has a story about his thesis defense for his astronomy PhD. The four examiners start off by asking him a couple of questions specifically relating to aspects of his thesis and his research, and he's feeling pretty good about it -- this is all the high-level stuff that he's been working on, and he knows it cold.

This goes on for some time, and they're about ready to wrap up, when one of the examiners says "oh, and one last question, Mr. Stoll. Why is the sky blue?" Stoll is dumbfounded -- this is first-year physics, way at the other end of the curriculum from his awesome PhD-level stuff -- and he sort of stammers out something about light entering the atmosphere at an angle. The examiner nods and says "yes, but can you be more specific?" Stoll manages to put together an explanation of how water droplets in the atmosphere diffract the light from the sun, and how that causes the angle. "Yes," says the examiner, "but can you be more -specific-?"

Half an hour later, he's dredging up everything he can remember about subatomic physics ...


LW2 - I think a lot of smart people confuse intelligence with knowledge. They think because they are smart they ought to KNOW EVERYTHING. I think you're not just being too hard on yourself, but too impossible on yourself. You can only know things once you've been told them and there's no shame in not knowing them. For example if you have never seen Downton Abbey then you wouldn't know who cousin Violet is and why she's so perplexed by a weekend, but that wouldn't mean you're not smart, it just means you haven't experienced the best 15 hours of your life yet.
So, in not so short, ask away!


This advice comes to you by a person who had your exact problem.


@teaandcakeordeath Yes! Exactly! Lack of knowledge does not mean a lack of intelligence, and admitting that you don't know something doesn't reflect badly on you.


@teaandcakeordeath ALTHOUGH. If you don't know who Cousin Violet is, most people will let it slide, but you know she'll be...

(sorry, couldn't resist)


@wee_ramekin Okay, where did you get a picture of my thesis defense committee?!


@SarahP Preach it!


Never resist wee_ramekin.


Delurking because LW2, I feel your pain! The thing that has helped me the MOST with impostor syndrome is starting to think of intelligence as something you work towards, not something you are born with. My childhood friends and I were in gifted and talented programs from a young age, then we went to magnet high schools, and then most of us went to great colleges. But that crippled me tremendously; I was always worried that I would "stop being good at school," and then everyone would find out that I didn't deserve to be there, and then my life would be ruined. It became an all-or-nothing game: be perfect, or do nothing at all. Eventually, my first term in college, I freaked out and didn't turn in some of my final papers. Too much pressure.

I did pretty badly that term, but you know what? The world didn't end, and no one thought I was stupid! The next term I asked for help constantly: went to office hours, went to the Writing Center, and asked allllll of the dumb questions in class. In conversations I got better at admitting when I hadn't read something and simply asking what it was (although as an English PhD student, I still struggle with this). Asking for help helped me get to know my professors and peers better, and gave them a better sense of my skills--which led to internships, to job offers, and eventually admission into my dream PhD program. Admitting that you're not perfect, and working hard to fill in your own gaps, goes a long way.

This is backed up by some evidence: there are studies that suggest that praising a child's innate intelligence hurts him or her in the long run, while praising a child's work ethic can lead to long-term success. (see: http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/) I try to think of it that way: I might not be the smartest, but I can ask the smartest dumb questions, and I can work my ass off. You can do it too!


I agree, I think it sounds like LW1 is GOOD at accepting criticism, just bad at not feeling bad about it. Criticism also makes me feel terrible. Something that I find helpful is directly acknowledging it, like, stating out loud to my supervisor what changes I will make "OK, in future I will do xxx" so that it kind of "demystifies" it if that makes sense? It gets it out in the open (psychologically) instead of trying to minimize it to myself and ending up even more obsessive. But I thought the advice to her was perfect.

I have little stabs of impostor syndrome sometimes (especially at work) but in general I'm probably an incredible narcissist. This is sort of good for self esteem but also sort of inversely not good for self esteem because I have unattainably high expectations for myself and then am disappointed a lot. Now I feel guilty. Impostor syndrome seems really virtuously humble in comparison, although I know it is a terrible feeling.


