There is a psychological mechanism that some people experience where they are incapable of accepting or internalizing their own accomplishments. This is especially common among visible minorities and women in graduate programs, as well as those in high-level professions — executives, tenure-track professors, and successful authors, musicians, and artists.
Essentially, a person cannot admit to him or herself that their success is due to personal achievement, telling themselves that it was luck or that they are a fraud. The person can experience anxiety and fear at being “discovered” and outed as an imposter.
I am deeply familiar with this fear — I worry almost every day that people will find out that I have no idea what I’m doing, even (or especially) after receiving praise or accolades.
For example, someone in the dean’s office during a recent training session regarding faculty reviews mentioned to me that a position similar to my current one would be opening. She mentioned that it wouldn’t be lateral, but required more responsibility, managed more people and duties, and that it would be a considerable raise in pay. I was convinced after our discussion that she only mentioned it because, like my boss, perhaps she is a carrot dangler; making empty promises just to make me feel like things are going to be okay.
I went ahead and applied for the position when I saw it appear in early October because I figured, what the hell, it’s worth a shot. I had not been in my current position for six months at that point and figured I might not even be eligible. Then, weeks went by and I never heard anything about it. I went about my currently way-overloaded schedule of managing social media, updating the web site, working on articles, reconciling the budget, reserving rooms and flights and hotels, reimbursing faculty for their vacations-masquerading-as-academic-conferences in Paris and Switzerland, planning events, and updating scholarships.
But then, Wednesday afternoon, I received an email from the director of that department, setting out a list of dates and times he’d like me to come in for a “brief, informal interview.” I committed to Friday morning at 9am where we ended up talking for almost an hour. It felt like it went really well. Except then I had this crushing guilt after. Like, had I exaggerated my skills or outright lied about what I could do? This is one of the largest departments in the entire university. How could I reasonably expect to manage that when I can’t stay on top of the faculty meeting minutes from my current department?
At four in the afternoon, he sent me another message, asking if I could come in for a second interview next Tuesday, to “have a conversation” with the full timers. During that earlier interview, he’d said he was going to speak with a few other applicants first and that maybe I’d hear back next week. So, he must’ve been impressed, right? I mean, barely five hours had passed before he was contacting me again.
Then I was back in my office and my colleague was clearly disappointed in me. I’d told her about the interview. I feel terrible. She’s looking down the same black hole she was facing this time last year when the person I replaced had just left without notice. She deserves a better position, better pay, and more recognition for what she does. She’s been there almost three years and knows the programs inside and out. What right do I have to try and sneak out after 7 or 8 months. Then there was more self doubt. Did my coworker think I was getting in over my head? That I’m not qualified for the position I have, let alone the one for which I’d interviewed?
If I’m offered this job, and I go to my boss and I tell him, what is he going to say? Is he going to flip out? “You promised me a year!” or something similar? I know he doesn’t doubt my abilities or else he wouldn’t leave me alone to do part of his job. Part of the reason I don’t feel terrible about applying for something else is because he has no commitment or loyalty to the department. He comes and goes when he pleases, cashes his giant paychecks, and has absolutely no sense of personal boundaries. Every time he comes into my office, I worry he’s going to dump emotionally on me for an hour or tell me something embarrassing about his family life, or maybe even hit on me.
That doesn’t help my coworker feel any better about the fact that she is going to have to take on some (most) of my duties if I leave. She knows the boss will just shift everything in her direction and the walls will start closing in again. Explaining to her that it’s a money and proximity thing isn’t going to make her immediate future any easier.
Reading the job description makes me a little bit nervous. Meeting with the director, who couldn’t be any different from the boss I have now (hands on vs absent, involved vs uninterested, professional vs pervert), makes me a lot nervous. Am I getting in over my head? Burning bridges? Biting off more than I can chew? It all really comes down to the fact that I’d be a fifteen-minute commute from work so if the kids’ dad needed to interview for a job and the girls were in some sort of childcare/after-school situation, I’d be capable of picking them up on time.
Maybe Tuesday during my second interview, everyone will figure out that I’m a fraud.