Cognitive Distortions Create Imposter Fears

September 17, 2018

radu-florin-756283-unsplashRecently, 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 imposter fears. This is when 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.

Overgeneralization
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.

Mental Filter
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.

Fortune Telling
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.

Emotional Reasoning
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.

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Handling Unanticipated Interruptions at Work

February 5, 2018

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One of the most predictable workplace variables that successful scientists can learn to control for is an unexpected work interruption.   These breaks in service can range from changes in staffing and equipment malfunctions to anticipated breaks in the work due to the economy and/or inclement weather. Naturally, during such events (predictable or not), you will experience a range of reactions including awkward excitement, anxiety, fear, panic, frustration, anger or even avoidance and denial.  As a future professional, you will be expected to have the skills to manage such reactions and continue to act professionally as a leader. In fact, when you are applying to graduate/professional schools and jobs, you probably be asked questions about how you handle ambiguity or unanticipated changes in the workplace. Here are some helpful suggestions to help you cope with these disruptions in a positive way.

Accept the unexpected. Plan for it. Follow the leader.

You will handle workplace surprises with more confidence if you accept the reality that they will happen in general. To prepare yourself, ask your PI (or incorporate) plans to manage your research study. For example, if you are in a lab, review and follow established procedures for managing all aspects your research project during challenging times. If none exist, then consider taking the lead in designing a plan based on what you learn in the current situation. Feel free to consult others who have survived the interruptions in the past and follow their suggestions.

Heed the warning

Read your emails from administration, watch the news, listen to co-workers who you trust and your PI to be able to forecast interruptions. If you get advanced warnings, then take them seriously as discussed earlier. Avoidance will only increase your anxiety and leave you to struggle.

Take a deep breath. Be Optimistic

Communicate using a realistic and positive tone to your co-workers and subordinates to stay resilient during this time.  For example, you could say, “While this is inconvenient, we need put the following procedure in action to maintain the integrity and future focus of our project moving forward.” Also utilize reframe any negative thinking and shift to a can-do attitude. For example, shift from a typical woe is me response such as “I cannot believe this is happening to me,” or “this is ridiculous” to “I (we) can handle this. Let’s put a plan together to keep the work moving forward”

Respond professionally

Using the problem-solving strategy of emotionally detaching and focusing on the moment will allow you to stay calm and in control of your emotions, and analyze the situation. Focusing on what is lost or interrupted has the potential will give the impression that you are ill equipped to handle change and ambiguity. By focusing on the present situation and setting up a plan, this will engage you in moving towards the future and communicate trust and optimism from your co-workers.

Take care of yourself. Practice wellness.

In these situations, be sure to factor in your personal wellness as part of the plan. In OITE, we encourage you to practice self-care during these times and suggest that you read and incorporate the strategies suggested Dr. Sharon Milgram’s blog about how to keep stress from derailing your work and life. For those of you who may have anticipate a break in work, we suggest viewing Michael Sheridan’s Special Advisor for Diversity and Wellness Programs article, Waiting is Hard to Do, for suggestions on incorporating wellness activities while waiting.   These plans can include taking walks, going to a movie, or even seek counseling to help you cope.

If you feel that you need further support, feel free to utilize all OITE workshop, counseling, and advising services to help you manage during these times. Our extended readers are encouraged to utilize similar resources in your area.


Waiting is Hard to Do

December 18, 2017

Blog written by Michael J. Sheridan, MSW, PhD, Special Advisor for Diversity and Wellness Programs, Michael.sheridan@nih.gov

It is December 2017, and while many are preparing for holidays, if you are trainee, you are probably asking yourself, “I haven’t heard back from a number of medical schools, is there something I can do to move them along? Should I assume I won’t get in?  Will I get an interview at the graduate programs that I applied to?  I am waiting to hear from academic positions …is there anything I can do?  The good news is that, if you haven’t heard anything yet, you are still being considered. With the holidays fast approaching, it is probable that most communication will resume in the new year.  The reality is that waiting for a response is hard thing to do.

