Imposter Syndrome

One way to look at imposter syndrome is as an internal, self-generated  mental health issue — a plague of self-doubt and self-confidence that undermines one’s ability to work.

This feeling can express itself as a belief that we’re “performing” expertise  rather than being the experts. It often comes along with baggage of shame and fear, that one will be found out to be a “fraud” or unworthy of the position one holds.

Self-awareness of the limits of our own knowledge can be a good thing, in moderation.  But it can go too far.  Self awareness can become self-doubt, self-doubt can become paralysis.   If you’re experiencing this, you are not alone.  The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the IMPOSTER SYNDROME and How to Thrive in Spite of It is one of the more helpful resources I have found on the topic.  Despite the title of the book, not only women fall into imposter syndrome, but anecdotally, it does seem to be more common for women than for men.


Another side of impostor syndrome is to notice the ways in which the culture around us can create and sustain impostor syndrome.    How we recognize and acknowledge expertise in others plays a part.

It’s not uncommon for people to have internalized expectations of  how experts are expected to look and behave and be.   We might expect a certain way of dressing, or a particular gender.  So many things can come into play here – age, accent, education, race.   The sum of these can result in someone being judged as “not the expert you were looking for”.

The darker side of this is that people who have to prove their right to be in the expert seat over and over again do seem to be more likely to internalize those critical judgements and express imposter syndrome.

As I read Secret Thoughts of Successful Women I thought to myself that those thoughts and mistaken beliefs sounded familiar. In fact, I had seen statements like that before :

Just in case the text above the title is hard to read,  I’ll spell it out

She didn’t write it… but if it’s clear she did the deed… She wrote it but she shouldn’t have. (it’s political, sexual, masculine, feminist) She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. (The bedroom, the kitchen, her family, other women) She wrote it, but she only wrote one of it. (“Jane Eyre, poor dear, that’s all she ever …”) She wrote it but she isn’t really an artist and it really isn’t art. (It’s a thriller, a romance, a children’s book.  It’s sci-fi!) She wrote it, but she had help. (Robert Browning, Branwell Bronte, her own masculine side) She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly (Woolf.  With Leonard’s help…) She wrote it but ….

Joanne Russ showed how women’s writing has been repeatedly categorized as not art, as not looking like the the art and presented in the ways that critics expected – and thus could be ignored and forgotten in mainstream literature.   The  belittling tactics and disparaging remarks she catalogued were echoed in surprising fidelity in  Young’s work on impostor syndrome.

And this leads me to believe that a significant part of imposter syndrome – maybe not all but certainly too much – comes from internalizing the judgements of others that we soak up from the culture around us.  And we all hold a part in sustaining the culture around us, so we have a challenge – not to judge expertise by external, irrelevant markers.

When we do judge expertise by external markers,  subtly or overtly, it is toxic – it does harm – and we need to notice our own thoughts and assumptions  and resist at all costs.  Humans have been taking shortcuts to tribal identity as long as there have been humans, but we CAN do better.  We can look in ourselves for all the places we make these judgements and false equivalences between appearance and ability.    That’s self-reflection and hard work especially from those of us who have the privilege not to be on the sharp end of those judgements.  But it really will ease a burden on others trying to catch up and add their contributions.