Like a surprising number of scientists, I often feel like I’m an impostor.
I’m not alone in this. Even Charles Darwin, one of the most well-known and accomplished scientists, had days where he felt he didn’t fit in. “I am very poorly today,” he scribbled in his diary, “and very stupid and hate everybody and everything.” This could be straight from my own journal.
This feeling, “impostor syndrome,” is a very real threat to the success and recognition of the scientists who live with it. It can stem from different sources: people (especially women and underrepresented minorities) can be made to feel this way through systemic racism and lack of workplace diversity or support. Alternatively, our internal feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem can be more at play despite supportive environments.
I hope to share what my internal struggle with impostor syndrome (in the sense of the latter definition), in both the queer and scientific communities, has taught me about belonging.
I identify as asexual, meaning I don’t have sexual desire towards any gender.
I first came across the term “asexual” on an online forum in 2014. Like many asexual people (“aces”), I found my way to the webpage for the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), the ace community’s online flagship. I spent all night flicking through FAQs and discussion forums. Thousands of people had stories just like mine, of feeling broken in their lack of sexual desire.
I, too, had memories to share: A faux crush on blue-eyed Brendan in eleventh grade, fabricated so I’d have something to contribute to “boy talks.” Distinct confusion every time our priest brought up the Deadly Sin of Lust in his sermons. An entire semester of high school spent worrying I was, God forbid, a lesbian, because what else would you call a girl who doesn’t like boys?
Finding asexuality was both thrilling and terrifying. I finally had a word for my out-of-place-ness, and a community who felt the same way.
Having a label didn’t make living that difference any easier. Soon after realizing I was asexual, I had a breakdown in my best friend’s arms. I feared my new-found orientation was a scarlet letter, that no one would want to spend their life with me. Although I don’t experience sexual desire, it doesn’t mean I don’t crave a life partner.
In a world where so much revolves around sex, aces can feel like we don’t belong in either straight or queer spaces. As part of the “A” in LGBTQIA+, I should feel at home in these spaces, but I feel like an impostor.
It’s likely because my orientation lacks, by definition, the very thing that makes someone “homosexual” or “bisexual:” sexual attraction. Asexuality is nicknamed an “invisible” orientation, as it is often dismissed as an illness or imaginary. This can lead to insecurity in spaces that should be welcoming. Asexuality is a legitimate orientation, but when I attend an event like Pride, I expect someone to point at me and say, “she isn’t queer enough to be here.”
I struggled with my identity, poking and prodding it as if my ace-ness were some mysterious beast. The scientist in me came shining through in these moments. Well, she said, you did have a boyfriend once. And you enjoyed having sex with him, didn’t you? Doesn’t that disqualify you from the “queer” label? The short answer is “no” (the long answer is still no).
After years of reflection, I have come to a tenuous peace with my asexuality. I still haven’t participated fully in Pride, but I’m starting to feel I belong in queer spaces.
While my asexuality doesn’t have a distinct cause, I do know the exact moment I felt like a scientific impostor.
In the summer of 2015, I presented my undergraduate mathematics research at my first poster session at Ohio State. Proud to show off my mathematical models, I spent hours pasting my findings on purple and yellow construction paper the night before. I even made flip-book handouts of my figures. When I arrived the next day and saw the other posters were professionally printed, I was mortified. How could I and my colorful handmade poster ever fit into the crisp world of academia?
Though I finished that presentation (after a solid cry in the bathroom), the memory has haunted me. Since starting my ecology Ph.D. last year, I have felt that I tricked my way in. I didn’t have any ecology coursework in undergrad, and spent my years afterward computer programming, not conducting field work. My first year was a lesson in putting my foot in my mouth and sitting silently through discussions on ecological theory. I was overwhelmed with how much I didn’t know.
Impostor syndrome weaves a recursive trap. If I just learn more about ecology, I reason, then someday I will feel like I belong. Though my knowledge of the field has grown exponentially in the past year, I still feel just as much an impostor as I did my first day. What gives?
This type of impostor syndrome is not about how much you know, or how capable or smart you are. By definition, it’s an unfounded belief in not belonging.
My asexuality has helped me in this revelation. Just as there is no way for me to become “more queer” than I already am, I can’t combat my scientific impostor syndrome with more knowledge. My problem is that I believe that I don’t fit in, and that belief feeds my impostor syndrome.
So what can we do? As my therapist says, “let’s be curious about it.” Be curious about your impostor syndrome. Question it like you would a scientific hypothesis. What are your assumptions and biases? Talk it over with friends and colleagues. Where are the holes in your arguments?
Most importantly, play devil’s advocate: What would it feel like if you did, for just a moment, allow yourself to feel like you belong? Sit with this for a moment. Then two.
Would that be such a bad thing?
You’ve likely heard the advice “fake it ‘til you make it” when it comes to impostor syndrome. I push back against this. There is no “faking” it. You do belong. You belong because you bring your unique history and personhood to the table, and that is enough.
So, if you struggle with an internally driven impostor syndrome, do what your scientist self does best: Investigate, question, and be curious.