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Growing Beyond Imposter Fears: It’s a Journey, Not a Destination

Submitted by Lori Conlan January 26, 2022

“Be okay with being uncomfortable.”  This is a quote that I read every day to remind myself that there may be days when I feel that I am not qualified enough to accomplish my goals.  In my younger days, I was never afraid to experience things for the first time that were out of my comfort zone.  Through life’s experiences, I saw self-doubt and imposter fears encroach on my fearlessness, and I had to develop strategies to work through these emotions.

I attended a Historically Black College/University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.  As an undergraduate, I was an average student and didn’t know much about research.  I wasn’t amongst the top tier students, but I had a genuine interest in science and wanted to apply to a summer program.  I recall walking into my professor’s office and asking for a recommendation.  She proceeded to look over her glasses and respond, “Really?”  My feelings were hurt, and I walked out feeling disappointed, insecure, and full of doubt.  That was the beginning of my journey of dealing with self-doubt and insecurities regarding my abilities (what I now know as “imposter fears”).  For the next few years, I worked hard to prove to that professor and myself that I was more than just an average student.  I developed relationships with mentors and supporters who believed in my abilities.  I depended greatly on my friends, family, and faith to get me through the rough times.  I went on to become a 6th grade science teacher, co-direct a Math and Science Program, and obtain my master’s degree and PhD in Biology.  After receiving my PhD, I left the U.S for a fellowship at the Medical Research Council in The Gambia, West Africa.  

I came to the NIH as a postdoc in 2008.  During my postdoc, I became a mother and decided to pursue a career in science education.  In 2010, I was hired as the Director of the NIH Community College Program in the Office of Intramural Training & Education (OITE).  I was challenged with the overwhelming task of starting the program, and although those imposter fears crept in, I was up for the challenge.  Now, after the success of the program, I have opportunities to publish and work on new projects.  Honestly, I can feel those imposter fears reemerging once again.  I’ve come to realize is that these feelings will never go away permanently.  Therefore, I have established some coping strategies to deal with these fears. 

  1. Seek Support: It is imperative to have supporters around to encourage you to accomplish your goals, especially during those moments of doubt.  For some, it may be family, a mentor, community, or a religious/spiritual practice; for me, I have an amazing support system from family and friends.  Talking to a mental health professional and seeking support from other resources (at a university or institution) can also be very helpful.  The OITE has an amazing series on Becoming a Resilient Scientist on the OITE YouTube channel.
  2. Reflect on my goals and passions: Taking some time to reflect on my personal “why” usually helps me focus on accomplishing my goals and get past my insecurities or imposter fears.  I have a sincere passion for the success of students from underrepresented/disadvantaged backgrounds in STEM.  As a past “average” student, I am usually attracted to other “average” students and enjoy exposing them to opportunities and resources that their “star student” counterparts may access easily.  Thinking about this passion encourages me to put my fears aside and search for opportunities to accomplish my goals.
  3. Be okay with being uncomfortable: I remind myself that when I’m uncomfortable there is growth taking place.  Putting myself in uncomfortable positions forces me to overcome my fears of “not knowing everything”.  When I’m in a vulnerable position, I’m forced to ask for help, and to go beyond my comfort level.  I usually remind myself that to build muscle, one must go for the heavy weights.  And although there may be some pain and discomfort, the results far outweigh the costs. 
  4. Move Forward and Stop Looking Back: This is a major strategy for me.  I am very thankful for my accomplishments and challenges that I’ve experienced over the past years; they have made me into the person I am today.  But those past accomplishments and challenges are in the past.  Focusing on those things which are behind me prevents me from focusing on where I’m going and adds no value.  It is easy to look back at past experiences because they are familiar, and it feels good to experience those good emotions.  Moving forward nudges me to walk into the “unknown”, which can be scary for those of us who are planners, but it is necessary for growth and opportunities. 

These strategies have been very helpful throughout the years when I confront feelings of self-doubt and imposter fears.  I hope that you will take some time to reflect on your own experiences with imposter fears and identify some strategies that could work for you.  Please remember that overcoming your imposter fears is a journey, not a destination.  Be patient with yourself and trust the process!

By the way, years later, the same professor who denied my recommendation request invited me to the biology department to speak to her students about being successful in STEM. 😊

The journey continues…

Guest Blogger: Erika Barr, PhD: Director, Community College Programs, OITE
Part of the “Voices of OITE” series.

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