A professor with imposter syndrome

A Professor with imposter syndrome seeks psychoanalysis.

Mariana, an Argentinian, professor, asserts, “I’m a professor with imposter syndrome.” A newly tenured professor at a rigorous university, in Washington, DC, she adds; “I don’t deserve tenure. I fooled my tenure and promotion committee”.

Despite an extensive list of federally funded research grants, publications in top journals and a history of mentoring graduate students – who themselves – have obtained jobs at top tier universities, she asserts, “I put on a performance”. She calls a psychoanalyst, explaining that a friend told her that she has “the impostor syndrome” and that, “psychoanalysis might help her to overcome it”.  She reports, “I’ve thought about psychoanalysis for a long time. I’m Argentinian. We don’t look for ‘quick fixes’; in my country psychoanalysis is prized.  We are a people with a lot of depth.” She is interested in exploring the possibility that psychoanalysis, a long-term, four to five day a week, treatment might be helpful to her.

In describing her situation, she adds, “now that I think about it, this has been a pattern my whole life. I earned many honors and awards in graduate school, college and high school. Afterwards, I never felt good or competent. Instead, I felt a gnawing sense of intense pressure and emptiness. I was always waiting for ‘the other shoe to drop’.”

She adds, “I’m an immigrant. I am the first person in my family to go to college. I envy some of my fellow professors who can get help and advice from their families. During my professional odyssey the help I’ve gotten has come from my mentors who are not familiar with my culture. At times, I feel very different from others, especially, in light of the anti-immigrant sentiments that have escalated over the last several years. Sometimes, I’ve even felt truly afraid and unsafe.”

When her analyst asks her how she feels about talking with someone of a different race and culture, she replies, “It’s the story of my life. My education has made me feel very separate from my family; it’s lonely at times. Also, I feel like an outlier within my profession. I do have friends and colleagues. However, I believe my cultural and racial background has had a profound impact on me — but, not as profound as my educational experience has. I can’t find someone who is just like me. I don’t know if you can understand that if you haven’t lived through it. I don’t think of myself as a professor with, ‘imposter’ syndrome. To say that would be minimizing the complexity of the difficulties that I face; I want to work with a psychoanalyst with a more nuanced view. I’ve tried psychodynamic therapy in the past. It’s been somewhat helpful but it never really scratched beneath the surface. I seek a more thoroughgoing approach to my life.”

“As for working with someone from a different culture than me, I’m glad you asked about this. None of my mentors have ever felt comfortable talking about it; it’s almost as if they are nervous or afraid to ask about it. And, my parents come from more humble beginnings; they do not understand ‘life in the academy’. It is like a deep well of discomfort and sadness that I have had to manage all by myself. Maybe this will be a place where I can understand my feelings about it more fully”.

“This feeling that I am an imposter has troubled me for as long as I can remember. I am aware that ‘the imposter syndrome’ is not a real diagnosis. I’ve read the Harvard Business Journal article, Stop Telling Woman that they have Impostor Syndrome. Although I agree that many of my challenges are systemic and spring from a climate of racism and misogyny, I also recognize that some of my difficulties have been internalized. To construe my difficulties as either purely attributable to cultural differences or purely related to internal conflicts is a false dichotomy. Of course, both play a role.

Also, when I am treated unfairly, I have a hard time recognizing it let alone asserting myself on my own behalf. I’d like to feel more solid on the inside. I know that many of difficulties spring from my childhood experiences, it is not just about race, gender and feeling devalued by the so called, ‘majority culture’ – my challenges are partly due to my ‘family culture’ if you will. I see myself engaging in a two pronged process – addressing both my internal struggles while recognizing the reality of the external challenges too. As I mentioned, I’ve always thought about pursuing psychoanalysis. Now that I have tenure, I’ve decided that maybe this is the time.

Dr. Lynn Friedman

Dr. Lynn Friedman, Ph.D., FABP, is a Clinical Psychologist, a Supervising and Training Analyst, and a Clinical Supervisor in full-time, private practice. She provides evaluation, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as supervision to psychoanalysts-in-training and other mental health professionals. Beyond this, she is a board certified, psychoanalyst who teaches at Johns Hopkins University and the Washington Baltimore Center for Psychoanalysis.

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