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.

Confessions of a Late Diagnosed Autistic

I didn’t have a clue I was autistic until I was 53⏤so I’m about a year in to this adventure⏤and for the most part I can say that it has been a massive relief: a profound shift in both understanding myself and in learning self-acceptance and (maybe) self-love.

The process of finding out was kind of random and perhaps serendipitous. My husband got chatting with a woman in our yoga class who said her daughter had just received a diagnosis; she explained the difficulties she was having, and my husband came home and said that sounds like you. So, he dug up an online assessment instrument and I did it⏤and needless to say did very well. Anyway at the same time I was having sessions with a psychologist at the university counselling centre. I had been having some ‘issues’ at work related to being in a shared office space. To be honest, I now know I had an autistic meltdown brought on by sensory overload⏤but I’m getting ahead of myself. After taking the test I have a session with the psychologist, and I say to her it’s really funny because this test says I’m likely to be autistic, fully expecting the spiel about how online diagnostics are unreliable and we can all convince ourselves of anything etcetera. But she didn’t say that. She said do you think you might be autistic? And then bang! The realisation that it was and had always been true. I was autistic. I remember feeling nauseous at the thought. This feeling carried on for about a week. I compared it to what I imagine it might feel like to find out that what you thought was your family isn’t⏤a kind of rolling sea-sickness where you suddenly feel unsteady in your life. Then it went, as suddenly as it had come. I got myself assessed and here I am. Autistic AF.

I think the reason that I didn’t know I was autistic was⏤ironically⏤because I’d done a fair bit of autism training and reading around, in connection with my job. None of the representations of autism I found there fitted me: as a qualified therapist and coach I’ve had my empathy rubber-stamped numerous times⏤everyone knows autists are not empathic (this is not true). Where I did recognise myself is on autistic Twitter. Engaging with my new peer group there began a process of realising that everything I thought was a quirk personal to me⏤and I am talking dead specific here, down to becoming frustrated when buttering bread⏤was actually just a sign of my neurodivergence. There was a phase, thankfully now passed, where I wondered if I was actually a person at all rather than just a set of behaviours linked to my autism. With hindsight my experience on social media has been overwhelmingly positive and I would recommend anyone who suspects they might be neurodivergent to start there⏤and not with the official literature, which broadly is not good.

One useful thing the psychologist said to me was that autistic people often work as therapists: when you are late diagnosed it means that you have spent a lifetime carefully observing people⏤noting and reflecting on the minutiae of behaviour⏤in order to mask which means acting as if you are neurotypical. The upside of this is that it makes you a good listener. It is worth saying here that I have since found out that autistic people are often super-empathic⏤we feel deeply for both humans and animals⏤which is another plus if you work with people on emotional stuff.

Although I have come to terms with being autistic and have gone so far as seeing it as a positive thing, I have been more reticent at telling other people. Mainly this is because they either a) say something along the lines of, but you don’t look autistic (which is not the complement they think it is) or b) giving me a look that I can only describe as diminishing as they bring to mind the last autism training session work sent them on. Advocacy is important, though, so I am telling people I’m autistic. Writing this blog is part of that process.

Above I mentioned self-love and I guess that has been the most significant thing finding out I am autistic has brought me. Living a life undiagnosed means that you have always felt wrong or bad or less-than other people. Finding out I am autistic takes the judgement out of that⏤I am neither more nor less than a neurotypical person, I am just different. And here is the important bit: I am part of a big group of neurodivergent people who are all different in different⏤and similar⏤ways. We are legion.

Diagnoses and really any clinical writing about autism tends to foreground what is ‘wrong’ with us. Popular culture can be just as undermining when it goes down the Rainman route and ascribes us all superpowers. The reality is somewhat more mundane, somewhere in the middle. I do see my autism as a disability because I find it hard to cope with daily tasks⏤social interactions, organising paperwork, changes in routine⏤that typical people don’t seem to give a second thought. But my autism also brings benefits. For example, I have a strong response to music and writing and sensory experiences; I also have heightened empathy which makes me a better therapist and coach. I am also rarely bored because I can absorb myself in ‘special interests’⏤something which has resulted in me writing two PhD theses over the last twenty years. Everybody is different and everyone has different strengths and needs. But that’s me.

