This personal story was contributed by AMHC reader Melissa Cristina Marquez.
When people stare into the mirror, they usually fuss over the giant zit that magically appeared on their forehead overnight, whether their shirt smells, or how their hair looks. When I look into the mirror, my constant monologue is one of deeper self-doubt. It asks, “Are you good enough? Are you accomplished enough to be here? What gives you the right to be here?” It’s deafening.
I’m not alone in bearing witness to this internal monologue. Many people, especially those in academia, silently suffer from this vicious phenomenon known as “impostor syndrome,” a persistent fear of being exposed or “found out” that one is not as deserving as other people. The term was first coined in the 1970s, and is generally characterized by anxiety and, often, depression. Those who suffer live under the pressure to achieve more. And to not only achieve more, but achieve it all perfectly.
Impostor syndrome and perfectionism often go hand in hand. We try to complete every task thrown at us – often taking on more than we can handle – all while trying to tackle it perfectly and rarely asking for help. And we don’t contradict those who do think our lives are perfect because that’s what we’re striving for. Perfection. At one point in my life, I loved when people incessantly told me how “perfect” my life seemed and how I seemed “to have it all.” I took it a step further and curated my life to seem perfect to anyone outside, careful to not let it slip that I was struggling to keep my head above water.
When I received a scholarship that landed me in New Zealand to complete a Masters in Science degree, the voice inside my head kept telling me that I simply got lucky. I felt like a phony and didn’t feel ready to handle my studies at all. I was consumed by an immense fear of being found out to not have what it takes and threw myself into hours of work with little sleep and food. I did everything I could to shield myself from failure, criticism and my own vile thoughts, but of course those all came anyways. I continued to try to be the perfect newlywed wife, student, and employee. “If I don’t perform at my best, they’ll take everything away and ship me back home, ruined.” I remember thinking, the thought keeping me awake at night while my husband slept soundly next to me.
The façade eventually fell apart and I fell apart with it. In fact, things hit rock bottom and exploded in my face. I don’t regret that though, even though I lost some friends who, instead of seeing the insecurities, just saw a girl trying to keep up a fake charade. Even with a new degree in my hand, I still felt like a fraud – especially when I continued getting rejection after rejection for jobs and PhD opportunities. Paralyzed with the thought that I was finally found out as a nobody, it wasn’t until I had a very long night of crying and feeling sorry for myself that I decided to change my thinking.
So what did I do? My advice:
• Reach out before you burn out. This means talk to family, friends, or a professional. Talk to your mentors and your peers about your feelings and you’ll be surprised by how many others feel the same way. Knowing that you aren’t alone in this feeling can be comforting and allows you to form a support network.
• Recognize your achievements. Do not attribute your success to external factors such as “luck.” You have the talent and did the sheer hard work to get where you have gotten to. Focus on what you have achieved instead of what you have yet to achieve. Take responsibility for your success, just like you take responsibility for your failures.
• Realize no one is perfect. You have done incredible work, even if it isn’t perfect. And why should it have to be perfect? Nobody is perfect. You should be aiming to be giving your best, which is not the same as being the best. You don’t have to be perfect in order to be worthy of the success you’ve achieved.
• Stop playing the comparison game. This has been the hardest for me. While those around me were getting accolades or recognition left and right, I felt lonely at the bottom of the world. I want to be just as good, if not better, at it all; being a perfect wife, a perfect student, a perfect employee. Instead, I took on too much because I was so caught up in what other people thought about me. Just be yourself, and if those poisonous thoughts come back, reach out to your support network.
Today, I no longer obsess about everything being perfect. My papers haven’t undergone fifteen different drafts before I send the ‘perfect’ first draft. I am no longer worried about my Instagram photos being cookie-cutter perfect and going along with a “theme,” and I can finally recognize when I need help and I ask for it. I even tell the truth when people ask, “How are you doing?” instead of the ritualized, “Fine.”
I wouldn’t say I’m over my Impostor’s Syndrome, but no longer do I ask myself every day, “Are you good enough? Are you accomplished enough to be here? What gives you the right to be here?” I just think, “Smile. You’re good enough and it’s a good day to be alive.”
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Melissa is a proud Latina marine biologist currently living in New Zealand, specialising in elasmobranchs.