By Kimine Mayuzumi & Riyad A. Shahjahan
We are victims of our own internalized perfectionist. – Julia Cameron
Do you feel you’re not “enough” or “don’t belong” in the academy? Do you feel lost and wonder why you are in the academy? Do you feel fear to speak ‘truth to power’?
If so, you’re not alone! Through our workshops, coaching experiences, and personal interactions for the past few years, we have encountered over 800 people including faculty, postdocs, and graduate students who resoundingly say “YES!” to the above questions.
Many have discussed imposter syndrome or perfectionism in the context of the academy. We, however, claim that they hardly explore a key issue that tends to occur among students, faculty, and many postdocs only behind closed doors or virtual seminars: SHAME. We will argue that one cannot address imposter syndrome and/or perfectionism without unpacking its deeper source of shame.
You ask, what is shame?
Brene Brown suggests, “shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging… Shame creates feelings of fear, blame, and disconnection” (Brown, 2007, p.30). Shame overtakes our mind when we recognize or imagine others’ gaze towards ourselves (Guenther, 2011). While guilt refers to the negative evaluation of what we did or didn’t (i.e., behaviors or actions), shame cripples us as we identify or judge ourselves as innately bad (i.e., our being or existence). Guilt and shame may go hand in hand in that “while it is possible to feel guilt without shame, we cannot feel shame without guilt” (Dwoskin).
The following visual depicts how shame controls our life by evoking certain emotions and behaviors. As we will explain next, shame, as the core feeling, is tied to various factors that can hold us back from thriving wholeheartedly in the academy: imposter syndrome, perfectionism, being unkind to self, limiting beliefs, and isolation.
When we don’t believe we are worthy, we strive to prove ourselves to others and become perfectionist. We are perfectionist when we are unable to lower our standard based on the fear of being judged by others. We blame ourselves when we don’t meet our own high expectations. For example, we may work on a manuscript submission but may not be able to finish it because of the high standard we set, or the fear of failure/success. Perfectionism not only prevents us from finishing a task, but also discourages us from starting a new task and makes us procrastinate. We may avoid writing, research, or coursework.
The lack of our self-worth allows the narrative of “not enough” to dominate our mind and may lead us to compare ourselves with others. As such, we inflict bitterness, become critical and unkind to ourselves. We prioritize ongoing pressures for productivity over self-care and end up feeling physically drained and burnt out.
For minoritized bodies, shame feelings could add another layer. Society doesn’t represent us well and continuously questions our belonging. The academy is not exceptional when it comes to differences based on race, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, language, citizenship, etc. Due to the extra scrutiny that we as minoritized academics often encounter, we become harsh on ourselves with a mantra of “work hard (or harder)” to verify our credibility (Rockquremore & Laszloffy, 2008).
Shame also stirs in limiting beliefs and scarcity thinking like: “What if I fail?” “This will never be easy for me,” “I was hired/admitted due to affirmative action,” and most importantly: “I am not good enough.” As a result of these limiting beliefs, we in turn become defensive in teaching and writing, and lose joy in the tasks. We narrowly define the purpose of what we do.
Because of the vulnerability that shame evokes, we end up either ignoring shame and/or isolating ourselves. We don’t want to share the shaming self with others. The academic culture doesn’t encourage us to talk about shame or imposter feelings either. Seeking help may be considered a sign of weakness and more difficult when everybody is busy. Isolation is a common pitfall for many academics.
Despite achievements, our celebratory feeling is fragile and easily turns into imposter syndrome which is common among high-achieving people ranging from grad students to full professors. Imposter syndrome is like this: When we accomplish something, we consider ourselves as a fraud and do not deserve the success. We dismiss our proof of success as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others. Sometimes, we may not even identify what we feel as part of imposter syndrome. Other times, setbacks or rejections during the academic journey can trigger these imposter feelings. We may say, “my last success was due to luck. Next time I won’t be so lucky.” Or we may experience in-between feelings of “I am accomplished!” and “I do not deserve this/they will find out I am a fraud.”
If we don’t know how to recognize and change the pattern, we continue this cycle. Any shaming incidents including rejection, confusion, comparison, career/life transition and a shaming memory can trigger the shame cycle above. Along our career journey and studies, we may criticize ourselves saying, “I am not good enough as a xx” (e.g., a scholar, a teacher, an advisor, or a doctoral student). We may (even more strongly) feel unworthy of belonging; our relationships with our colleagues or even our family members could deteriorate; we continue to feel isolated; our productivity might slip and we may eventually think about leaving the academy.
We (Riyad and Kimine) have fallen into the shame trap numerous times.
As a doctoral student, I (Kimine) would ignore my shaming self and at some point noticed that I would work on my publication to garner approval from others rather than follow my passion and purpose. Rejections from journals hit hard and I lost motivation to write. I felt like an imposter even when I got a small grant thinking “I was lucky. There weren’t many applicants in the first place.”
I (Riyad) would binge write with loud music and feel good one day, and wouldn’t write for many days and fall back into debilitating low self-esteem mode. I didn’t want to get up in the morning and kept procrastinating instead of writing.
Overall, shame is at the core and barrier to slowing down and being gentle with ourselves.
In Part II, we will address how to navigate shame and imposter syndrome common to academics.