I Am Not An Imposter

“I am not an imposter.”

“I am NOT an imposter.”

“I am not an imposter?”

These are the words that I uttered to myself repeatedly as I stared at my reflection in my bathroom mirror. It was the end of May, and I had had a rollercoaster of a month (OK, a rollercoaster of a year… maybe two). I had been struggling with feelings that many graduate students and young professionals are familiar with – I had a textbook case of “imposter syndrome.” 

Imposter syndrome is the pattern of maladaptive thoughts that involves the doubting of one’s achievements, and the fear of being seen as a “fraud” by one’s peers and colleagues. These feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt had managed to seep their way into my professional and personal lives, and I found myself questioning everything. Would I ever finish my PhD? Was it just a matter of time before everyone saw me for the fraud that I really was? Was I worthy of friendship… of love?

Would I ever finish my PhD? Was it just a matter of time before everyone saw me for the fraud that I really was?

I hadn’t always felt this way. In my undergraduate days, I was generally secure in my abilities and who I was as a person. I went into my classes with an unwavering belief that I was going to “ace” them. Laughing and venting with the people I cared about was effortless, and I wasn’t plagued by these pervasive thoughts that my friends and family hated me, and that they didn’t want to be around me anymore. I went on dates (some good, some bad). I was active. I was happy. I had purpose.

On my graduation day, my mother clutched onto my degree as if it were her own, with tears in her eyes – I was the first in my extended family to finish university. Statistics said I wasn’t supposed to make it this far – I was the daughter of a Somali refugee who dreamed of being a doctor, but never had the chance to go to university. I was the granddaughter of a woman who never learned to read or write. But I had made it this far, and I was proud of myself.

Statistics said I wasn’t supposed to make it this far – I was the daughter of a Somali refugee who dreamed of being a doctor, but never had the chance to go to university.

I remember how I felt when I got into graduate school. I felt a kind of unbridled joy that almost seemed like magic. The day I was accepted, I blasted David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” in my living room, and twirled with my mom and my sisters. A week later, when I found out that I had won one of the top graduate scholarships in Canada for my master’s degree, I screamed so hard that my mother came running into my room, wondering if someone had broken in. We danced again. I knew I had worked hard for my achievements – I didn’t question myself. But now I look back, and I find myself wondering – what happened to me? Where did this change? When did I start feeling like I was unworthy of all of my success?

I was three years into graduate school, and I felt like my life was going backwards. The first year had gone smoothly – I was one of the top students in my cohort, and I did well enough in my classes to transfer into the PhD program. I had no problem making friends, and I was busier than ever. Things started to go downhill when I began my PhD. Graduate school wasn’t “easy” anymore. I didn’t connect well with my cohort, I was in fewer classes, and my work required a lot of self-direction, which was new for me. My friends from my master’s program were busy with their theses, and the connections that I had made in my first year started to fade.

In October 2017, just two months into my PhD, I travelled to Australia for a conference. I should have been networking, sightseeing, and making the most of the experience – instead, I could barely get myself out of bed, because I was afraid of making a fool of myself in front of my peers. On top of the major changes in my professional life, my personal life was also beginning to unravel. I had been unexpectedly broken up with in the summer, which had started to erode my self-esteem. My mother’s marriage was in shambles, and I felt guilty about being halfway across the country while everyone else in my family had to deal with the fallout.

The next two years of my program passed in the blink of an eye. I put in the bare minimum amount of work I could, because it was all that I was capable of doing as I dealt with my life falling apart. I remember bits and pieces from this time – mostly the bad things. I remember getting rejected for my dream scholarship – not once, but twice. I remember the day my mother called me in tears, worrying about my sister, who had stopped showing up to school, and whose mental health was also deteriorating. I remember the days where I had crumbled into a pile of tears, convinced that my supervisor was going to call me into a meeting to tell me that the jig was up – that I had been caught. People like me didn’t go to graduate school. I wasn’t supposed to be here. There had been a terrible mistake.

