Rethinking Imposter Syndrome

Angela Seach
August 24, 2022

I used to find comfort in the idea of the imposter syndrome. 

In case you haven’t come across the concept, ‘imposter syndrome’, according to Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Anne Burey, is “loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud. It disproportionately affects high-achieving people, who find it difficult to accept their accomplishments.”

The reason I used to find comfort in the idea, was that it gave my sometimes crippling (but mostly just tedious) self-doubt a definition, and on some level, the comfort came from the idea that it was an actual thing, not just a problem I’d created for myself.

My comfort in the idea increased when I learned that imposter syndrome is generally only experienced by high achieving people.  Apparently, if you are competent and conscientious, you are more likely to question yourself and your skills than a person whose confidence far exceeds their competence.  Let’s all take a moment to think about the people we’ve worked with who fit that description.

Right.  Welcome back.  Imagine how happy I was when I read that there is an upside to imposter syndrome in workplaces.  Turns out that people who experience ‘imposter thoughts’ are more likely to be good team players than those who don’t experience imposter thoughts.  They are more likely to put in the extra effort to help and support others, because against a backdrop of feelings of inadequacy, they want to make contributions in other ways.  Yes, OK, I appreciate that this is all sounding a little bit self-serving.  And maybe it is.

It’s become accepted that imposter syndrome or the tendency to experience imposter thoughts is more common in women than men.  Perhaps there is an element of traditional gender roles playing out here too, with women tending to be assigned ‘supporting’ roles in both the personal and professional domains.

So there I was, feeling quite pleased with the idea that in some way, my feelings of inadequacy were actually a good thing, that they drove me to do more, to work harder, to look out for others. There was still a feeling of dysfunction, but I could live with it. 

And then I read Tulshyan and Burey’s article “Stop telling women they have imposter syndrome”.  They systematically tore apart the research, pointing out amongst other things, that however nice the window dressing, imposter syndrome is just another way of pathologizing people who experience ‘fairly universal feelings of discomfort, second-guessing, and mild anxiety in the workplace and pathologized it, especially for women’.   They went on to point out significant flaws with the research upon which this ‘syndrome’ was based, which focused on high-achieving women, and was conducted in 1978, at a time when the impact of systemic racism, classism, xenophobia, and other biases were not openly acknowledged.  The article ultimately makes the point that this syndrome blames the individual, and as a consequence, places the onus on the individual to be fixed, and that this onus has fallen more heavily on women, people of colour and other groups who .  Oh no, there goes my comfort. 

They’re right of course, we shouldn’t be pathologizing perfectly normal emotions, nor should we be placing additional pressure on historically disadvantaged groups to fix systemic issues.  Instead, we should recognise this as another form of inherent bias that forces people to conform to a narrow definition of productive thinking and behaviour, that encourages individualistic, competitive behaviours, and essentially dehumanizes us all.  I can no longer think of imposter syndrome as a comfort, and I promise my colleagues and friends that I will never again tell them that their feelings of anxiety and inadequacy are due to imposter syndrome. 

As the saying goes, you cannot fool all of the people all of the time, so fooling all of your colleagues into believing you are competent is unlikely.  When my colleagues and friends express these feelings, I’ll encourage them to acknowledge those feelings, but also ask them to challenge their doubts.  I’ll  encourage them to recognize their achievements and celebrate their strengths, and connect with colleagues who support and encourage them. 

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