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Dr. Michael Sheridan, Special Advisor for Diversity and Wellness Programs offers some strategies to help and writes that an area to be aware of while you wait is what is going on in your mind – specifically, the “inner chatter” that is present. It’s important to realize that you “talk” to yourself more than anyone else and thus, what you are saying makes a difference.  There are two particular qualities of this inner chatter to be mindful of – the “when” and the “what.”

The “when” of your inner dialogue refers to how much the mind is focused on either the past (“I wish I had remembered to put X in my application.” “I should have had so and so critique my letter before I sent it.”) or the future (“What will I do if I don’t get any interviews?” “If I don’t hear back from them by the end of this week, it means I didn’t get in”).  The reality of both past and future musings (or let’s face it, worrying) is that it is truly wasted effort as you can’t change something that’s already happened and you can’t predict what is going to happen in the future!  The only moment you have any control of is the current moment – and even then, I’m talking about control of your own thoughts and behaviors – not the actions of others or the eventual outcome.  Focusing on what you can do versus what you can’t lowers anxiety and builds confidence.

The “what” of your inner chatter has to do with the overall message or tone of what you are saying to yourself.  Are your thoughts harshly self-critical? (“I know I did a terrible job on that personal essay – I probably sounded really stupid”) Do they have a doomsday or “catastrophizing” flavor to them? (“I didn’t get this position, which means I won’t get any of the others I applied for either”)  Or are they balanced and positive? (“I know I won’t get accepted by everyone, but I probably won’t get rejected by everyone either” -“I’ve done the best I can and I can handle whatever the next step needs to be”).  A good thing to cultivate during the waiting is compassionate self-talk, or treating yourself with “the same kindness, care, and concern that you would treat a good friend” (Dr. Kristen Neff, www.self-compassion.com). So notice what you’re saying to yourself and if it is not supportive, ask yourself if you would say this to a good friend.  Chances are, you would offer something more encouraging, so try being your own good friend!

In addition to Dr. Sheridan’s suggestions above, we invite you to visit our most recent blog, where we suggested some activities to engage in during the holidays that will help you prepare to continue pursuing your career goals in 2018.  Also, be sure to visit our OITE web page as well to attend workshops and schedule an appointment with a career counselor.  If you are one of our extended community readers, please check with your home institution and local resources for career services. We will see you in 2018!


Happy Pride! Helpful Career Resources for LGBTQ Scientists and Allies

June 5, 2017

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In 2014, to recognize Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Pride month, the OITE Careers Blog published a post addressing job search and work environments for LGBTQ scientists called Happy Pride!  This blog issue provides useful resources for scientists, their families, and allies in support of inclusive career decision-making and work environments.

LGBTQ Employment and Training Opportunities: In addition to the helpful employment resources referred to in the in the 2014 Happy Pride blog (see above), here are some additional resources:

National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technology Professionals (NOGLSTP).  A professional association that provides a listing of  career opportunities for LGBTQ science and technology graduates, mentoring, fellowships, and other forms of support.

New Scientist has published a useful article highlighting LGBT employers in the sciences.

GoAbroad.com published an article with links to an excellent on-line LGBT Student Guide to Studying Abroad that provides resources and helpful information that will help LGBT community members prepare to go abroad for studies.  The guide is also useful for international applicants seeking knowledge about LGBT safe communities across the world.

The Association of International Educators (NAFSA) published an informative article written for allies of LGBTQ international students regarding the specific needs of this population when they arrive to the US and later return to their home countries.

PFLAG International extends its advocacy for LGBT individuals and families globally.  This is a useful resource for LGBT individuals and allies who are preparing to go abroad for short or extended periods of time.

Preferred Gender Pronouns:   When applying for internships, jobs, graduate school, and/or professional schools, you may notice a question related to gender pronouns is added. This question allows applicants an option to request their preferred gender pronouns to use when referring to them.  Colleges, universities, and human rights organizations provide excellent resources used in ally trainings for students, faculty and staff about using gender neutral pronouns.

