Confessions of a serial impostor

Early attempts

Detail of stained glass window, showing a foot and two white flowers, also visible as a cat’s face
A cat peeking out through the stained glass – or is it?

Although I didn’t know the term ‘impostor syndrome’ back then, I think one of my earliest memories of feeling that I didn’t quite deserve to be where I was was when I played my flute in a residential music summer school. I’d auditioned the year before and hadn’t got in because I fluffed the awkward scales that I’d been asked to play. The second time round, I ‘warmed up’ by rattling off a few scales and arpeggios that I could play. This clearly fooled the person doing the auditions, or so I assumed, as they didn’t ask me to play any scales at all this time. But at the summer school – which I attended for a few years – I was always astonished by the truly talented musicians around me who were clearly destined for greater things. Had I got in through trickery alone?

When I went off to a well-known elite university in England (to study physics, not music), I felt out of place there too. Having felt fairly confident in my intellect up to that point, I was concerned to find that the mismatch between my perfectly good Scottish education and what my (mainly English) fellow students had learned in their very different school system was something I was going to find difficult to deal with. Many of them also had very different social backgrounds from mine. I didn’t know how to cope. I was also depressed and unmotivated in general, but there probably was a bit of entry-level impostor syndrome going on there too.

Postgraduate-level fakery

After doing another degree, which gave me a renewed sense of self-confidence, I felt emboldened to attempt a PhD. Little did I realise that impostor syndrome was once again waiting in the shadows for me, and it was bigger and badder this time. Yes, my mathematics PhD came to a crashing halt, probably for multiple reasons, but at least in part because I felt that I had nothing original to contribute compared to all those people around me who seemed to be churning out amazing new results while I struggled to know how to take the first steps.

For a number of years after that, I did things that triggered only mild feelings of not-being-meant-to-be-there. By turns, I was a software engineer (without a computer science degree), a technical author (without any qualifications in that field whatsoever) and a freelance copy-editor (with training picked up as I went along).

Then I began my return to academia: I started with yet another undergraduate degree, and then – after what I felt was a sensible two-year break – I launched into my current PhD, in linguistics. I’ve told the story before, in Then was not the time, of how the stress of my current PhD led to me coming out as trans. I’m still on an extended interruption from my PhD, with 13 months to go when I do eventually return. But academic impostor syndrome certainly hasn’t lost its grip on me yet. I’m tempted to say that in my case it’s because I actually can’t come up with original analyses, but isn’t that just what someone with impostor syndrome would say?

For life, not just for academia

As a trans woman, my pre-transition life was akin to playing a male role to fit in with people’s expectations, so it’s perhaps ironic that I find impostor syndrome rearing its ugly head again in respect of both my transness and my womanhood. From what I’ve heard, this isn’t uncommon.

First, because there aren’t (or at least weren’t) all that many openly trans people – I hadn’t knowingly met a single trans person in my life until a couple of years ago! – it isn’t (or certainly wasn’t) easy to know exactly what counts as being trans. Once I’d realised that cis people don’t usually agonise over whether they might be trans – thanks, Mia Violet, for your 2016 blog post that helped convince me I was trans enough – it wasn’t so difficult to take the next step. But in a relatively small community, there’s always a slight concern that you’re going to step over the edge of an unseen boundary and disqualify yourself from the label. (And then what?) This is pretty rare for me nowadays, though, and I tend to be fairly confident that I am at least some-kind-of-trans.

As for being a woman, though, I’m often made to feel that I don’t quite make the grade. When strangers misgender me, seeds of doubt are sown in my mind, and my internal sense of self is at least temporarily slightly recalibrated towards maleness to align itself with what society is telling me. When one or two people I know well misgender me, I begin to wonder whether they are in fact going through tortuous mental processes to remember to call me she (occasionally) when it’s as plain as day to them that I’m actually a man. Then I wonder to what extent I’d have to become a complete caricature of femininity to get them past the tipping point where she comes naturally. It’s all too easy to feel that whatever valid issues I may have with my gender identity, I surely can’t hope to really be a woman.

And then there are the TERFs. (I’ve said before that I was reluctant to call them that, but even if the term isn’t used precisely as the cis feminists who coined it intended, it’s such a useful shorthand for transmisogynistic so-called feminists that I’m afraid I’ve relapsed.) Every time it appears that there’s a groundswell of feminist opinion turning against the recognition of trans women as women (and trans men as men), no matter how obvious it is that these TERFs are really only a small group of bigots with a powerful voice in the media, it raises doubts in my mind about whether I’ll ever be fully accepted as a woman. Will my personal transition process and society’s moves towards trans acceptance ever actually meet in the middle? Or will I buckle under the strain of impostor syndrome at some stage and accept the label ‘transwoman’ (sic) rather than ‘woman’? I hope not.

Sorry it’s been a little while since the last post. I was actually in the middle of writing another post, which has been taking me longer than anticipated – partly because it’s written in Gaelic, which doesn’t come as readily to me as English, and partly because I’ve had to do a fair amount of research for it (which might also feed into another blog post, in English). But having been chastened by the words of a slightly more seasoned blogger, I felt I needed to get something to you – my patient but as yet largely unknown audience – before that post’s ready to be unleashed.