Content Warning: Although the story is fictional, the following post is focused on the very real experience of Impostor Syndrome and anxiety that many live with every day
11:07 PM. The coffee isn’t warm anymore and it’s definitely not strong enough. Should have picked up RedBull on the way home, there’s no way this nightmare will end before 3 AM.
11:21 PM. That’s what the microwave says but the damn thing was always off by five minutes. It must be 11:26. Goddamn it.
11:27 PM. Soft, rhythmic pit-a-pat-pit-a-pat at the window – the lightest of autumn rains.
Stop looking at the time and focus.
I’m not losing focus because of the time, you know that, right?
Yeah yeah, the knot in your stomach is back, you know what that is. Your old friend.
My worst enemy.
No, you know that feeling. You’ve survived it.
But it’s killing me.
Then deal with it.
If I could I’d be asleep by now, it’s way past my bedtime.
Deal with it.
I’m afraid to. I’m scared, alright? I’m flipping the hell out.
You heard me. Deal with it.
The computer screen blurs. Eyes squeeze shut.
Fine. I’ll deal with it. It happened again. I’ve been putting this off for two weeks because I can’t handle not being able to do it.
How do you know you can’t do it?
I mean, I don’t know. I just don’t want to FIND OUT that I can’t do it, you know?
You’ve pulled through it every single time before. What about the poster you gave at the conference last month? You got good feedback.
That wasn’t good feedback, people just smiled at it a lot because I fixed that old cell-phone to it and played videos of the animals in the set-up. It was an awesome distraction from the lousy data, I’ll give you that.
Come on, Professor Sommers stopped by and even HE said the data looked promising.
Promising my left eyeball. I did the stats all wrong on that figure he was interested in, and the effect wasn’t that big to begin with anyway. See this is EXACTLY why I haven’t touched this presentation for two weeks, OK? The data suck and I don’t want to present it. And I suck. I know it.
This again? Lara was just cranky yesterday, you know she just broke up with someone! She didn’t mean what she said.
She told me to fix that bug in the code at the last meeting and I plain forgot. Because I didn’t write it down. And now she’s got to collaborate with an idiot who can’t debug a simple thing like that, I deserved what she said. It’s only this one project we’re working together on, it’s been two weeks and she already knows I’m totally incompetent.
OK fine, even if you did waste her time yesterday because the code wasn’t ready, and even if you do need to pay more attention it still doesn’t mean you suck as a person.
No, OK maybe not. I just suck as a scientist. I can’t code to save my life, I’m careless with the daily log, I forgot to write down the temperature in the chamber AGAIN, I don’t understand any of these statistical tests Lara wants to do AND she wants to pre-register the next experiment, how the hell do I do that?!
You ask her to show you, genius.
She thinks I already know!! I told her I believe in Open Science! I mean, I do but…I can’t ask her that!!
Alright, do you need to cry? Maybe it’ll help.
What, tenth time’s the charm, d’you think? Besides, that’d just be more procrastination.
11:32 PM. The coffee cup is empty. It’s time to make more. A hot drink would be comforting now, even if it is ghastly instant coffee. Calming, like the cool tiles of the kitchen counter against a burning forehead. Or the peaceful sleepy mumbling from my flatmate’s bedroom. Sheila always talks in her sleep when it rains, why does she insist on leaving her door open?
11:36 PM. Several shaky sips of coffee down but the computer screen swims alarmingly. The dull ache between the eyes is now a pounding sledgehammer. Ah. A haze of tears. Right on time, that always happened after the mental blah-blah started.
- Training: The animals could clearly discriminate between the stimuli (see Figure 1a)
- Individuals #54 and #32 (both female) however failed to pass the criterion for
I can’t, I can’t, I can’t take it anymore. I mean, I can’t even focus my eyes.
You’ve downed four cups of coffee in the last two hours, of course you can’t focus! I can’t believe you wanted RedBull tonight, you know you can’t handle caffeine after, I don’t know, like, 2 PM.
Shut up, I had to. The more I shake the less I’ll feel it.
Feel the fear?
Yeah. The fear. That Lara will make that half-bored half-exasperated face at me again tomorrow. That that stupid, wide-eyed Bachelor’s student who started his project this week will pelt me with questions. That they’ll know. That. They’ll. Know. That brains and hard work had nothing to do with it and it was all a fluke. That this is a good doctoral program, so getting in that easily means I pulled off one hell of a con. What’s two publications in a Master’s degree anyway when the project was a jackpot and the supervisor a total genius? Oh, this isn’t fear anymore. It’s a mounting terror.
I don’t know how to do this, I can’t think, I don’t know what I’m doing, have I done this graph already? Yeah, there it is but I need to make another I don’t know what code to write to make it, I don’t know what to do next, I can’t do it, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t –
12:01 AM. How long have I been curled in a ball, clutching my face?
Breathe. Deep breaths. Push it away. Focus.
12:53 AM. Alright. Five slides of results done, not too bad. Tomorrow when I –
Don’t think! Don’t think about that! You’re in the groove for God’s sake finish the presentation and get your butt in bed. And don’t you dare make more coffee.
Fine. Shut up while I work then.
I’ll go away, then.
No, not you. The other one. The other voice – we’re done with tears so it’s about time. Oh God, here it comes…
Jesus, why do you even try? Just admit it tomorrow, tell them they’re wasting their time – you’re not good enough and you’ll never be. Not you. Not ever. You should know this stuff already, look at you Googling every second word on those damn slides.
Not you again. Look, just go away, OK?
And Lara told you last time to get rid of that fancy format, God, can’t you get anything right?
Shut up, shut up, shut the hell up.
This time they’re going to find out. They’ll know you’ve been faking your way through it all, you can’t fool all the people all the time. You don’t know squat and they’ll tell you to get the hell out. Just as well, you don’t deserve to be here anyway.
I aced my last exam!! I’ve got two publications, I –
I mean, duh, those exams were graded on a curve. And Anish practically wrote those papers for you anyway. It’s no wonder you never ask questions at other people’s talks, it’s no wonder you’re always forgetting little things, it’s no wonder you cry at your desk when you think no one’s looking. They’ve all seen you at it. You think they don’t know why? They know.
You think maybe it’s because you never shut up and let me get on?
Please. You’ll never get on with it. You won’t. Not you. Not ever.
1:22 AM. It hurts too much to go over the Results section once again.
- It appears
Presentation’s only at 11:30, this one can be done after a night’s sleep.
Ha, what does it matter? The study wasn’t worth doing anyway. And you’re going to show yourself up no matter what. It doesn’t matter what you do. This time they’ll know. This time.
1:31 AM. Better turn off the kitchen light, Sheila loses it when the lights are left on all night. And the coffee goes in the second cabinet on the right. Milk back in the fridge. Mug in the sink.
1:41 AM. Darkness. The steady, driving rain. A cool, soft pillow against my aching head. My stuffed kitty.
Maybe when I’m asleep the voices will go away.
Header Image Credit: Samson Jay from Pixabay
Guest post written by Shambhavi Chidambaram.
Shambhavi (AKA Sam) is a biologist studying animal behaviour and neuroscience at the Humboldt University, Berlin. When she’s not chasing bats or running trails, she’s usually busy hunting for a perfectly-tailored humorous metaphor. Science writing for her is an art; she believes her work is done when anybody who reads her pieces has not only learned something fascinating but feels smarter in the process. While Sam mostly writes about biology and Open Science, she’s always keen for new ideas. You can follow her on Twitter at the handle @Quidestvita.