Recognising Stress & Imposter Syndrome

Bethany Dahlstrom just completed her second-year confirmation as a PhD student in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Lancaster University. Having been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder at a relatively young age, she’s spent most of her academic career trying to maintain a healthy balance between work and life, and this is often interrupted by anxiety, chronic depressive episodes (after re-diagnosis), ADHD, and PTSD.

After going through some of the mindfulness sessions offered by FASS for PhD students, she was able to form a vocabulary to define her feelings of unrest and anxiety: imposter syndrome.

In a few short blog posts, she’ll be addressing some of the issues she’s faced in order to try to help other students understand that they are not alone in their anxieties and frustrations and that these feelings can be overcome.

‘What’s wrong with me today? Why can’t I just get my work done like everyone else?’

These questions, accusations thrown about in my own head, provide insight into one of the most toxic forms of self-sabotage in academia: imposter syndrome.

Like clockwork, nearly every morning after starting my PhD, I woke up and wondered why I was moving at a snail’s pace in my reading and writing when everyone else around me seemed to have plans and goals, got up in the morning and went to the office every day, and constantly produced writing.

Of course, coming into my third year, I’ve realized that most of this is a façade. Yes, there are students who really do seem to have everything together, but most of us are just putting up a front in order to feel like we belong. The friction between what we’re actually able to accomplish on a daily basis and what we think we’re expected to accomplish on a daily basis is at the core of imposter syndrome, and it’s something that not many people feel free to talk about openly.

If you’re reading this and thinking, ‘Ah, but I’m an undergrad/MA student, this doesn’t apply to me’, then you’re probably struggling with imposter syndrome. If you’re a PhD student reading this and thinking, ‘Oh, but she doesn’t know me, I really don’t belong here’, then let me be the first to welcome you to the club and let you in on a little secret – yup, that’s imposter syndrome too.

Stress, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed can quickly lead to – or be caused by! – imposter syndrome, and while it’s a concept that’s been around since the late 1970s, we tend not to talk about it too much in academic circles for fear of finding out that we really don’t belong and that we are alone in our feelings. In fact, just last year, a life coach published an article in The Guardian which called attention to the fact that imposter syndrome and those feelings of not belonging are not only not a “shameful secret” but that these feelings increase alongside success. The more you achieve, the more you feel like somehow you’ve managed to con everyone around you into thinking that you’re intelligent, and by doing this, you manage to further convince yourself that you don’t belong, nor do you have the proper tools (intelligence, motivation, etc) in order to keep moving upward.

I see this all the time in academia. As someone moves through their years of education and on towards higher degrees, they begin to feel the mounting pressure and anxiety surrounding their performance. Every night before a presentation becomes a living nightmare, every compliment on a job well done is brushed aside while we nit-pick all of the things that we could have done differently, and more often than not, we try to compartmentalize all of these varying, toxic emotions that lead us to believe that we’re just not cut out for the work that we’ve undertaken.

Eventually, all of those emotions that we’ve tried to push down and contain do come bursting forth, and usually the results aren’t pretty. I once laid in bed for a full week and a half after a particularly grueling review of my work, unable to move or open the curtains or enjoy the fact that I had passed. Despite positive feedback on my work, I clung to every comment that I perceived to be negative, replaying them in my mind until my panel became less about progress and more about packing up and going home. I couldn’t even accept my supervisor’s email which called me out on internalizing the criticism (which was always meant to be constructive), but having a name for what I was feeling made it easier.

Imposter syndrome. It’s a thing that I deal with, something that makes me feel alien and anxious, something that plagues me when I have even the smallest task set before me in my academic studies. It’s something so big and invasive that speaks to you with such a small, nagging voice, whispering that you’re not good enough.

So how do you combat something like that?

First, I find that it helps to simply acknowledge what you’re feeling and name it for what it is: imposter syndrome.

Ignoring it will really only make it worse because you will be actively feeding it. If you’re unsure about the quality of your work, ask a professor that you trust to give you an honest assessment of your progress so far.

If you look around you at other students and think that you should really be doing more, stop, breathe for a minute, and remember that no two people face the same situations and challenges. What someone else finds easy may be the thing you struggle with the most, and that’s okay.

