Attend any workshop, webinar, or networking event and you’re bound to hear mention of Imposter Syndrome – the feeling that you’re inadequate, you’ve somehow faked your way into any success you’ve had, and, worst of all, it’s only a matter of time before everyone finds out you’re a phony.
Feelings of inadequacy or insecurity are certainly not specific to any particular subset of the population, but Imposter Syndrome is something that is more often associated with women. A 2016 study found that, among medical students, 25% of men and 50% of women suffered from Imposter Syndrome. We’ve heard it from successful women, like Michelle Obama or Sheryl Sandberg, which can sometimes be a relief (it’s not just me!) but can also serve to perpetuate the notion that if a woman feels like she doesn’t measure up, it’s her fault.
“Every time I didn’t embarrass myself – or even excelled – I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up.”
- Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (2013)
In 1978, academics Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes published their five-year study of 150 highly successful women in order to examine what they called “imposter phenomenon.” They found that, despite their achievements, these women “persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.” Clance and Imes were not surprised by this finding, explaining that this was due to the fact that women’s success was counter to both societal expectations and their own “internalized self-evaluations.” They argued that overcoming these feelings is especially hard for a few reasons. When you worry that your perceived inadequacy will eventually be discovered, you work feverishly to succeed in order to hide that you’re not worthy of your achievements. When you do end up succeeding, you’re only temporarily elated because that underlying feeling – “I’m a phony” – still exists. However, this teaches your brain that this pattern – worry, work frantically, succeed, temporary elation – works. So, you repeat it. That temporary elation also leads us to believe that if we were truly capable, we wouldn’t need outside approval, so our efforts to gain approval actually validate that we’re phonies. And, because success has traditionally been seen as a masculine trait, women mitigate seeming unfeminine by conceptualizing their success as a total fluke.
Despite being published 40 years ago, this research is still helpful because it illustrates where I think the problem lies: Imposter Syndrome is not actually a “syndrome” or a medical diagnosis, it’s a response to the society we live in. Calling it a syndrome treats it as an individual deficiency. It also then suggests that people become successful entirely of their own volition, which, by extension, suggests that if you struggle with success it’s because of your own personal failings.
But, in what is likely the least ground-breaking statement to make in 2019, the responsibility for your success doesn’t lie solely on your shoulders. We don’t begin at the same starting line, we don’t have access to the same opportunities, and our success isn’t simply a matter of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.
In combination with that is the notion that intelligence is a static, inherent trait. “Genius culture” is the idea that intelligence is something we’re born with, not something that’s teachable. Legitimate success, then, requires innate talent, rather than simply persistent effort. By that logic, the more effort you have to put into something to succeed, the less innate intelligence you possess. This encourages us to hide those efforts. When you don’t see the effort made by successful people, you start to think it doesn’t exist, thus fuelling this wacky notion of a genius culture that perpetuates our own feelings of inadequacy.
Are you exhausted yet? I am. So, we can feel like we don’t deserve success and eventually everyone is going to find out we’re phonies because of both the ways in which society sees intelligence and success (it’s effortless, you dummy), and the remnants of a culture that sees women as not only less likely to be successful, but less attractive when they are successful. You may be thinking “This is 2019, we aren’t living on the set of Mad Men, there are tons of successful women!” Of course there are. But societal structures take an incredibly long time to evolve and grow with us. That’s why we still hear powerful women like Oprah Winfrey and Tina Fey explain how they have a hard time owning their success.
I think the key to dealing with these feelings is to really understand where they’re coming from. They’re inherent in a society where our worth is measured by our output (*ahem* capitalism). The only way we can move beyond this is to begin to talk openly about and normalize work, effort, failure, and the ebbs and flows of our creative output. This requires that we redefine success to some extent and think of it more holistically – success involves pride, contentment, conscious rest, and prioritizing things beyond promotions or financial success.
We also need to recognize that our ability to grow out of this pattern of thinking rests on pushing through it. If we truly are inadequate in some area, the only way to solve that is to work to get better – not just at a project but at our thought processes and how we think of and talk to ourselves. This also means consciously reframing how we see ourselves and our work: we train our brains that what has worked in the past will work in the future. Breaking this pattern involves giving your brain a new option that doesn’t involve a cycle of panic, fear, and anxiety.
While we certainly can’t expect a major societal overhaul overnight or simply remove ourselves from society and go live in the woods, I think the answer lies in pushing back against the drive for constant productivity and moving instead toward incorporating rest as a part of a balanced, healthy, and successful life. Working ourselves to the bone in the face of fears over an inability to succeed simply becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. While those fears are not unique to you, it’s normalizing a new concept of success and recognizing the factors at play in society’s power dynamics that hold some hope in alleviating those feelings.
Or, you know, I guess we could just move to the woods.