Ally Training: Many organizations (including the NIH Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) offer Safe Zone training that can allow allies the opportunity to learn more about the LGBTQ community and assist in the creation of a more welcoming environment.

LGBTQ Terminology:  One way to contribute to a culture of inclusion and respect for community members is to become aware of accepted terms to refer to members of the LGBTQ community. The human rights organization, PFLAG, publishes a terminology glossary  that is a useful reference to learn about the latest acceptable terms.

As you can see, it is important for job seekers and their allies to address LGBTQ-related topics in order to keep stress from derailing their life, job search, and/or educational process.  The OITE offers career development workshops and/or career, wellness, and pre-professional services. We suggest that you learn when to seek counseling from our office or the NIH Employee Assistance Program.  We encourage you to register for the Workplace Dynamics: Diversity in a Multicultural Society workshops and/or join the NIH LGBT Fellows and Friends (LGBT-FF) community.  Not at NIH?   We recommend using resources offered by your college and university or local community centers. It can be helpful to chat with other professionals who have been through this process to seek advice and support. Out for Work and Out and Equal Workplace Advocates are two good introductory resources.

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Investing in Yourself: Knowing When to Seek Counseling

May 15, 2017

Post written by Michael J. Sheridan, MSW, Ph.D,. Special Advisor for Diversity and Wellness Programs, Office of Intramural Education and Training, National Institute of Health, Bethesda, MD Michael.sheridan@nih.gov

When our usual ways of coping are not working, it may be time to find a counselor. The reality is that most of us could benefit from professional counseling at various points in our life. I know for myself, the stresses and strains during my doctoral program was a time when going to counseling made all the difference. Since then, I think of obtaining counseling resources as investing in my own well being.  After all, we routinely take our cars in for tune-ups, our pets to the vet, and our bodies to the doctor for physicals.  Holistic self-care means investing in our own mental and emotional health, as well!

From talking with NIH fellows in wellness workshops and individual appointments, I know that many face a number of challenging life situations. For example, adjusting to being in a new geographical area in a large, competitive work environment without your usual or familiar supports.  Or trying to determine your own career path when what you’re interested in pursuing differs from the vision of parents, PIs, or mentors.  Or trying to excel at work while finding time to give to partners, spouses, children or other important people in your life.  Or struggling with trying to make your own health and wellbeing a priority when receiving messages that nothing matters but getting the work done.  And sometimes beginning to realize that patterns of behavior that you’ve used in the past just aren’t working anymore – and, in fact, may be making the situation worse.  All of these circumstances can be managed better with the help of focused and supportive counseling.

Some people are comfortable with the prospect of seeing a mental health professional, but others are not open to the idea. They may have an internalized belief that going to a counselor means that something is really wrong with you or that you are weak or that you are avoiding responsibility for your life.  These ideas often stem from 4 prevalent myths about counseling:

Myth #1: Only “crazy” people go to counseling.

Truth: Very few individuals receiving outpatient therapy fall within the “severe mental illness” categories. Most people seek counseling because of everyday stressors or difficult life situations.  A counselor can provide support and assistance in learning how to better cope with these as well as attend to any feelings of depression or anxiety that may be present.

Myth #2: Why can’t I just talk to my friends?!

Truth: Counselors differ from friends in many ways. Beyond the obvious difference of their years of training and experience, they rarely give advice or tell you what to do like well-meaning friends often try to do.  They are there to listen to you and help you come to your own decisions within a non-judgmental and supportive environment. They can also provide an important “mirror” for you to better understand what you’re going through.

Myth #3: Counselors always want to go back to your childhood and blame your parents for everything.

Truth: Counseling involves learning how to accept responsibility for your own life. Sometimes exploring childhood issues that may be contributing to your current situation is indicated, but not always.  The major focus is on changing perceptions and behaviors in your current life that are creating difficulties for you.

Myth #4: Therapy can take years – once you start, it never ends!

Truth: Most counseling is short-term (8-20 sessions) and focused on specific and attainable goals. Sometimes longer work is needed and desired, and other times people take a break for a while and come back to counseling later.  But the decision to end therapy is one you make with your counselor – you are not held captive!