I have a background in theology and my partner doesn’t, so I don’t expect him to spot religious theory in our literary criticism. I have my strengths and he has his, and we can learn from each other! Don’t expect yourself to know everything and retain information exactly the same way as anyone else around you. Which leads me to my second point…

Figure out how you work best and center your study and work plans around that.

I know that I don’t work well before 1pm, so I try to plan my menial tasks, like sending emails, for before lunch. That way, I can do the bulk of my reading after lunch, when I’ll really absorb the information. I also have learned that I can’t read for more than two or three hours and still retain what I’ve read, so I try to plan short breaks for myself, where I can either get a cup of tea or make some notes, just small things that change my scene for a bit.

Break down your tasks for the day, the week, the month. Make yourself a reading schedule by how many chapters you can realistically get through in a set amount of time. Don’t feel guilty if you need to re-work this plan every few days: life is generally out of our control and things can get in the way. Try to be flexible with yourself. That’s not saying that slacking off is okay to do all the time, but everyone needs time to recuperate in order to better process the material that they’re working on.

Be kind to yourself. Plan some mental health days into your schedule.

One of the things that imposter syndrome is best at is telling us that we don’t deserve a break because we haven’t really accomplished anything. This is simply not true.

Every page you read, every word you write, is progress and you need to be able to acknowledge that to yourself. If you know that you’re going to get mentally exhausted, listen to yourself. Your body knows best. If you’re falling asleep in lectures and cramming through all-nighters before exams, you’re not going to perform your best, and fatigue is a sign that you need to change up your routine.

If you’re feeling these things and you’re not going out clubbing or drinking with friends every evening, then maybe it’s worth popping into the counselling services on campus or talking with your supervisor or course coordinator about how you can cope with the fast pace of university.

I try to plan one mental health day a week, as well as keeping my weekends free, because I’ve learned by now that I will crash at some point due to exhaustion. It’s easier for me to plan to work four days a week than it is for me to have an overly-structured five-day plan that I know I won’t accomplish, leading me to further doubt my own capabilities. Spend some time reflecting on how you work and what kind of schedule offers you the flexibility – or structure! – that you need in order to accomplish your work.

Remember that university and work aren’t the only things in life.

You’ll hear people often mention “maintaining a work-life balance” and this is really important, but often, when students first come to university, I find that it gets thrown at them to tell them not to party too much because they need to get work done too. And while I whole-heartedly agree with the need for balance, I also understand that life can’t just be about work.

My ideal night is watching RuPaul’s Drag Race on Netflix whilst in my pajamas on the sofa, wrapped up in a blanket, but that’s not going to be restful if I’m also sat there worrying about all of the writing that I should be doing or how I’m going to start writing the next chapter of my thesis. If you’re going to take a day or an evening to rest, make sure that you fully commit to resting. Otherwise, you’re defeating the purpose of taking time off by allowing anxiety to plague you.

If you’re starting to feel overwhelmed with stress, take five minutes to just close your eyes, breathe deeply, and think about what you need in that moment. Do you need a half-hour break to clear your mind? Do it. Do you need a full day off to just relax and recover so that you can come back and tackle that essay with a fresh mind? Take an hour to re-plan your week so that you’re not creating more stress for yourself and then meet a friend for lunch or recharge by watching your favourite film.

If you’re working at a job where the hours are inflexible, try planning something fun for the weekend that you can set your mind towards (or be honest with your boss about how you’re doing and see if they have any suggestions for lightening your load until you feel better – I’ll be talking about disclosure in the next post).

Ultimately, maintaining the “perfect” work-life balance comes down to knowing yourself, not trying to fit yourself into someone else’s idea of how your life should go. But first, you need to understand yourself and start to plan your working schedule around your best working times so that you can maximize your ability to work in the first place. While that can take time, it’s a skill that will serve you well for the rest of your life!

For confidential support with mental health or suicidal feelings, call Samaritans on 116 123.

If you are experiencing problems that are affecting your studies or general wellbeing, get in touch with the University’s Counselling and Mental Health and Wellbeing services.

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