Practical step for dealing with imposter syndrome: GET OUT OF YOUR BUBBLE. I'm married to an ex-phD student and it's amazing the pressure he felt under while in the program. I know you're busy and you feel you should spend every waking second of your life on your research, but you will feel enormously better about your life if you regularly remind yourself there's more to it than a doctoral program. There are other measures of value beside the strength of your science! Not everyone in the world is competing with you!

Look for some weekly event that gets you out of your head and away from your university social niche - volunteering with kids/older adults maybe, or if you have a partner or good friend who isn't in academia, hang out with their friends. You've got to find that perspective and maintain some identity beyond "phD student."

I absolutely hated most of my husband's phD friends when he was in the program because they all made each other feel so bad (driven entirely by their own insecurities). A few years out, I hang out with them and they are (almost all) just wonderful people -- fun, capable of speaking to me even though I'm not in their field, possessing hobbies. PhD programs just really screw you up temporarily.


@TheBelleWitch Ain't that the truth. I think part of the problem with PhD and ex-PhD folks is that, unlike a lot of other jobs, you tend to view your work as your *identity*. Your sense of personal worth and meaning gets tied up in whether you're producing good research or not. It all gets a bit cult like, really, right down to the disapproval and loss of communication with friends if you leave.


@TheBourneApproximation Cult-like is a great way to describe it! And oh man, your point below about uneven oversight is so good. Beyond their science duties, doctoral advisors are basically managers with no training in management, and man, some of them need it.


Both LW 1 and 2 are decidedly relevant to my life right now. Partially because criticism (or the lack thereof) and impostor syndrome are, at least for me, intertwined issues. I've gotten a PhD recently, and have stayed on in academia, but I still feel like I'm faking it every single day, and like I never deserved to get to this point. Part of this has to do with the complete and total lack of oversight in my particular field. My grad school advisor actively avoided trying to actually mentor me and my co-student (often by going to China or Switzerland for weeks and months on end). And when he did return, it was usually with very harsh semi-constructive criticism (I think I went home and cried the first time I got a red-ink-dripping paper draft back from him). Now I work for a senior professor whose office is on the other side of campus, and who is alternately quiet and polite and then notoriously exacting in his standards. So academia has been providing me with the worst of both worlds!

Swinging between these extreme forms of criticism has often made me feel like I'm simultaneously wasting my time and not performing up to snuff. Successfully defending my thesis has only partially alleviated these feelings. Worse, I feel like I've not acquired any of the skills that could help me escape and get a good STEM job outside of academia. I know most of this is in my head, but I wonder how much of impostor syndrome like this comes from the lack of any kind of formal advising standards in our graduate and postdoc programs. Besides a few major exams and the defense, universities don't really require any kind of formal feedback or mentoring. So much of it comes down to individual personalities, which gives a ton of fantastic freedom, but can go horribly wrong. (Thinking of friends who've showed up in my office in tears over the years.)

In short, graduate school is a time of fantastic learning and freedom and a terrible thing to do to a person!


@TheBourneApproximation Oh dude, I know exactly where you're coming from. I'm like REALLY REALLY close to defending and my advisor gets like 0.0003% of the credit on this damn dissertation. Like, he basically went to live in Asia for a year and didn't bother to tell me about it...it had to hear about it 3rd hand a few weeks before he left. And this is major player in my field.

Something that has helped me SO MUCH is being involved in a writing group with my friends from grad school (who have all gotten their Ph.D's an gone on to academic jobs). Like, I know they like and respect me as a person, and it's easier to take criticism from them b/c they are gentler and self-deprecating about themselves and not trying to be all smartypants all the time. We read each other's manuscripts/job applications/etc. It's great. Try that!


@TheBourneApproximation Yes. I read "She said that a lot of Ph.D. students feel this at first, but then gradually realize they do in fact belong." and said "ha ha maybe that's true but then you get to your postdoc and go back down, down the hole of imposter syndrome until there is just a tiny speck of light at the top and maybe you're even imagining that!"


