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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Interview with Dr. Collins on Wellness

September 5, 2018

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OITE was lucky enough to recently connect with the Director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins. He offers valuable tips from his own life and experiences. This is a must read for all, especially scientists just starting out in their careers.

You are well known for your hobbies (music and motorcycles to name two) on top of your professional accomplishments.  How do you maintain all of your varied vocational and avocational interests?
I wish I could say that’s because I am a master of time management and work-life balance.  But I can’t really claim credit for either.  What I will claim is that engaging in such activities outside of work helps me nurture that other part of me that longs for adventure and inspiration, and gives me a chance (especially with music) to create something of beauty (well, at least sometimes).  The uplift from those experiences helps me perform better in my work life.

Science isn’t always seen as the most welcoming/friendly environment in terms of work-life balance.  Has this been a challenge in your career? If so, how have you coped?
Yes, achieving that balance is indeed a challenge for those of us working in science.  As NIH Director and PI of an intramural lab, my work demands can tend to soak up every waking hour, and some that should be sleeping.  And sometimes I let that get the best of me.  It helps me to have a life partner and soulmate (my wife Diane) who is much more balanced than I am and who is masterful in diagnosing and treating the work monomania when it gets out of hand.

Do you regularly engage in any self-care (body/mind/spirit/heart) strategies?
My spiritual life is really important to me – and so I spend a little time most mornings in Bible reading and reflection.  I’m also in a men’s book club with several other non-science professionals who are interested in how faith is relevant to modern life – that has been a wonderful source of shared growth.  And then there’s health.  Ten years ago, I realized I was doing a poor job of health maintenance – no exercise, terrible diet.  A DNA test pointed to a higher than average risk of diabetes, a disease my lab works on and that I really don’t want to get.  I hired a personal trainer, stopped indulging so much in pastries and ice cream, and lost 30 pounds.  Those pounds have never come back – and that same trainer comes to my house twice a week at 5:45 AM to put me through an intense hour of weight and cardio training. The effect of both the spiritual and physical training on my sense of wellbeing has been significant.

What advice do you have for scientists just starting out on their career paths for maintaining their own self-care?
It sounds like a cliché – but it’s important to make self-care a priority, not an afterthought.  Choose activities that really enhance your joy in life; they will be easier to sustain.  Find like-minded people to share those experiences, whether it’s a dance class, a softball league, or a book club – it’s too easy to decide you just don’t have time for something if there’s no one else involved.  The chance to do science is an incredible privilege, but it can also be very exhausting.  Figure out what kind of fuel your tank needs, and then make sure to fill it often enough to keep the engine going!

As shown by Dr. Collins, wellness is more than just one thing. Remember to prioritize your own wellness and self-care by taking advantage of the resources and activities near you. If you are at the NIH, the OITE offers many workshops and drop-in groups on topics such as: resilience, assertiveness, and stress management to name a few. Many university campuses and community organizations provide similar offerings through student life services or recreational groups.

 


Saying “No” at Work

May 22, 2018

A picutre of tree bark with the words It can be anxiety producing to turn down work from a fellow colleague, or even worse, your boss. Sometimes, though, that is exactly what you need to do. In most work settings, especially competitive ones, employees want to be looked upon favorably as the “go-to person” or as a “good team player”. The problem happens when you take on too much and volunteer to pitch in on one too many projects. When doing so, you run the risk of not being as effective at your other tasks and it could leave you feeling stressed and stretched too thin.

If you have already fully assessed the request and plan to say “no” here are a few things to keep in mind as you say this small but powerful two-lettered word.

Give yourself permission to say “no”.
Even at work. Often people agree to requested tasks or favors simply because they fear disappointing the requestor. At work, you should earnestly evaluate whether you have the bandwidth to help with the request and you should always show a willingness to pitch in; however, you can still say no. When doing so, ask if priorities should be shifted to accommodate this request or volunteer to help in smaller or tangential ways for the project. Saying no at work doesn’t mean you are a bad employee, but rather that you are aware of your own personal time constraints and want to be respectful to all involved on the project.