The NIH Employee Assistance Program provides counseling services to help current employees with their health and wellness issues. The OITE also provides short-term wellness advising and can help you get connected with a local counselor.   We can help you understand the training and expertise of different kinds of counselors (e.g., social workers, licensed professional counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists) and what to look for in a counselor.  [You may want to get started by reading this article on “How to Choose a Counselor or Therapist”: http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/how-to-find-a-therapist/] We can also help you better understand the insurance process.  So invest in yourself and contact us if you think you would benefit from some counseling.  We’re here to make the process easier!

 

 

 

 


Staying Sane During the Waiting Game for Professional School Admission

December 19, 2016

You successfully applied to a range of medical or dental schools and now are anxiously waiting to be contacted about interviews and (hopefully!) acceptances to these schools.  During this time, it is normal to feel anxious, worry that you have not provided enough information, or think that there is something else you can do to improve your chances.  Maybe you are tired of family or friends asking, “have you heard yet?”

Here are common challenges and strategies to help you maintain your sanity and manage stress during this time:

Common Questions

  • Is it okay to call or email the schools and ask for an application status update?
  • Call only once. Curb your desire to call repeatedly.  Sometimes schools feel like students put them on re-dial with the volume of individual calls!
  • I want to update my application materials. Is this a good time to do it?
  • Some schools accept updates to applications and will publish this clearly on their webpage. If you do send updates, it should contain only SIGNIFICANT additions (e.g., papers published, new clinical experience position, completed science courses with a grade, leadership).  Remember that the on the original AMCAS application, a description of each experience is limited to 750 characters—this limit remains. In most cases, an update should be a concise bulleted list.  If you have a publication, use the formal citation.  No lengthy letters with veiled pleas for acceptance. One update letter is acceptable, a second is pushing it unless it contains something amazing.
  • I have been placed on a waitlist for an interview or acceptance. Does this mean I won’t get in?
  • Being placed on a waitlist or in the hold file is not a rejection. This means that you still have a possibility for acceptance. Some schools are sorting through their acceptances and attempting to figure out their yield rate before extending more invitations to interview.  Schools with a high number of applicants are still reviewing applications as well.
  • Should I send a letter of intent?
  • Submitting a Letter of Intent at this point in the cycle is of little value. You applied to the school, so the committee knows you want to go there.  It is not going to move you into the ‘accept’ category if you are not there already.  Letters of intent should not be sent to all schools.  Rather, letters of intent should be reserved for the school where you can guarantee that if you are accepted you would turn down other offers that you may have.  Check out the US News article on letters of intent.
  • How long can I expect to be on a waitlist?
  • Expect significant movement from Waitlists and Hold files after 15 March. Another time will be around  April 30 of each application cycle year, when admitted applicants are required to choose a medical school to attend and decline multiple offers.  This way, medical schools begin filling these spaces. Still, many in April, May, and often up to one week prior to the first week of medical school.
  • I have begun to receive rejections from schools to which I have applied.  Should I plan to re-apply next cycle?
  • Each year, many students are not admitted to school and decide to re-apply to medical school and successfully matriculate in later years.   You should re-apply when you have significantly improved your application materials and experiences. Meet with mentors, career or professional school advisors, medical students, and admissions officers to get feedback on how to strengthen your applications.  You may need additional clinical hours, research, or leadership experience. You could work on strengthen your AMCAS application and personal statement.  You should be practicing your interview skills.  See the 2015 blog article, “So I didn’t Get in Medical School Now What

Step 2   Do’s and Don’ts in the waiting game
Here are some do’s and don’ts behaviors that many applicants may default to during times of high stress.

Don’t

  • Launch a social media rant about schools or admissions teams. Admissions committees and students check social media.
  • Complain to admissions officers or medical students about the perceived amount of time it is taking for them to reply to you for interviews or admissions decisions.
  • Contact each school more than once to check on the status of your application.
  • Re-take the MCAT yet without significant preparation. Your goal is to raise your score significantly before re-applying.