LW3 - don't do it, don't do it, don't do it.

it feels wonderful and fun and spicy and magical because it's "safe" because he's a "friend", but then a line gets crossed, people find out, you get branded a homewrecker and lose a bunch of friends (also, self-respect.)

that mayyyy have been colored by personal experience, but it still holds true. it is not worth it.

RK Fire

Oh god, add me to the list of people who commiserate with both LW1 and LW2: I'm an imposter because even though I'm Smart, it's just a weird coincidence of genetics, upbringing, and luck, and I didn't really earn any of my accomplishments. I don't think it helps that I'm incredibly mediocre outside of academics (art, anything regarding field sports).

baked bean

@RK Fire
I'm the same way. Sometimes I don't think I deserve to do well because I'm just Smart and I don't Try. I tell myself this even though I do try! I might not have to try the hardest, but, I have a standard for myself that I stick to. Some people truly don't try, and do very badly, and they remind me that I'm not actually that lazy, even though I feel like I am.


I usually don't mind constructive criticism but I have so much trouble taking criticism from professors that I don't particularly like/respect. Even when I can recognize that the advice they're giving me is reasonable and helpful I give myself a rage headache fuming over the fact that they're telling me what to do when they can't even teach a class well or whatever else my problem with them is. I find I sort of have to pretend to myself that I like them before I can even read their comments.


I guess LW1 & 2 are relevant to my interests. It gets exhausting trying to keep up your "imposter" image. My negative reaction to criticism is related--I feel like I have this image of a hard working, over-achiever perfectionist to maintain and when I get criticized, it points out that I'm not perfect. Oh no! How could it be?! How horrible. Blegh. I just need to get over myself and be more humble, as so many have noted above.


@BornSecular Also, I try to keep Desiderata in mind. It's got so much good advice that is seriously relevant to me and that I need to work on. But, I'm a work in progress, as are we all!


Have you seen this:
Brene Brown

I love this little snippet a lot. It speaks to both LW 1 and 2. It's about being vulnerability and the way that being vulnerable is when people put up defenses and that is also when you need to lean into it, and blah blah.

But really both 1 and 2, you are both reacting out of protectiveness. You are protecting a part of yourself which is scared of being thought bad at something, which thinks that would be the worst thing, so one of you responds with anger, one with fear. It's pretty normal. To get over it you have to be open to the idea that you aren't good at everything and that that's not actually a secret to anyone- that people can see your flaws and don't really care that much.


Can I just say: this sane person's advice is incredibly insightful, thorough, and wise.

In terms of LW3, the idea about being responsible for adhering to your own internal ethics system is a good one. It also made me feel terrible because I have at times been that person who does what she wants and looks for ways to justify it later. My hindsight is 20/20 and I supply gorgeously elaborate explanations for why I did this or that and why it was acceptable for my personal peace of mind when I should have had the foresight to act more ethically in the first place. : /


I am NOT in graduate program, but I feel Imposter Syndrome all the time, especially when I have to do journalist-y things, cuz it's like I DON'T HAVE A JOURNALISM DEGREE EVERYONE IS GONNA KNOW. I try really hard to fake it though.


@Megano! I was a big shot at my college paper despite not being in the journalism program, and after meeting countless journalism students (in our very well regarded program) and reading the stuff they submitted to the paper, I can assure you that you aren't missing any critical training by lacking a journalism degree.


LW 3, just to add to that. Think about his wife. I really do believe that a vast majority of women who make dudes cheat on this partners never really think about the soul-crushing effect this will have on this stranger WHEN she finds out (and, she WILL find out). It's like someone dying, your world kind of stops and ends. Speaking from experience, obviously. And you might think, "hah, it's not my fault they have such a terrible relationship that he would cheat on her in the first place", and maybe they do, but that won't matter. Finding out that your partner (even husband!) has cheated on you will be among the worst things that that poor woman will have to live through.


@Georgia "...women who make dudes cheat on this partners..."

Really? They *make* dudes cheat on their partners? I'm not saying women don't have a responsibility to be decent people, but I don't see LW3 holding a gun to anybody's head.


