Recently, we received wellness tips from NIH Director, Dr. Collins. In case you missed it, you can check it out here. Part of that discussion revolved around how establishing a career in science and maintaining a healthy work-life balance can be stressful.
Stressful situations are often fraught not only with external challenges, like getting that grant or interviewing well for that job; however, there are often a slew of internal challenges as well. Thinking errors and cognitive distortions can arise during stress.
During times of high stress, like graduate school or a first job search, automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) can become even more pronounced. Often trainees will face a barrage of worries and doubts. Sometimes this inner dialogue can be helpful. Your inner voice can help you think and guide your decision-making. At other times, this voice can turn critical and it can become a pessimistic monologue stuck on repeat saying things like: You’ll never get a job. You aren’t competitive enough for that grant/position/award. You should stop trying.
The most common issue that results from an overactive inner critic is the imposter syndrome. The imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where people are unable to internalize their own accomplishments. They see their success as chance luck or good timing. They believe that in time, others will recognize what they believe to be true – that they are not smart enough and that, in fact, they are a fraud.
According to Aaron Beck and David Burns, two leading experts in cognition, cognitive distortions are irrational thoughts and beliefs that we unknowingly reinforce over time. Patterns and systems of thought are often subtle and difficult to identify if they become a regular feature in your day-to-day thoughts. Often cognitive distortions are connected to mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. Beck and Burns identified the most common distortions/thinking errors. As you will see below, feeling like an imposter is a “disqualifying the positive” type of cognitive distortion.
Disqualifying the Positive
This distortion acknowledges positive experiences but rejects them instead of embracing them. For example, a person gets offered a job at a prestigious institute. Instead of being proud of their accomplishment, they will think “I got the job because not that many people applied.” Or “I think I got the job because my mentor is well known and served as a reference.” This distortion is directly tied to the imposter syndrome.
Taking one isolated situation and using it to make wide generalizations. For the job seeker, this could look like, “Well, I didn’t get that one job. Nobody wants to hire me. I’m never going to get a job.” All or nothing language like “always” or “never” is another form of overgeneralization and black-and-white thinking.
This occurs when somebody focuses almost exclusively on one specific, usually negative or upsetting, aspect of a situation while ignoring the rest. For the job seeker, this could look like, “I answered that one interview question so terribly!” Even if the rest of the interview went well, the person will ruminate about their perceived mistake.
This is often also called jumping to conclusions or mind reading and it happens when you assume you know what is going to happen. Perhaps in an interview, you imagine what the hiring manager is thinking. “They are probably thinking my answer was really stupid.” Then you anticipate how the situation will unfold and assume you will never get the job.
This refers to the acceptance of one’s emotions and feelings as fact. Surprisingly, many people use this distortion frequently. These statements are often found in the imposter syndrome as well. People will say, “I feel like a fraud, so it must be true.”
In their book, The Confidence Code, Kay and Shipman define Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) as thoughts that come up in a recurrent fashion and constantly buzz around your head, demanding your attention, and hijacking your sense of self-confidence and calm. Our society and the culture in biomedical science often reinforce ANTs and promote anxiety instead of empowerment. To challenge ANTs, try using PATs – Positive Affirming Thoughts. Instead of thinking “I will never amount to anything.” try saying “I trust that my training and perseverance will eventually pay off.”
Labeling, investigating and talking back to your ANTs takes practice but in time can help you to minimize these cognitive intrusions. A helpful and free guided meditation podcast called “Getting Bigger than What Bugs You” can be found at Focusing Resources. Talking to mentors, peers, career counselors and therapists can also help immensely. You will most likely find out that you are not alone. You may never be able to fully silence your inner critic but hopefully, in time, you can turn down the volume.