And so we circle back to that day in May, where I was standing in front of my mirror, trying to convince myself that I was not an imposter – as if repeating it enough times would erase the past two years of my life. As if I would wake up and my fortunes would be reversed. I’ve come to realize that that isn’t how life works. You can’t wish away the maladaptive thoughts; you have to be brave enough to confront those feelings and take responsibility for your mental health and wellbeing.

You can’t wish away the maladaptive thoughts; you have to be brave enough to confront those feelings and take responsibility for your mental health and wellbeing.

I realize now that I wasn’t only dealing with imposter syndrome, but that I was dealing with severe depression. I suppose in some ways that this is ironic, given that I am a mental health researcher. My job is to identify what it is that makes people more susceptible to experiencing mental illness, and to advocate for ways to improve the public’s mental health and wellbeing. I wasn’t practicing what I was preaching. Instead of seeking help for what I was going through – instead of treating myself with love and respect — I told myself that I could deal with it, and that I was stupid for not being able to manage these feelings. I told myself that I knew what I needed to do to get better – years of graduate education had given me the “knowledge” – I just needed to suck it up and do it. It goes without saying that I wasn’t quite able to convince myself that I could be fine – that I wasn’t an imposter.

This summer, I took an unplanned break from my studies to take stock of my life – to figure out where things had gone wrong. I booked an appointment with a counselor. I reached out to people that I had cut out from my life when my depression was at its worst. I committed to improving the health behaviors that I had allowed to deteriorate: diet, sleep, and exercise. I opened up to family and friends about my struggles. I became an open book, and it surprised me when people were compassionate and began to gravitate towards me again. The loneliness, the lethargy, the darkness, the self-doubt – they started to fade away. I started to reconnect with my research – it had begun to take on a new meaning for me. I didn’t dread doing my work anymore.

I am still a work in progress. I am not perfect. Sometimes I look back on the last two years of my life, and I feel ashamed about not seeking help earlier. I become hyper-aware of all the time I have wasted, and it’s like I can almost hear a clock ticking – each second represents the time that I could have spent working, connecting, and improving, rather than ruminating about everything that was wrong with me and my life. The difference now is that when I find myself feeling this way, I try not to bottle it up. I open myself up to others, and I try to treat myself with respect and compassion – I treat myself like I would treat another person who feels this way. I remind myself that it’s okay to seek help. It’s okay not to be perfect. A PhD should not have to be painful. A PhD should not make you feel depressed. A PhD should not destroy your self-worth. A PhD should not define you.

A PhD should not have to be painful. A PhD should not make you feel depressed. A PhD should not destroy your self-worth. A PhD should not define you.

I am only a few months into this journey towards improved mental health and wellbeing, and towards feeling like I am not a fraud or a stranger in my own life. I still have my bad days. But you know what? Sometimes I catch myself in the mirror, and I say those words out loud: “I am not an imposter.” I find myself actually starting to believe it.

Author’s Note: Dealing with symptoms of depression, or other mental health disorders, is common, especially in graduate school. Many campuses offer mental health resources for enrolled students, including counseling or psychiatric referrals, at no or little extra cost to students. Organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness may also have on-campus clubs and support groups that aim to reduce stigma surrounding mental health disorders, improve awareness, and advocate for improved mental health resources on- and off-campus. Most universities also provide accommodation services for students dealing with mental health disorders.

If you are in distress, please seek help as soon as possible. You can do so by contacting your nearest distress center (for Canadians, the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, and for Americans, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or the National Grad Crisis Line); by calling 9-1-1; or by visiting your nearest emergency department. Sister has also compiled an excellent list of resources.

Zahra Clayborne
Zahra Clayborne

Zahra Clayborne is a PhD candidate in Epidemiology at the University of Ottawa, where her research focuses on identifying modifiable pre- and post-natal factors that influence child and adolescent mental health. She is passionate about science communication, and promoting positive mental health and psychosocial wellbeing for other graduate students. You can find her on Twitter @zclayborne.

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