@laurel this makes me sad too. Like the wise Tina Fey said: "Tristan would egg me on to trash-talk the little blondie who had 'stolen' my boyfriend. Of course I know now that no one can 'steal' boyfriends against their will, not even Angelina Jolie itself."


@Leanne Sorry - my bad. I didn't read that before I posted it. I don't mean he's not to blame (of course HE'S of all people the most to blame, should anything happen). All I'm trying to say is that LW3 has a choice to make (which is why she is writing), and the fact of the woman who will be directly impacted by her choice is rarely considered (and was not considered in the advice).


You articulated that experience really well. Just reading your words is virtually breaking my heart.


I love all this advice, AND I'm going to say that I am exceptionally good at rationalizing things to myself in the moment, and telling myself that yes, this is the kind of person I'm okay with being.

When I start doing that, it actually helps me to think of there being an objective, external Ethics Committee that is judging me on whether or not I am being a Bad Egg. That way, when I start doing shady stuff and my rationalizing kicks in, sometimes my fear of the Ethics Committee sometimes keeps me from being a jerk long enough for my conscience to catch up.


Like so many other people, I have all the feelings about LW2 and imposter syndrome. Some of my feelings kind of re-hash what others have already said? But I'm writing them anyway because, like so many other (post-)grad students, I've thought a lot about this.

I kind of disagree that the way to deal with imposter syndrome is to think "it's okay, I'm not the smartest, but I can work hard to be where I am!" I feel like that is part of what convinces grad students that they always have to work 20-hour days, even if other people are working 8 hour days, because otherwise they'll flunk out, because they're not really smart enough to be there. Which is totally wrong!

Things that helped me deal with imposter syndrome as a grad student (and now as a junior Ph.D without a tenure-track job):

1. Realizing that 90-98% of my colleagues felt the same way.

This includes people I think are really competent/smart. Some people honestly don't feel that way, true. That's awesome for them and I try not to resent them.

2. Asking questions, even questions that feel trivial to me.

I've learned that how I feel about a question has nothing to do with how intelligent other people seem to find it. Asking questions makes you sound smart and confident, is my hypothesis -- I feel like every time someone has complimented me for an insightful question, it was either "I didn't understand your point on page X -- could you explain it again?", or else a question I asked only because no one else was asking any questions, and I wanted to rescue the presenter from the Silent Question Period of Doom.

3. Reminding myself of these two points constantly, until they become automatic response to any feelings of insecurity. I do not even care if they are 100% true -- what's more important is that they leave me with the emotional energy to cope with all the other shit going on in my life, work and otherwise.


@weathering This: This includes people I think are really competent/smart. Some people honestly don't feel that way, true. That's awesome for them and I try not to resent them.

And add it to - those people who you think are competent/smart think that you are competent/smart. It makes believing you're all in the same boat reasonable.


@gobblegirl LW3 stole my life.


As a married lady around the age of LW3's uh "friend" I sort of think that an important lesson for everyone to learn before long is how to keep a flirtatious friendship with an unavailable person at a respectable distance. All this stuff in the letter is complete and utter horseshit and LW3 knows it. You're 26! 26 is a magical age of perfection. You're young and vibrant but still old enough to know who you are. Go find some dudes who are not married and exercise your libido with them! Come the fuck on! As for the dude, just ugh. 26? Really? They're always 26. Way to live up to some stereotypes, friends. Sorry to be age-essentialist here but they aren't making it easy not to be.


I hope LW3 is still around because I created this account just to give her the advice that I sorely wish someone had given me 3 months ago when I was in a very similar situation. Cut him off. Completely. Delete him form you phone, facebook, contacts, everything. If you're forced to work with him, be polite, but distant. He'll get the message, and he will know why. It will be hard at first, and it will feel unnatural, and you will miss him but do it anyway. The good part is that it will feel almost as deliciously dramatic as kissing him would. Don't have a teary conversation about it, or send a long letter about your feelings to explain yourself, just do it right now. Because once you cross that line, it is so damn easy to cross all the lines. Which hurts terribly. At best, crossing that line will hurt you both terribly, at worst, you will lose friends, you will lose him, you will lose your self respect, and he could lose his wife. In a month or so though, it won't be hard anymore.


