By Kimine Mayuzumi & Riyad A. Shahjahan
Worthy now. Not if. Not when. We are worthy of love and belonging now. Right this minute. As is. – Brene Brown
In part I, we discussed how shame and imposter syndrome manifest in the academy. If you haven’t, please read it first. In part II, here we will share four strategies for navigating shame and imposter syndrome.
1. Get in touch with your shaming self
First, we need to be aware of our shaming self by paying close attention to our emotions and body triggers. We need to find the real story underlying our shame feelings. The following questions may help: “When do I feel ashamed? What narratives are triggered? Where do the feelings manifest in my body? Write your responses to the above questions without self-judgement. We need to be gentle and compassionate to ourselves as if we’re listening to a child with full attention.
In my doctoral program, my (Kimine’s) shaming self often emerged when I could not jump into a class discussion. I felt the tension in my stiff shoulders and pounding heart. The following narratives emerged: “What if other students or the professor think I am dumb because of what I say?” I thought I was not good enough as a doctoral student and often doubted my belonging in the academy.
For me (Riyad), the shaming self used to strike the hardest when I received negative evaluations (e.g. manuscripts, teaching, annual reviews) and/or when my writing didn’t go smoothly. Such negative narratives would swarm my body like tidal waves leading to a chain reaction of past traumas that left me debilitated for days. I felt these shaming waves mostly in my shoulders and lower back. So, I would lie in bed. As a minoritized scholar, the shaming self would remind me that I did not belong in the academy because there was something inherently wrong with me.
The more we talk about our shaming self, the less it has control over our life (Brown, 2010). Ignoring these feelings just increases the shame gremlins taking over our life. Shame has the power to trap us with all the negative factors that could hold us back. When we feel and accept that we are flawed, we rationalize being perfectionists and unkind to our bodies and continue to swim through the ocean of scarcity thinking (“I am not good enough”, “I don’t have enough publications, grants”, etc).
Digging deep into our emotions requires courage to talk about our vulnerability with ourselves and our trusted ones. However, telling our own shame stories could transform them into sources of success and joy.
Now that I (Kimine) mentioned my fear and shame feelings in classroom, I feel I have pinched and pricked the surface and have let my shame know that I am aware of it and I could scare the gremlin away. For me, (Riyad), writing about this topic publicly in a blogpost like this and doing workshops on this topic have helped me “let go” of some of these gremlins. Furthermore, meditation and writing rituals have helped me tremendously to name and tame the shaming self.
2. Develop your inner sense of worthiness
Developing our sense of worthiness is the most important key to navigating shame and impostor syndrome. When shame is about being/feeling unworthy of love and belonging, worthiness means the opposite: being worthy of love and belonging (Brown, 2012). The sense of worthiness does not come to us overnight. We have to work on it. Here are a few suggestions that helped us.
First, keep gratitude journals. When we feel grateful for what we have, we feel accepted by the universe. We feel joy rather than let misery/inadequacy take over. “Gratitude deepens the pleasure of Receiving and makes us eager to accept more and more good things into our lives” (Castle, 2006, p. 97), which leads us to embrace our worthiness. This also leads to abundance thinking where we embrace that we are indeed enough, we have enough, and so on.
Second, we need to reward ourselves for all the small/big steps for meeting professional/personal goals. A small step could be even finishing a paragraph and then acknowledging your effort and achievement with an M&M. A big step could be getting a fellowship and pampering yourself with a Spa treatment. These outwards actions are a motivation drawing system and also signals/reminders to our inner self that “you’re indeed worthy.” Just like we would reward our child or pet.
Third, we need to learn to say “no” to other’s requests as comfortably as possible. We know it’s hard. But, by doing that, we are asserting our own worthiness and affirming that we don’t have to please others. Saying “yes” to everything is a way to distract us from validating ourselves inwardly. By saying “no,” we protect ourselves from overcommitting and feeling overwhelmed and suffocated in the future.
Reflecting on what makes it difficult for us to say “no” is important. The reasons can be quite political: rejecting the request can be easier for some than others depending on our social positionality (race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, ranks etc). But, it is also a great opportunity to nurture our relationship with ourselves.
At the end of the day, we need self-validation to sustain ourselves in our long journey and enjoy it. We found pausing a little (checking our calendars, or personal goals) before responding to others’ requests help to alleviate the urge to say “Yes” on the spot (Rockquemore 2010).
3. Avoid perfectionism – Aim for healthy striving
Perfectionism lies in the goal of getting things done in the most perfect manner, which is simply unattainable. It prevents us from lowering our standards. Being perfectionists sounds like a virtue, but as we suggest, is simply a product of the shaming self. Shame urges us to attain self-worth through producing outward “perfect” products.
With insecurities and fear engulfing ourselves, we feel the urge to prove ourselves to others. We set a high bar for our goals. When we can’t meet the expectations, we judge and blame ourselves. We also have a hard time celebrating our achievement. We may feel disconnected from everyone and everything. To put it simply, being perfectionists, we live as beings-for-others (Guenther, 2011). Perfectionism creates additional stress and procrastination that may lower our productivity in the long run. Instead, we need to aim for healthy striving, wanting to grow internally. (See the table below)
Remember that nobody is perfect. Even prolific scholars are not. When we make a mistake or fall into a setback, we need to be compassionate to ourselves. Instead of being our worst enemy, we need to give ourselves the permission to lower standards.
4. Develop a community of support
As we discussed in part 1, the academy may drag us to isolation, which can lead us to further depression, confusion, and drop-out. To counteract this, we need to develop a list of people who could be our support and reach out to them. When we are open and remind ourselves that the universe is indeed friendly, we noticed that things and people come to support our efforts. When we do create a support network, we are also providing support to others.
First, we need to create categories of what we need help with. This could include emotional support, career support, writing support, and accountability support. It could range from on-campus support, to off-campus support, to national support, and/or international support (see Rockquemore & Laszloffy, 2008). By creating such categories and filling up with who can be in which categories, we can identify our gaps/needs in particular areas, and reach out to people.
To engage in healthy striving, whether in our scholarship, teaching, course work, etc, we need self-care, inner self-worth, and self-compassion. At the heart of all this academic work is creativity, which naturally provokes uncertainty and fear. But how we deal with it is up to us collectively (See Mountz et al, 2015).