Depression, imposter syndrome, and the importance of being wrong

This article is a bit more personal than most. Actually a lot more. I’m not entirely sure why I’m writing this, but this blog is intended to be as much about academic life as it is about science, and this is a part of life which I’m trying to cope with. I might not be alone. It isn’t easy to write this, but it needs to be written nonetheless.

For the majority of my adult life, I’ve grappled with depression. When it’s there, it’s a blight on my existence, perpetually crippling me, thwarting my efforts at things, and tearing at the edges of my mind. I know I’m not alone either. Actually, up to 20% of people experience symptoms of depression. That’s around 1.4 billion people worldwide. If you’ve ever been in a room containing more than 5 people, statistically, at least one of them will probably have experienced it. And if you’re one of the lucky 80% who won’t have to tackle depression during your life, there really isn’t any proper way to explain it. But you can try to think of it something like this…

Depression paints your whole world in the colours of a frozen landscape. Everything is sharp and crystal clear, but without warmth. All of your colours are blue and gray. The light, like the cold and enfeebled sunlight on a crisp winter morning which fogs your breath and paints ice flowers on glass. All around is a harsh bleakness which saps your energy and draws from you whatever warmth you retain. You’re left with a cold and barren outlook on things. All alone in a glacier of dismay.

Dealing with the many and varied pressures of academic life from within an icy depression cocoon isn’t easy. Even less so when it leads to a visit from our old friend imposter syndrome. In a nutshell, imposter syndrome is the unshakeable feeling that you don’t belong somewhere and it’s only a matter of time until you’re discovered and cast out. Depression makes this even worse by convincing you that you’re an outcast already, and that if you ever were to be cast out, it would at least be some sick kind of self-affirmation. A prevalent blight in gradschool, imposter syndrome finds an insidious home amongst those on an academic career path.

It really is especially difficult dealing with this while depression gnaws at the inside of your mind. The keys to escaping from imposter syndrome lie largely in acknowledging your own achievements and accepting that you’re allowed to not be perfect. Perhaps the same is true of depression.

It’s ok to feel like you don’t know everything. It’s fine to not know what you’re doing. You’re allowed to make mistakes. It’s perfectly fine, even good, to be wrong about things some of the time. In fact, it’s important. As a friend of mine pointed out to me earlier, being wrong isn’t a fault. If you’re never wrong, you’re not doing research. He was quite right. And if everything’s working correctly, it should be a valuable way of improving yourself and making things work better the next time around.

It’s hard not to feel alienation and emotional distress, but you really do need to remember that others feel the same. Amongst them, The Contemplative Mammoth and Disorderly Chickadee both have personal accounts of experiences with imposter syndrome which are well worth taking the time to read.

I’m not sure, but I don’t think I’m an imposter. However, that doesn’t stop me from feeling like one, and it doesn’t stop me from being my own worst enemy when trying to escape from those downward spirals of thought. I know I’m not alone and that it’s ok to be wrong. But depression is dishearteningly good at negating those facts and leaving everything cold and bleak.

I know that what I really need to do is thaw myself out and put everything back in order. But that isn’t easy. Escape imposter syndrome? Beat depression? Close the breach? Stop the Cybermen? Defeat the Daleks? Do you believe I can do that?

كله ماشي

Image credits: merl1ncz @ deviantART & depression comix

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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15 Responses to Depression, imposter syndrome, and the importance of being wrong

  1. Imposter syndrome – yet you have a thesis – don’t forget that! Some of us wonder if we’ll ever get that far!
    Best wishes!

    • invaderxan says:

      Thanks. Mind you, in fairness, when I wrote this a year ago I didn’t. Though rest assured, you will soon enough. Unfortunately however, if I’m honest, one’s brain has a remarkable way of convincing itself of things, irrespective of evidence the the contrary.

      I’m intrigued… How did you stumble on this old post…? :)

  2. Pingback: Additions to related pages | depression comix

  3. Ggreybeard says:

    I’ve seen brave articles like this several times from bloggers that I follow. Depression seems to be all too common, so you are obviously not alone. I can’t pretend to advise you but I hope the people who are close to you are understanding and that you have good medical backup.

    I also hope you will resolve to go out there and find a way to beat it!

    Best wishes.

  4. Velda says:

    I understand all too well. Try to see yourself as you would see a friend or colleague: would you feel the same way about them when their imperfections show? Allow yourself to be real, too. We’re imperfect just the way we are, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. Otherwise we wouldn’t be learning, and clearly that’s something you value much. Sending you sunshine to warm up that landscape… :)

  5. Aurora_UK says:

    This is a time of great challenges and changes for everyone. Never give in! Overcoming such immense challenges can only make you stronger. You think, therefore you are. So think positive.
    Do your utmost to visualise sunshine and brilliant colours! They will melt that depressing frozen landscape and brighten your world.
    You’re right. You are not alone. Some of the greatest people in the world have been through such seriously challenging moments of self-doubt – and emerged formidable. You will too! Just never give up!!! The world needs every single spark of positive thinking right now – including yours! You are the stuff that stars are made of – prove it to yourself and the planet. You can only win. Nothing is insurmountable. But you need to really, really try to beat this dodgy spectre of depression.
    Only in the darkest hour will the tiniest flame shine the brightest. It’s brilliance will light your way.
    Blessings and all power to you!

  6. trkendall says:

    I sympathise. Imposter syndrome grew throughout my research career and eventually became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now I’m unemployed. I wish you better.

    • invaderxan says:

      Oh dear… Well, the prospect of finding a postdoc job is rather a concern currently. Not only for me, but for many of the astronomers I know.

      • deetwelve says:

        So true. I was an astronomy post-doc (star formation) back in the 90’s but eventually had to leave the field so as to find the job security to settle and start a family. Good luck to you both.

        • invaderxan says:

          It’s sad how frequently I hear of people who’re forced to leave for one reason or another. I’m still keeping my fingers crossed… And thank you!

  7. deetwelve says:

    Your blog entertains and informs me. I appreciate and value your efforts. Good luck with achieving the goals you’ve set yourself and painting your world in many hues.

    • invaderxan says:

      Thank you so much. For both reading and commenting. I’m glad you enjoy what I write!

      It’s a funny thing with goals – the most worthwhile ones are always the hardest to achieve. Perhaps that’s what makes them worth achieving. I’d love a few new hues, I must say…

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