@Alternate 100% agree, and adding, don't be surprised if you find out later he engaged in extracurricular activities with other 'friends.'


@Alternate Yes! I used to be afraid to cut people off, but then I realized how secretly good it can feel. And you won't miss him after a while.


That too. I know mine did.


This was a really inspiring/reassuring installment of "Ask A..." Thanks for this.


Regarding impostor syndrome, I can't believe nobody's linked to Amanda Palmer's amazing commencement speech about The Fraud Police! Definitely a great pep talk.


@supernintendochalmers YES YES YES I came here to post this but you beat me to it! That is what I listen to when I feel like I'm a failure.


To person #1, I identified with you so much! My bosses give me zero training and guidance when I want it (before I start a project). Instead, they critique and suggest changes to projects after I've finished them. The end result is that everything I do is hurriedly, frantically re-written right before (or after!!) its deadline, after I've finally gleaned what their vision actually was.
Megan is right: "Most humans are far better at criticizing an existing piece of work than visualizing what they want from scratch. So that particular stressor is probably never going away." The trick is learning what questions to ask up front. Still makes me want to flip a table sometimes though!


Related to LW2:
I really want to see someone analyze imposter syndrome from the viewpoint of privilege. Maybe it's totally obvious that there is a huge intersection and that being a member of an underrepresented group only exacerbates feelings of being-not-good-enough in a given field, but I think that privilege provides another useful lens through which to examine the matter and see through to the root causes. (In my own experience, it has been lack of community and communication that has made those feelings much worse.)


It was actually really distressing when I got to grad school and felt like I was one of just a handful of people (like, a finger count) really capable enough to justify being in the program. Through high school and undergrad I definitely felt like the dumbest person in the world, so it was jarring. Even back in elementary school, the teachers told me I was "bright" and it freaked me out. I felt like that's what you call someone when they're on the low end of the "above average" category.

I took it as a sign that I was in the wrong program, changed schools, and now I'm in with professionals in their 30s and 40s who have been in the field and know their shit. It's more rewarding not to feel like a genius - coasting through my old courses brought its own kind of stress, the feeling that I could get out of school without actually learning anything useful. My current coursework is much more strenuous but I'm succeeding and I feel much better about myself. At least I do when the work's done. When it isn't I feel like self-immolation is a wise life path.


these are all such non-problems. ughh.




dear ask a crazy person all of my limbs have been replaced with warring crab-gods. thats not my question tho. my question is that in this reality, all time has been replaced with sentient pudding. if i eat the pudding will i be eating my descendents??? tx in advance. or before. whatever

Springtime for Voldemort

Oh, man, LW3. I have been there. He'd talk about how he loved his wife too much to cheat, and one night came over after class just to hang out and ended up trying to watch porn with me. I pointed out that it wasn't fair to watch porn with me when he gets to go home and fuck his wife, and I get to go fuck no one else, and he didn't bring it up again, but then shortly thereafter, he started asking me not to tell his wife that we were hanging out because she'd be jealous that she didn't get to spend that time with him even though her schedule and basic math prevented her from spending that time with him. I backed away pretty quickly, though not completely, until a day when he and another male friend went on a "yeah, rape is bad, but what's really bad is false rape accusations" thing, sharing the stories of the time they got falsely accused of rape by a "crazy bitch" as if it were as common and integral a part of manhood as the first time your dad took you camping. And then things ended pretty suddenly. But the entire time, it just became more and more clear that out of all the people he was trying to do right by, he was at the top of that list, and I was at the very bottom.


@Springtime for Voldemort

Oh, SFV, this here: But the entire time, it just became more and more clear that out of all the people he was trying to do right by, he was at the top of that list, and I was at the very bottom.

It does suck.

Also "false accusations" etc etc... OMG. OMG. Oh. My. God. (Also if you didn't love your wife enough, dude, would you cheat on her? You don't not cheat based on how much you do or don't like someone. You don't cheat because you agreed with your wife that you wouldn't, and until she says it's okay otherwise, you shouldn't. End of story. I love her too much tell my arse.)

