Rethinking The Imposter Syndrome
The concept of Imposter Syndrome was first introduced by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in the 1970s to describe an internal feeling of fraud in high-achieving women. People who suffer from Imposter Syndrome doubt their abilities and frequently contribute their success to external factors.
Since the introduction of the concept, many have come forward to admit that they feel like phonies. Unfortunately, despite a lot of extrinsic evidence, it seems to never go away. Even acclaimed author Maya Angelou has reported the feeling, stating, “I’ve written 11 books and each time I think, uh oh – they’re going to find me out now!”
The Intersectional Issue of Imposter Syndrome
Brook Woolf, the founder of Emotional Body Mapping, is a coach who frequently works with people to “get over the hump” of Imposter Syndrome. When asked, she says, “About four years ago, I would have given you a very different answer… but now, after doing deep dives research on compassion, empathy, and gender and sexuality studies, I have a very different take on Imposter Syndrome. I’m a pretty firm believer nowadays it’s only meant to add extra stress to women and people of color.”
This sentiment was echoed by Harvard Business Revue reporters Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey. They stated that “…imposter syndrome puts the blame on individuals, without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that are foundational to how it manifests in both women of color and white women. Imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.”
How is one supposed to overcome the constant questioning that comes with being a woman or person of color in the office? How is anyone supposed to feel at home in a professional role, when you’re the very first of your demographic to be in that role?
A Collective Solution
So far, the individualized approach to Imposter Syndrome only adds more emotional labor to already marginalized people. As Woolf puts it, “It’s like saying, ‘haters gonna hate, ignore the haters…’ Then you go, ‘there are people hating me, and I have to do the work of ignoring them….’ How about we change it to ‘haters are just not good people?”
There is a dire need to make workplaces not inherently hostile to women and people of color. A 2020 survey conducted by Working Mother says 50% of women are planning to leave their company in the next two years because they do not feel supported by their work environment. Many of these women plan to start their own businesses or work for non-profits where their different leadership styles and unique perspectives will be appreciated. As the Great Resignation continues, offices will either need to adapt or face staffing shortages.
Is Imposter Syndrome Really a Bad Thing?
Even though confidence, especially when displayed by white males, is seen as a leadership quality, it does not necessarily equate to professional competence. While the famous Dunning-Kruger effect may require some rethinking, it’s safe to say there’s one group of people who do not suffer from Imposter Syndrome: the arrogant.
Why do we pathologize non-arrogance? The phrase “Imposter Syndrome” medicalizes a normal emotional phenomenon: being unsure of yourself. It is perfectly normal to be uneasy or anxious in the workplace, especially when you are learning a new skill or working with new technology. Labeling these perfectly normal experiences as “Imposter Syndrome” encourages performative confidence instead of team collaboration.
The Imposter’s Advantage
In his blog, software engineer Zain Rizvi talks about how workplaces can effectively combat Imposter Syndrome by encouraging people to admit when they don’t know things. “People freely admitted to not knowing stuff. Teammates admitted to not understanding the code or having no idea how a tool worked. All the stuff I didn’t know, many others didn’t get either. Seeing everyone admit their ignorance freed me from my own fear. Suddenly, feeling clueless seemed normal.”
In a workplace where the stigma of not knowing things was removed, colleagues were encouraged to collaborate and innovate solutions. As Rizvi rose through the ranks, he realized that Senior Developers were the least likely to know what they were doing because they were working with bleeding-edge technology with ambiguous needs. The ability to sit with uncertainty and push through it was crucial to be a high-level software engineer.
Embracing A Middle Way
While there is a definite need for a collective approach to solving Imposter Syndrome, Woolf also helps individuals work through their self-doubt. One of the most frequently cited pieces of advice for her clients is embracing a “middle way.” Not everything you do as a worker needs to be the best.
“I call it not crazy, not lazy,” says Woolf, “I think when we’re constantly in these try-hard moments, you end up hurting yourself somewhere emotionally or physically… This is not a race; this is your life… When [Imposter Syndrome] shows up for me, I think about my deathbed. Will I really care that I was the best coach, or will I care that [my husband] is there?” Woolf posits that Imposter Syndrome puts an over significance on professional performance when most people have several things that are significant in their lives.
The Imposter’s Allies
Because Imposter Syndrome is more likely to affect people in marginalized groups, the cure to Imposter Syndrome doesn’t come from simply affirming yourself; it also comes with affirming others. So when we look out for people whose voices tend to go unheard in meetings and board rooms, we help others with Imposter Syndrome.
The first step to addressing bias is awareness. Individuals can assess their own bias using the Harvard Implicit Bias Test. “The more we are mindful of our biases, the more we can work with our biases,” says Woolf, “The more we step up for people whose voices get squashed, the less we’re gonna have to have articles about Imposter Syndrome.”