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“The Other Impostor Syndrome”

I had developed what I call Inverse Impostor Syndrome: The belief that I’d been skating by on my intelligence my entire life while doing half the work of everyone else, and the fear that eventually somebody would realize I’d half-assed everything and was actually a lazy good-for-nothing.

Every grad student knows about Impostor Syndrome: the belief that, despite your achievements, you’re not as skilled or intelligent as others believe you to be, and the accompanying fear of being “found out” as a fraud who works twice as hard as everyone else to make up for her deficits.

Works twice as hard as everyone else? Oh, didn’t I wish. I was in my mid-30s and utterly failing to finish my PhD dissertation. I considered myself lazy and flaky. Others looked at my degrees from prestigious schools and scoffed. Nobody lazy could do all that! I must work just as hard as everyone else; I just didn’t give myself credit for it.

But I knew the truth.

While others spent hours each night on our readings, I couldn’t manage to look at a single journal article for more than ten minutes. Any work I did get done was preceded by hours sitting at my computer trying to get started. Major degree milestones that others worked on for several months to a year, I would scramble to throw together in a few weeks.

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I couldn’t understand how other grad students just… did things. I felt like I’d missed a class somewhere; I understood how to design a study, but making it happen eluded me. But if the other students could do it, clearly I should have learned at some point. Why couldn’t I translate my high grades and test scores into doing anything?

And soon it would catch up with me—my lack of progress on my dissertation made that clear. It got to the point where I would sit down to work and start to panic. There was so much to do, and I would never be able to do it, because I was lazy.

I had developed what I call Inverse Impostor Syndrome: The belief that I’d been skating by on my intelligence my entire life while doing half the work of everyone else, and the fear that eventually somebody would realize I’d half-assed everything and was actually a lazy good-for-nothing. There was also guilt — if I were just a better person, had a better work ethic, I could accomplish so much more.

Being diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) was an incredible relief. As I learned more and more about executive dysfunction, I found that it explained everything I’d always hated about myself.

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Medication wasn’t a silver bullet, but it helps enough. I can read entire journal articles. I only forget what I’m doing a couple of times a day. Large projects are still overwhelming, but it’s easier for me to break them down into smaller tasks, sometimes tiny steps when needed.

Most importantly, I no longer beat myself up over what I can and can’t do in the same amount of time as other people. I understand now that I was working as hard as everyone else all along; the difference was that half of my work was in wrangling my brain into doing what came naturally to others.

I’m still learning to work with my brain rather than against it — trying to adjust my expectations and find goals that I’m not just smart enough to attain but that allow me to work in ways that come naturally to me. I still don’t always get as much done as I want to. I’m still figuring out how to manage my time.

But I no longer see myself as lazy, and I no longer hold myself to unreasonable expectations based on neurotypical ideals. Or at least… I try not to.

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6 Comments & Reviews

  1. Brandy, Thank you for your honest post! If there is one thing I have learned in the last year (since my diagnosis at 38), it is that I am definitely not alone, and neither are you. I felt the EXACT same way every day of my life until my diagnosis. Since then, and like you, I can now forgive myself for having to work differently (usually longer and with more chaos) than others to accomplish the same things.

    1. Your words were just what I needed tonight. I had an especially ADD day at my job and left feeling really down on myself. The many distractions got in my way til I simply switched to Jigsaw Planet and accepted my guilt. Without conversing with anyone I came home and started eating to calm myself. I am a recovering Alcoholic with 28 plus years of sobriety so I was aware my eating was related to restlessness and self condemnation. Thank you for your honesty. It helped me tonight.

  2. Thank you so much for this article. I have been recently diagnosed and this is how I felt every day of my high school and college years right up to today. Thank you for putting words on that terrible feeling and making it seems so much less powerful

  3. OMW!!! this is sooo me. I once told a former employer (who thought I was terrific at my job) that I was afraid that one day someone would realize I cant actually do my job and yes self-fulfilling prophecy.

    I’m doing my law degree now and it’s exactly the same. procrastinate till the night before an assignment needs to be in and then try to do it in a panic. Don’t even get me started on exams.

    Thank you so so much for sharing this.

  4. Really wish I’d seen something like this back in the 90s when I was a grad student LONG before my ADD diagnosis. Took me many years to convince myself that my Inverse Impostor Syndrome was my brain lying to itself. Just because I have a different work style doesn’t mean I’m any less dedicated or hard-working.

  5. Brandy I’m so astonished because I just got out of my shrink’s appointment and as I got my phone on my way back I was drawn into your post and saw you have just described literally everything I just told him!
    I’m also struggling with my PhD dissertation and I simply don’t understand how I got where I am, and I’m sure my supervisor only likes me because she has no idea of the real-deal.
    Anyway, it is so good to see you’re not alone and you’re still human although you feel different from mostly everyone around you.

    Thanks for sharing!!


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