Some Thoughts on Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. Imposters suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.

I am getting together my thoughts on imposter syndrome in preparation for doing some small-scale research in the area, because I want to unpick my understanding of it: we all know what we think imposter syndrome is⏤but are we right?

The phenomenon was first identified in the 1970s (Clance & Imes, 1978) and termed the imposter phenomenon. This study concluded it was a condition that disproportionately affected women in professional roles and that such women, ‘despite outstanding
academic and professional accomplishments…persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise’ (Link: http://mpowir.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/Download-IP-in-High-Achieving-Women.pdf)

While subsequent work has corroborated that women in high-status positions do suffer more frequently from feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, it also occurs to me that there is more here to talk about.

I am interested in the phenomenon of imposter syndrome because I come across it so often in my work at a university: newly appointed academic staff routinely report feelings of being a fraud⏤either standing in up in front of students of applying for promotions or grants⏤and recently every academic client I’ve seen has mentioned it as a key issue for them. It seems to me that in academia imposter syndrome is seen as something normal and inevitable⏤it’s part of the job. Although it has to be possible that not every academic feels like an imposter, in practice it appears that the majority do.

What I am interested in finding out is, what is driving this? Is it something to do with how we understand the academic role itself, is it a function of how academic institutions operate, or are there factors⏤aside from being female⏤that predispose someone to feel like they oughtn’t to be where they are?

Representation Matters

When we’re talking about imposter syndrome in the academic context it’s clear that there are key markers of belonging in the academic role: most academics are white, middle-class, abled etc.⏤you can fill in the rest⏤and if you don’t feel you belong somewhere, by dint of demographic grouping, it is a short step to feeling like an imposter. It occurs to me that where there is no representation of someone like you in a job like that it is easy⏤and one could say natural⏤to feel like a fraud. Is this simply a problem of lack of representation, then? Is the fix-it we need to encourage⏤or require⏤universities to appoint and promote from a wider social pool? Are we talking about diversity committees here?

I think not. A further compounding factor is what academic staff encounter once they are in the job, and also what they see and experience on the journey there. To get into an academic role, never mind a senior role, an individual from what we might call an academic out-group⏤for want of a better term, feel free to add your own, you know what I mean⏤has often gone through a long period in which they have subtly and not-so-subtly been coerced into performing the norms of the dominant gatekeeper group; whether this is through a process of osmosis or good old-fashioned saying-it-to-your-face, they have been made aware that their authentic self is not what is wanted. And off course one feels like an imposter if what is wanted is the performative self.

Several studies have shown that a process of homogenization occurs when non-dominant groups move into the academy, and have highlighted why this is problematic: women from BAME backgrounds are disproportionate affected by imposter syndrome and a link has been made between the negative psychological affects of this and the need to negotiate competing personal identities (Miller and Kastberg, 1995) which brings me on to code switching⏤having to move between two or more language-varieties to match the culture of the dominant group, the clearest example being the pressure felt by Black employees to speak more white in professional settings. The implication is that one’s authentic style of communication is unacceptable; working-class professionals also often code-switch in a similar way. This observation shifts the focus away from imposter syndrome as primarily a symptom of a type of structural misogyny⏤both external to and introjected by the individual, as argued by Clance and Imes; rather, when we consider academia, what we see is an edifice which indicates to any group of people outside of the white/middle-class/abled/cis-gendered/+ that they cannot belong unless they can pretend that they do. There is a lot of literature on the ways in which structural discrimination operates, but I’ll leave this thought here: as an urban working-class academic myself, this thought rings true.

It is also worth flagging that many studies have reported overt racism, classism and ableism as a problem in the academy. I’ll just leave that here too.

It’s Not Me, It’s You…

Something about the way imposter syndrome is ascribed to individuals makes me uncomfortable. And supporting individuals to overcome imposter syndrome has most often been framed as a problem of the individual. What I mean is, when this or that person is said to be suffering from imposter syndrome this carries with it the implication that when it comes to addressing the negative effects of feeling like an imposter, the ball is firmly in the individual’s court. Valerie Young’s book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It is a case-in-point: Young identifies five personality types (e.g. the perfectionist) that predispose someone to imposter syndrome⏤and these are to be unpicked and challenged in a process of personal work. No focus on structural factors, on context.

I guess what I am edging around here a growing sense I have that this stuff is⏤always and only ever⏤structural. What strikes me is that framing imposter syndrome as a problem of the individual is both misleading and convenient for institutions like academia. It is also (IMHO) unlikely to lead to meaningful change.

So What?

Ok. So where are we? Does the term imposter syndrome not serve us anymore? Do we need to start thinking about this phenomenon differently?

The problem with framing imposter syndrome as something which is located with the individual⏤and focusing on intervention at the individual level⏤is that it lets the structure, which in this case is academia, off-the-hook. Now it is so common for academics to say ‘I have imposter syndrome’ with the implication that they need to go off and work on themselves that it has become kind of normal to feel this way; and it is also normal to feel ‘deficient’ in terms of confidence rather than angry at structures which perpetrate the a-symmetric power relations which are probably more likely the source.

However it is also interesting to note that imposter syndrome, despite being more prevalent in minority academics, isn’t confined there: in my experience almost all academics experience it to some degree. Another question to be explored is whether or not this is something to do with the way the academic role is configured⏤as an endemic form of pressure to perform, to be right, to be the best. I will be exploring academics’ attitudes towards/conceptions of the academic role in the research; also, the ways in which institutions support and perpetuate them.

Where am I going with this? I’m not sure. Certainly the de-colonise movement has raised many of the questions relating to structural exclusion on the basis of race this year. And universities have largely gotten on board⏤although the degree to which this is performative is a further question although beyond the scope of this blog.

Nevertheless, I still have questions.

Returning to the original study (1978), I don’t think the researchers who did the original study meant to leave the problem located with the individual and certainly structural factors are considered in the discussion; rather, locating it at the individual level⏤and normalising it as a problem of self-confidence which is up to the individual to solve⏤is something of a convenience for the institution, which has evolved and taken the idea⏤through its research outputs⏤in a very different direction.

What Do We Do Now?

So, we recognise academia as a structure which only admits it’s own⏤or rather only admits otherness to the degree that what is other can be homogenised or disguised or toned-down. Taking this point, what is there to be learned? What can be done?

As a starting point, an admission by universities and other professional institutions of the idea that *maybe* feeling like an imposter is not a personal failure of confidence but rather a justifiable fight/flight/freeze response to finding oneself in an environment which is fundamentally hostile to whatever it is we are may be helpful. Although that environment works to show us its friendly face, replete with diversity training and inclusivity policies and anti-racist initiatives, for those of us who nonetheless know we are other and would be seen as so if ever our true identities were revealed⏤for us out-groupers⏤to be seen to belong is to pretend.

My preliminary thoughts are that we need to be looking at four key things and making them the focus of an interrogation:

  • What is it about how the academic role is configured and commonly understood that makes it normal for academics to feel like imposters
  • How does the interface between the institution and the individual work? What are the structures of power, what the dominant modes of being, and how are these perpetuated?
  • In what ways do minorities within the system feel pressure to adapt and assimilate?
  • Do we need to move away from a focus on helping individuals to overcome imposter syndrome and work instead on helping the system to stop creating conditions which are exclusive to authentic selves which are outside dominant cultural norms of the institution?

Anyway, these are my opening thoughts. As the work unfolds I am sure I will have more. If you have thoughts, let me know in the comments.

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