Do:

  • Surround yourself with positive and healthy individuals, mentors, groups, and activities
  • Meet with advisors, career and personal counselors who can support you through this period.
  • Continue to show your continued passion for professional school. This includes staying involved in a combination of clinical, research, leadership, service, coursework activities.
  • Prepare for interviews. Many professional schools are now using the Multiple Mini Interviews.
  • Stay emotionally strong and resilient
  • Practice healthy coping behaviors including exercising, healthy eating, and involvement in social activities and mindfulness
  • Utilize any cultural, spiritual, familial, and other personal support to maintain hope and develop coping skills and strengths.

Feel free to visit the OITE https://www.training.nih.gov to meet with medical school advisors, wellness or career counselors who can further support you during this process.

* OITE services are available to NIH intramural trainees only. Check with your home university or college and utilize the personal, career, and professional school advising resources they offer to you.


Life’s Got You Down?  Staying Strong and Resilient in the Midst of Disappointment

November 21, 2016

Life can be challenging at times, as scientists in training you know this all too well.  When daily life doesn’t go as planned it can lead to lack of motivation, frustration, and sadness. Stress and strain can be draining, leaving you with less than 100% of yourself to put into your work, relationships, and pleasurable activities.  How do you make it through?  Resilience—it can help you manage the tough times allowing you to persist and persevere in whatever the challenge may be.

Resilience refers to our ability to bounce back, learn from our mistakes and come out of the challenge stronger.  Years ago, in graduate school, myself and my fellow trainees experienced a very challenging work situation.  It was physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging, so much so that several staff members left, including a fellow trainee, opting not to complete her degree. We had to find ways to persevere in spite of the challenges we faced.  Although it was extremely difficult and far too tempting to give up and quit, we quickly identified aspects of the training experience that felt supportive, focusing on relationships and people who offered support and encouragement. We re-examined our priorities, and began to shift our thinking so that we could see an end to the experience and the rewards to follow. Perhaps some of your academic work or personal life situations feel similar.

Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist and researcher of positive psychology, has spent years researching resilience, hope and optimism.  He and his research team have identified characteristics that help to build resilience. When things get tough, consider these strategies:

Acceptance – Accept that setbacks and disappointments are a part of life.  As much as we wish things would always go our way they simply don’t.  Dealing with small everyday setbacks helps us development the resilience to handle larger challenges in life.

Stay Connected – Connect with others who are supportive and will encourage you. Spending time alone when you are feeling down can lead to isolation, loneliness, sadness, and pessimism.  Find others in the lab, in your families, or among your friends who affirm you and acknowledge your strengths.

Keep Perspective –  Keeping things in perspective helps us see things as they are.  Having perspective allows us to see the broader picture which can offer us a more realistic view of the experiences we face in the moment.

Opportunity – Consider the setback or challenge as an opportunity for new learning.  Seligman’s research suggests that individuals who bounce back more quickly often see their failures as opportunities as opposed to those who struggle from the same experiences.

Optimism – An optimistic attitude allows us to view disappointments as temporary, isolated experiences that are brought on by external factors.  Individuals who are optimistic appreciate their experiences, value their relationships, and are encouraged by the future.

So the next time you find yourself faced with a significant setback, resist the temptation to give up.  Engage in the above strategies and look for the positive things around you.  If you are intentional about looking for them you will find them.

Other resources from the OITE on resilience:

  1. Join our Mindfulness Meditation group on Thursdays: https://www.training.nih.gov/mindfulness_meditation_group
  1. Need help now?? Check out resources for NIH intramural trainees: https://www.training.nih.gov/get_help_now
  1. Watch out for our next Tune In and Take Care workshop held each semester
  1. Check out our YouTube video: Resilience in the Job Searchresilienceresilience
  1. Related blog posts:
    1. Enhancing Optimism and Resilience in Your Job Search & Beyond
    2. Job Stress, Resilience and Support
    3. Is Grit the Key to Success?