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May 3, 2019

Imposter Syndrome: Yea or Nay?

By Vega Subramaniam

Fence

“I really shouldn’t be here. Everyone else has so much more experience than I do. I’m just going to keep my mouth shut and hope that nobody asks me anything. Please please don’t do a go-around and require me to state an opinion. You know they only brought me on because I’m brown/a woman/queer. Three for the price of one. Because it’s sure as hell not because of what I can offer to this project, which is a whole lot of nothing.”

Therein lies a window into my self-talk. You’re welcome.

Imposter syndrome?

Obviously?

Maybe?

I don’t know. I’m troubled by this notion of “imposter syndrome.”

I’m troubled by what it implies. Take this word, “syndrome.” A medical condition, symptoms, pathological. An internal demon.

Is it, though? An internal demon? A personal condition to wrestle with?

Well, in some ways, yes, inarguably. Witness the above. That was a figment of my mind: that I just got lucky or will be found out or don’t belong.

In other ways, though, no. Not really. Not if that “figment” is an accurate reflection of external circumstances. Of reality.

If, for your whole life, you’ve been given messages through every social institution that exists that you’re not as smart, not as competent, not as driven to hold leadership positions as white men (and by white men, please read “white,” “male,” “white-male”), could you be blamed for expecting not to be taken as seriously as white men once you’re in a leadership position? Perhaps even having a smidgen of self-doubt—like, maybe they were right after all?

I’m looking at this test of imposter syndrome, and I have questions.

Take Question 2: “I can give the impression that I’m more competent than I really am.” Presumably, scoring yourself high on this question, meaning you do this a lot, is a manifestation of your imposter syndrome. But, is it possible that you’ve had to do that in order to be taken seriously over the course of your life—because, let’s face it, mediocre white guys think they’re more competent than they really are, so they don’t have to “give the impression”? So is it possible that this is less “imposter syndrome” than “evening the odds”?

Or take Question 5: “I sometimes think I obtained my present position or gained my present success because I happened to be in the right place at the right time or knew the right people.” That’s just true about every single one of us. So does my agreeing with this statement make me an internal imposter? Wouldn’t my disagreeing with it hint at delusions of grandeur?

Who among us has an accurate assessment of how much of our success is due to our own abilities and efforts, versus how much is due to luck, demographic factors, accidents of birth and zip code, and/or sociopolitical conditions like access to a debt-free college education (oh, to be born in the 1960s to middle-class white parents)?

Does this whole exploration fall into the same category of all the other explorations regarding how marginalized people have to contort ourselves because of the nature of contexts we’re intent on entering for the first time? All the ways we’re required to contort ourselves in order to make ourselves more like white men, more acceptable, more seen, less “different” (read: “inferior”).

In the Time article, “Yes, Impostor Syndrome Is Real. Here’s How to Deal With It,” author Abigail Abrams mentions that “Factors outside of a person, such as their environment or institutionalized discrimination, can also play a major role in spurring impostor feelings.” Given that understanding, could we make the case that this thing called “imposter syndrome” is less about us needlessly shortchanging ourselves and engaging in excessive self-doubt and more about making realistic psychic adjustments to real constraints we face?

I’m wondering if we can reframe our internal monologue to better reflect the internal, relational, institutional, and systemic dynamics of oppression/marginalization?

  • It’s not that I’m inaccurately and pathologically feeling like an imposter. I’m responding realistically to a lifetime of being doubted. Let me notice that and acknowledge the expertise I do bring. Let me own my right to be an equal decision-making partner.
  • Who in this space is making me feel like I need to have my shield up? What is it about their words, behavior, presence that evokes this feeling in me? How do I reframe the energy that they’re emitting to be about them and not about me?
  • Who in this space is gatekeeping? Who in this space is given unearned dominance? How is that affecting how I show up?

GatekeepingA friend recently wondered, what if we think about this as “gatekeeper’s syndrome”? A pattern of symptoms that white men suffer from, born of being given excess credit for accomplishments they didn’t fully earn and disproportionate dominance in decision-making spaces.

What would change, if anything, if we shifted the story from us marginalized folks having to fix our imposter syndrome to those entitled folks having to right-size both their sense of themselves as well as their embrace of people who don’t look like them?

I’ll tackle this question next Friday: stay tuned.

And in the meantime, here’s a little something for you…

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