Say it with the right tone.
This can be a hard one to do, especially if you feel stressed and overwhelmed by the request. Sometimes answers can come out overly harsh, so try not to conflate your overall feelings about your workload with this one favor. Sometimes it is best to buy yourself more time and say “Can I follow up with you in a few minutes? My mind is focused on X right now.” Then take some time to gather your thoughts and practice your approach.

Be firm with your boundary.
It is equally important not to waver or appear too hesitant when saying no. Be courteous but assertive. You might say, “I’m sorry I can’t be of help right now and I will let you know if that changes in the next few weeks.” This puts you in the position to follow up instead of inviting questions from the requestor of the “If…then” variety. Don’t give the requestor false hope that your answer may change by talking too much about shifting variables. Make sure your no is firmly understood.

If saying no to requests at work (or outside of work, for that matter!) is difficult for you, then you might benefit from the assertiveness workshops. If you are at the NIH, feel free to attend the workshop entitled “Speaking Up: How to Ask For What You Need in the Lab and in Life” on June 19. The OITE also has some resources that might be helpful, including the OITE Career Library. One book you might be particularly interested in is: When I Say No, I Feel Guilty by Manuel J. Smith, PhD.

 


FROM THE ARCHIVE: Keep Stress From Derailing Your Work and Life

April 3, 2018

Post written by Sharon Milgram, Ph.D., Director, Office of Intramural Training and Education at the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD.

Many of our trainees are currently managing the anxiety and pressures that accompany the job and graduate/professional school application process. This From the Archive post will offer insightful perspectives and strategies that will help you manage these pressures effectively.

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Stress is inevitable – in our relationships, at home and at work, pretty much all around us. At NIH our stresses include experimental roadblocks, bureaucracy, paper and grant rejections, the school/job search process, difficult workplace relationships, and/or the craziness of juggling our work and life. On top of these normal (and expected) workplace stresses, many of us are now experiencing a high level of stress related to the uncertainty of future government policies, here and abroad.  While some stress can be helpful, driving us to work hard and focus on things that are important to us, too much stress is counter-productive leading to sleepless nights, negative coping strategies, frayed relationships, and illness. Now, more than ever, we all need to pause and consider how we respond to stress and how we can work together as a community to manage the stress that seems to be swirling around us. I often talk with NIH trainees and staff about managing stress and wanted to share some insights from those discussions.

I will begin by laying out a brief model for wellness we developed here at OITE that is rooted in acknowledging that we need to focus on multiple elements to truly lead a healthy and less stressed life.  This holistic approach to wellness prompts us to consider four areas – our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual selves.

Wellness Model

Physical wellness includes things such as getting enough sleep, eating nutritional meals, exercising, avoiding harmful substances, getting regular health care, and taking breaks when we need them.  Mental wellness involves modifying unhelpful thought patterns (e.g., ruminating about the past/worrying about the future vs. paying attention to the present, perfectionism, comparing ourselves to others, negative self-tapes), as well as practicing self-affirmations and allowing the mind to engage in new things that interest us.  Emotional wellness focuses on being able to recognize and feel our emotions, expressing our needs honestly and directly, asking for help when we need it, creating and staying connected to a supportive circle of friends and family, and demonstrating compassion for ourselves and others.  Finally, spiritual wellness is about cultivating what gives us a sense of deeper meaning, purpose, and connection in our lives.  For some people this is done through religious beliefs and practices, while for others it is found in non-sectarian areas, such as nature, the world of science, social justice initiatives, creative endeavors and so on.  Whatever the arena, spiritual wellness involves having a connection to something beyond ourselves, seeking out resources that nurture us spiritually, investing time in what is most meaningful to us, reading books and/or watching inspirational media, and engaging in activities that support our life’s purpose.  It also means learning how to be a human being instead of a human doing.  It’s important to pay attention to all four areas as any one area affects our well-being in the other three.  Holistic wellness also involves increasing our mindfulness or awareness of how we’re doing in each area in order to practice good self-care.