Finally, discovering I am autistic has led me to be able to care for myself better. It’s like I have the label for a particularly sensitive plant⏤now I know what water and light it needs to thrive. It turns out that those lights are fairy lights.

Journalling for Anxiety

In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.

Susan Sontag

I am new to journalling. I started this past March just before the lockdown. I see the irony of being new⏤given I teach groups and facilitate clients to write reflectively and constantly extol the benefits of expressive writing⏤but there it is. The research evidence shows that writing a journal has multiple benefits for mental health: expressing our thoughts reduces stress, gives you a place to share things you might otherwise keep inside, helps to develop a sense of having a voice (what we call a sense of agency), and helps with the processing of challenging experiences.

The timing was auspicious, although not designed; I was struggling to get going with my academic writing and read someone somewhere say that they always began the writing day with a warm-up exercise in their journal⏤so that’s how it began. And then the virus happened. And I was ANXIOUS.

I found that one way to reduce my anxiety was to write down⏤to chronicle⏤all of the developments related to the virus that I’d come across in the day: numbers of infections, numbers of deaths, lockdown measures (the closing of pubs was the first big one), major stories in the press. Nothing personal, nothing about what I was feeling. Just the facts. I think this helped because I wasn’t simply suffering the pandemic, but rather was telling its story: I got distance on the events by describing them and also assumed a degree of self-agency in taking on the role of narrator. Jennifer Moon (Learning Journals, 2006) identifies reflective writing as vehicle for self-empowerment; telling our story is a place of power.

This approach served its purpose for a month or so; then my journal moved into a new phase⏤what I think of as my Gerald Durrell My Family and Other Animals phase⏤where I started to observe and report on the activities of the neighbours. (I realise as I write this that it sounds a little creepy, but bear with me.) The bloke two doors up is building an ambitious shed⏤we call it the shedifice⏤from scratch, which means its a long process with lots of stages. The neighbours are bored at home; the wood arrives and it draws the men first, who watch the timber unloaded. The walls start to rise and more men come, and the women join them: shedifice becomes the whole focus of the street; at nights there are parties in the roofless shed. Every day I check progress and note it down. You get the idea. What did this stage of the journal do for my anxiety? Well, it took me outside of the worry in my head and trained my focus on the here-and-now of the outside world; it took me away from anxieties about a projected future. Jon Kabat Zinn posits mindfulness as the antidote to anxiety; in Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994) he writes ‘one practical way to do this is to look at other people’. In therapy we commonly use grounding exercises for attacks of anxiety: turning your attention to the things you can see, hear and feel in the external environment⏤and away from anxious thoughts in the mind. You can google grounding exercises and find audio walk-throughs that are helpful.

Anyway, then there was a third stage of journalling. I started re-reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (1992) which is an 11-week programme for unlocking your creativity⏤which I recommend if you haven’t read it. The keystone of the programme is ‘the morning pages’⏤three sides of stream-of-consciousness writing done as soon as possible after you wake up. This type of writing is rarely a pleasure, but rather more of a discipline which forces you to get what’s inside of your head outside. Through this raw type of writing you can see a self emerge which you may or may not have been aware of: a messy whole person written with openness and a sense of acceptance. I always think of the Carl Rogers’ quote: it is a curious paradox that when I accept myself as I am, then I can start to change. I started to get to know myself without the anxious bits edited out.

Now I am in a fourth (and final?) stage where I do the morning pages and jot down notes and observations at other times of the day. My journal has become more than an activity⏤it has become somewhere to go, a space, a place to hangout when my emotions need some care. It can be a distraction or an abstraction (I am still keeping tabs on the shed), it is often a dumping-ground⏤but it is increasingly becoming a place I can be myself and find myself and, I think, create myself⏤oftentimes in unexpected ways. While journalling isn’t a universal panacea for anxiety, I have found that it certainly can calm me when I find my thinking leading me into dark waters.

Give it a go.