It used to surprise me. I’d be sitting in a therapy room with a VP at a multinational company and she would describe the exact same phenomenon that I’d heard the hour before from the 17-year-old senior who’d just gotten accepted to her top choice college. Despite literal loads of accolades and validation, they admitted that they felt like a total fraud in their success. They knew they’d worked hard – really fucking hard – but it still didn’t feel like they were meant to be in the spaces they occupied. At some moment, probably soon, they’d be discovered as fakes. And that felt terrifying.
My early therapist self would sit in wonderment after hearing these self-assessments, disheartened that it didn’t seem to be an experience that one easily grew out of. I knew enough psychology to understand conceptually that success didn’t equal confidence, but it still felt like this bizarre discrepancy. I had been taught in my own therapy courses to help people disprove these “cognitive fallacies,” by helping them pay more attention to the evidence that contradicted them. But all of the girls and women I was seeing were literally having their impostor syndrome invalidated on a daily basis by success and it did nothing to curb the inner voices that plagued them.
I was in no way the first to observe this experience. By the time I was therapizing people, the concept of impostorism was already fairly well established, thanks in large part to two women. Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the “impostor phenomenon” in their 1978 paper, the first to conceptualize this gap – particularly for women – between reality and self-concept when it comes to success.
When Clance and Imes started talking about all the women they were encountering with this experience, they decided they needed to understand what was happening. They started intentionally talking to more women – mostly white women – and gathering stories and observations. They notably labeled the experience they saw playing out as the imposter phenomenon, an important distinction from the “syndrome” we often hear it called today. For Clance and Imes, it wasn’t a pathology that women had or simply a personal distortion. It was an experience shared by many.
This difference is vital to understand, because the impostor phenomenon has been mischaracterized and misunderstood ever since the ‘syndrome’ label replaced it. With the change of just one word, women around the globe began experiencing their own impostorism as a personal problem, not a societal one.
And for those playing along at home, this cultural problem turned individual issue is one of the most classic strategies that society uses to convince women that we are, in fact, the problem – and that we need to buy expensive solutions to fix ourselves.
If I polled the women I know, my guess is that about 80% or so would identify with the impostor syndrome experience. While the ubiquitousness certainly doesn’t make the issue less significant, it at least lends support to the idea that it’s not a matter of individual women needing to simply “boost” their confidence. If 80% of us were getting into car accidents on the same road, we would look at the road condition instead of just focusing on drivers ed for the victims.
So what is this road that keeps leading us to the feeling of not being good enough or smart enough or capable enough to do the things we are doing? Looking at who imposter syndrome most impacts helps us start to piece together the road.
The data out there suggests that impostor syndrome afflicts people of all genders, ages, and identities, but disproportionately is experienced by women, trans and non-binary folx, and people in racial and ethnic minorities. There’s a temptation to claim understanding of these rates of impostorism via “confidence gaps,” or the idea that people in more marginalized groups just aren’t seeing their skills as clearly. But that would be once again putting the burden of the problem on individuals.
It’s also forgetting that what marks imposteoism not just as a self-esteem issue, but a belief that one will be “found out” or “discovered” as a fraud. That layer is revealing because it emphasizes that to be an imposter means not just not being good enough, but actually deceiving and doing something morally wrong.
A more systemic perspective would consider this not as a personal failing, but as a result of workplaces, academic institutions, and local communities failing to be places where people – even highly talented people – who are not like the majority feel that they belong. As I’ve described before, imposter syndrome is not a problem of self-confidence, but of belonging.
The road of impostorism is also paved with something else – and, sure, probably with good intentions.
If today’s professional women ask our grandmothers whether they felt like imposters, we’d probably have very few endorse this experience. Our mothers might, depending on their generations. But as Leslie Jamison pointed out in a brilliant New Yorker piece on the subject, impostorism seems to be more of a Gen X and Millenial phenomenon.
What was different about the Gen X and Millenial version of success, especially for women? It was the promise that we could be or do anything we wanted. While this idea is fairly well embedded into the cultural ethos now, prior to the Gen X generation, no one was pushing the rhetoric that the world was a girl’s oyster.
Growing up as a young girl myself and being encouraged to dream big! have it all!, there was the internal skeptic that was looking around saying, “I hear you that you think I can do anything, but I’m not sure the world really thinks that.” The affirmations I was hearing felt hollow, akin to a facial toner spouting “#thefutureisfemale.” Yeah, I thought. Okay.
And so we walked out into the world, the one beyond our feminist-leaning parents and hypothetically equal educational systems, and we encountered places where we realized we actually did have to work harder and conform more significantly to achieve success. Despite what we’d be promised, the world was still paying us less, promoting us less often, and scrutinizing us harder than our male counterparts. We didn’t belong in the way many of us always assumed we would. And we certainly didn’t feel like we could have it all.
On this road, feeling like an imposter makes a lot of sense. As someone still trying to prove their value in systems never set up for women to thrive, impostorism feels like the natural state. As someone trying to not just have everything, but to be everything, feeling inept and fraudulent feels like the natural state.
What would a more systemic approach to the impostor phenomenon look like? It would definitely not look like books called “You Got This! Defeating Imposter Syndrome in 40 Days.” It might not be marketed to women at all, at least not at an individual level.
Perhaps addressing the imposter phenomenon means a deeper look at the places and circumstances where we feel like imposters and addressing those. We might consider where and why we feel a lack of belonging and how we can create more inclusive environments. We might actually take the emphasis off of helping women see that they are worthy of being somewhere because of all that they’ve accomplished, but rather that we value them there because of all that they are.
I realized in writing this piece that I haven’t actually felt like an impostor in a pretty long time. I was well acquainted with the feeling from early youth on, so its absence recently felt notable. There might be an urge to attribute that to getting older or more success, but the science doesn’t prove those things are helpful, and so I thought harder. For me, what’s been most correlated, I realized, is having the privilege to choose the environments where I want to be, and making those only places I feel like I belong.
Now, that’s easier said than done for many of us. But even if we’re stuck in a situation or place where we don’t get to enjoy a sense of belonging or one that wasn’t designed for us, we can at least relinquish the idea that feeling we’re not meant to be there didn’t start with us.