Springtime for Voldemort

@PistolPackinMama Thanks, PPM.

Yeah, it was such an odd thing to say. And he said it repeatedly and frequently. Not, I find myself having crushes on other women, but could never cheat because that would be wrong/I couldn't live with myself/I feel a need to do uphold the vows I made, just that his wife was so perfect that the weak-knee effect of his love for her made it so he couldn't cheat. Because watching porn with another woman and then going home and fucking your wife while thinking about that other woman and how much you'd like to fuck her is definitely not cheating.

I KNOW RIGHT??? It was a really terrifying moment. When we had all first met, they were all "hey, are you ok with us walking you to your car - I know you're a single young woman, alone in a parking garage with 2 dudes, we don't want to come off as creepy" and I had said it was fine. And then a few months later, I'm standing there, alone in a parking lot with two dudes going on about how "bitch, I never even touched you!" and trying to put the kibosh on that and FREAKING OUT!! And it was spurred on by our campus having red flag around the campus, for sexual assault/domestic violence awareness month (recognize the red flags).


@Springtime for Voldemort Oh god. :( That's awful. Better off without those dudes for sure!

up cubed

LW#2 Hegemony in academia issues: this is a perfect storm of (1) funding, (2) the "good ol' boy network"/cliques, keep the system as it is. (1) Funding (competitive process, not many opportunities) is dependent on proving oneself, so people who've been funded in the past have an edge over people who are new (L&O CI: "You know why the battles in academia are so vicious? It's because the stakes are so low."). (2) Cliques, (from a coworker) students tended to have lower scores when they had been told that people like them (racial/ethnic minorities) had lower scores, and this didn't happen if they'd been told there was no disparity.
I'm sure that students from all backgrounds have impostor issues, but the system is designed to make it especially hard for some people to break into the game.


LW#1: There is so much great advice here, I dare not try to add to it. I will just say this - the fact that you can take the criticism and feedback without reacting in the moment? Score that in the motherfucking win column.

This is a skill that not everyone has, and one I worked like hell to develop. I am one hell of a compartmentalizer, so that helps when I need to shelve the feedback until I get home or somewhere private. And then I noodle, obsess, disregard, then ultimately baby step my way through the feedback - ASSIGNING THE GIVER THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT AND GOOD INTENTIONS WHENEVER POSSIBLE- and I usually get something magical out of it.

LW#3: Your story broke me heart. I don't know how you can't see it, but I will tell you this. If my husband was inviting over a woman while I was gone - a woman I didn't know, a woman with whom he had intense physical chemistry - it would shatter me. It would shatter my trust in him, my own instincts in being with him, and my faith in humanity.

Be a decent person and find another decent person. This guy? Is not a decent person.


A little late to the party but...The problem with crazy relationships that make you feel generally icky is that you become crazy!
Somebody who thinks and analyzes and obsesses about said crazy relationship to the point where you become somebody that you aren't and wouldn't want to hang out with.

Good relationships (the kind that don't make you question yourself) don't make you feel that way. And you don't need to spend time worrying or analyzing about them. I read in another Hairpin article, and I fully believe in my "old age", that it is the relationship you don’t think about and talk about to death that is the relationship that is actually good for you!

Margot Harrington@twitter

This is right here is why I read The Hairpin. Free therapy in minutes that I can refer back to, without co-pays or fighting with my insurance company over coverage!


Re: criticism. I saw a sign at a retail job I had once that I have kept in mind ever since. I hope it's not too trite to share here; I genuinely find it helpful sometimes, and some of you might too. It only works for some situations, I guess, but then again, that's up to you.

Q-TIP: Quit Taking It Personally

baked bean

My field is very critique-based. I get mad when people don't offer me critique. It's how you get better, yo. I would hate to think someone was letting me suck when I could change something. It's not personal, I don't have personal investment in my piece other than to make it better. Just as long as everyone is just trying to get the best work out there, that's the main point.


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