How we’ve gotten imposter syndrome all wrong

After Jodie Foster won an Oscar for her role in The Accused, she acknowledged that felt like a total fraud in a 60 Minutes interview. “I thought it was a fluke,” she shared. “I thought everybody would find out, and they’d take it back. They’d come to my house, knocking on the door, “Excuse me, we meant to give that to someone else. That was going to Meryl Streep.”’

Perhaps she just hadn’t won enough awards by that point to recognize her true talent? Once she had racked up as many as Meryl, maybe she would finally feel like the Academy got it right?

But wait… While Jodie was imagining Meryl being the one actually deserving of her accolades, Meryl, the most celebrated actress in history based on Oscars and Golden Globes, was telling reporters that even she gets cold feet when she starts a new movie. ‘You think, “Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”’

It’s enough to make you wonder… does anyone actually feel good enough? Does imposter syndrome ever go away? 

I have some thoughts on that, but let’s actually start with the data. 

Given that imposter syndrome has been researched since the 1980s when Dr. Pauline Clane noticed it in professional women in her practice, we have a good amount of literature on it. Dr. Clane actually called it the “Imposter Phenomenon,” which I think is a better descriptor than “syndrome,” given that it’s not exactly a diagnosis or clinical problem, per se (though it can lead to anxiety and depression). In fact, data suggests in an incredibly common human experience, without about 70% of us facing it at some point. 

The data further tell us that while it is pervasive, it does tend to disproportionately impact women and people from marginalized groups. It’s also associated with certain other traits, like perfectionism, difficulty internalizing feedback, and even feeling guilt about success. 

But why does it tend to persist for people, even when they are working so hard to accumulate enough acknowledgement, experience, and competence to combat it? 

I believe that it continues just as strongly because we’ve been thinking about imposter syndrome all wrong. We’ve been treating is as a self-esteem issue, an individual “syndrome” that highlights the apparent discrepancy between someone’s achievements and their self-assessment.

It’s easy to understand why we’ve approached it from an individualistic point of view. It’s looks like a matter of just not feeling qualified. But from my perspective, imposter syndrome is not about feeling unqualified or even non-deserving. It’s about lacking a sense of belonging.

On the surface, those might sound like the same thing. We belong in a place if we are qualified to be there. But they are actually very different concepts. We can’t earn our way into belonging, as hard as we may try. 

Belonging comes to us through an interplay of an external environment that is designed for us and welcoming and the internal resources to feel safety.  

In this model, it’s not so much about “overcoming” imposter syndrome, but acknowledging the imposter experience. It’s not about getting past it, but transforming it. And it’s not about the individual as much as it is about redesigning systems that are inclusive.

Are there going to be experiences and places that are highly welcoming, but where certain people still feel like imposters? Yes. But that doesn’t negate the work that’s needed to address our environments to make them psychological safe and places of belonging.

While we do the work of confronting and changing systems, you can get started in confronting the imposter experience on your own by checking out these three helpful strategies I recommend.

Dr. Ashley Solomon is the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization dedicated to helping women heal, thrive, and lead. She works with individuals, teams, and companies to empower women with modern mental healthcare and the tools they need to amplify their impact in a messy world.

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