We are not Imposters: Dealing with Impostor Syndrome and archaeology

I don’t think I’m the only female archaeologist who’s looked around a room and thought what the hell am I doing here? I regularly do this, and I’m training my brain not to allow these thoughts to take over like Dory from Finding Nemo I constantly repeat “Just keeping nodding, nodding”. Because these thoughts are insidious, they creep up on you in the middle of a sentence, as you enter a conference room, or even when writing an email. The feeling is everywhere. I once was invited to speak at a conference on the topic of archaeogaming. My online articles had proven popular with a number of people following the subdiscipline and I felt absolutely ecstatic to be recognised. The conference moved online and even from the comfort of my own sofa, I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there. Apparently a lot of archaeologists feel the same, a quick search of the terms “imposter syndrome” and “archaeology” on Google, produces 1,030,000 results. A lot of archaeobloggers like myself have posted about it, feeling the weight of their own inadequacy, most of which are women and underrepresented racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, hardly surprising when you look into the evolution of the subject.

Like most of them, I can almost pinpoint where my imposter syndrome took hold. This feeling started off during my postgraduate studies, I sat in my Archaeological Theory class in University College London, tired and exhausted from trying to understand the amount of assigned readings from the night previous. Words like “processualism” and “middle range theory” popped out of my head as quickly as they got into it. Impostor syndrome is not the root cause of the problem, I realised that after taking Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that my worst enemy was not the lecturer probing me for comebacks on my theory, or that overenthusiastic undergrad asking me the impossible questions that I needed a reference for. It was me. I was the one with these thoughts in my head after all.

When I was talking to my therapist, she noted that I constantly put myself down. “Sorry I’m just being stupid” was/is apparently one of my favourite phrases or my ultimate favourite was/is “I’m a bit of an idiot.” According to Marisa Peer, author of I am Enough repeating negative phrases about oneself makes the mind believe them. So the fact I was talking to myself in such a negative way almost everyday made me believe I was in fact “stupid” and an “idiot.” When I decided to do a presentation for the local history group about the archaeology of our area I walked in thinking “I’m too stupid to do this”. During my undergraduate studies I did a presentation comparing the use of Jade in Neolithic China to to that of the Classic Maya in Mexico. I remembered being so filled with confidence because I kept saying to myself “I can do this” something one of my favorite videogame characters Lara Croft repeatedly says to herself during the course of the game Tomb Raider. The power of my own words had changed my outlook so quickly. So what changed? Having strong role models is imperative to development when I had just started off I latched on to strong independent thinkers who not only encouraged me but who took their own time to help me. When they moved on I felt isolated and alone, and worried about my own capabilities.

As archaeologists we aren’t supposed to know all the answers. Within my career, I have known academics who know very little about digging, and I have known fieldwork archaeologists who struggle to present their ideas to an audience. What’s important even if you know you have weaknesses you can change them with some discipline and self belief. It’s really that simple. During this last week, I realised one of the most important things for me is writing, be that on this blog, journal or website. I took Peer’s advice and started writing a little everyday so it would become a habit. When you repeat the same action every day, even if it’s only for ten minutes you start adopting healthier habits. I started by writing ten minutes of my blog, and started writing a new article, by the end of the week I had three ready to publish articles! One of the persistent worries I hear from other archaeologists is that they don’t know enough especially from students, when I was helping them study Aztec hieroglyphs I told them to learn just one every day. Once they have memorised one, they could easily memorise two.

Let’s be real even if we don’t want to admit it, but Imposter Syndrome is ubiquitous with archaeology because of the very nature of the subject. The material culture reveals a number of traits regarding human behaviour, but human behaviour by it’s very nature is capricious especially during periods when humans weren’t fighting for survival. This means archaeologists can never really assert a clear and standard theory to explain human behaviour, which can make us feel somewhat unqualified. But none of us can really be fully qualified to make such assertions without a time machine. We can make informed theories even if we can’t prove them. The archaeologists that I have great respect for know this. They’ve also trained their brains to accept this and not strive for absolutes. These feelings are the hijackers sabotaging our rational brain to make us believe the feelings instead of the facts. As archaeologist even if we accept that our ignorance of their world is vast, we can’t allow impostor thoughts to block our pursuit of knowledge.

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