After looking carefully at my own wellness practices and noticing some important gaps, I started experimenting with some new approaches. I am sharing my new strategies here, and hope you will share yours in the comments section, with the hope that more explicit discussions about wellness will help all of us all have an easier time during these stressful times. I recently compiled a playlist of upbeat songs and am trying to take more mindful walks (physical, emotional, and spiritual wellness). I realized I needed to stop reading the news at night and have replaced surfing the internet with a good novel or calm conversation with my wife (mental and emotional wellness). To learn more meditation strategies (a big struggle for me!) I participated in a class where we meditated each time we met (mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness).  My most fun wellness addition — I am learning to box! This is one exercise that totally takes me out of my head while relieving huge amounts of stress (physical and mental awareness). We all have a different set of wellness practices that work for us; let me know what wellness practices work for you; perhaps your ideas will inspire others!

Resilience is defined as the ability to grow and learn through setback and difficult times. The foundation of resilience is wellness and a foundation of wellness is community. If you wish to bring your most creative and resilient self to work (and beyond) each day, make an investment in your future by engaging with your colleagues at work and by finding sources of community at home.  Also, join us next week for our Tune in and Take Care workshop focused on stress management, wellness and resilience on the Bethesda campus and watch for offerings on other campuses as well. Get involved in groups on campus and make an effort to get to know the people around you. And get out there and move…. sing…. dance…. paint…. meditate…. connect…… pray…. hike…. whatever makes you more resilient and happy!

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Visit the OITE website to learn about the variety of services offered to trainees.  We invite you to join us for the Spring 2018 Tune in and Take Care workshop or our weekly Mindfulness Meditation workshops.  Also, check out the new Graduate Student Discussion Group, the Postbac Discussion Group or the Post Doc Stress Discussion Group.  We invite our readers beyond NIH to access similar services in your community to help you with ongoing wellness and stress management.

 


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.


The Way to Go: SMART Career Resolutions

January 8, 2018

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Happy New Year!  It is that time of year to make career resolutions that you will accomplish during the next 12 months.  Two years ago, in the New Year Careers Blog we suggested that trainees make an appointment with a career counselor.   This year, to be more confident that you will accomplish your career goals , we suggest that you utilize the SMART goals strategy, Specific,Measurable, Achievable, Results driven, Time-specific when creating your resolutions.  Using this strategy will take you further..faster!  Here are some detailed examples for fellows to consider as you create your career resolutions for 2018.

Postbacs

General Resolution:        Apply or re-apply to Medical School

SMART Resolution:          By June 15, 2018 I will submit my completed error-free AMCAS or AACOMAS application for admission to medical school. I will have attended an OITE Applying to Medical School workshop, had a personal statement critique, reviewed and edited my AMCAS application, used MSAR to  identify a list of 15 medical schools (3 reach schools, 10 within in range and 2 safety schools), achieved my MCAT score goal by June 1, 2018 (before I apply), obtained all letters of references needed, have obtained sufficient direct patient care, research, and leadership experience.

Graduate Students

General Resolution:         Apply for postdocs

SMART Resolution:          On June 2, 2018 (or 6 months prior to completion of my doctoral degree of my) I will apply for at least 4 postdoctoral research fellowships with a clean, critiqued, error-free CV, application letter, research statement that I created utilizing OITE career counseling, workshops resources, talks with my PhD advisor, NIH PI, science professional associations, and researchers that I meet at conferences.

Postdocs, Visiting and Clinical Fellows

General Goal:                                    Start applying for jobs

SMART Academic Resolution:     One June 1, 2018 (or eight months prior to the last day of my post doc) I will apply for 2 academic jobs with an CV, Cover Letter, Research and Teaching statements, and a well-developed job talk presentation that have been critiqued by OITE staff and my PI.

SMART Industry Resolution:        One June 1, 2018 (or 6 months before post doc ends) I will apply to jobs in a chosen industry with my resume, cover letter that has been reviewed by an OITE career counselor. I will have had a mock interview for industry positions, attended the Career Symposium in May 2018, conducted 3 informational interviews

Please join the OITE team for our January Wellness event,  Setting Goals for the Upcoming Year, on January 18, 2018, 2:00-3:30pm, Building 50 Room 1227.

 


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!