Let’s explore imposter syndrome this week. Last week, I co-hosted a Clubhouse room called “Substack Talk with Chevanne and Diane.” Our guest was Samantha Demers, a life coach currently researching a book on imposter syndrome.
As we chatted, I realized I’d told some people I suffered from it, yet I never really looked into why I might feel like an imposter and how I might get through the feelings. And I never really acknowledged how much it affected me at times in the workplace.
Imposter syndrome – now also called imposter phenomenon – was first coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes and was thought to only affect women. It simply means you doubt your abilities and feel like a fraud. Many people who have the syndrome credit their success to luck and outside sources, not their hard work, skill, and intelligence.
Imposter syndrome means you doubt your abilities or feel like a fraud.
Imposter syndrome tends to affect over-achievers and perfectionists, leading to anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation. It tends to affect minorities and women the most, with Asian Americans seemingly most affected. It’s not officially classified in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM, but psychologists recognize it as an actual phenomenon.
Examples of people who’ve admitted to experiencing the syndrome include former First Lady Michele Obama, actress and producer Viola Davis, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
How did the syndrome manifest in me? It was a pendulum swing of sometimes trying too hard and speaking or acting too forcefully to cover up insecurities – or swinging the other way by not standing up for myself and letting people walk all over me.
Most of my career I’ve felt any success I had was chance or luck, and that I wasn’t qualified enough to be in a position I had. I worried I’d be figured out. It’s a totally annoying and sometimes debilitating feeling.
I’ve done some amazing things, yet I would oftentimes minimize or not talk about an experience, or brush it off if someone mentioned it. I felt I didn’t deserve any accolades – or that what I’d done wasn’t a big deal and wasn’t worth talking about. I often attracted people who would validate those feelings of worthlessness. Needless to say, they’re no longer around in my life.
Things I’ve done include: meeting The Dalai Lama (multiple times); starting and running a nonprofit; founding, hosting, and organizing a hugely successful TEDx event and attending the TED conference multiple times – even speaking at a TED offshoot TEDActive; managing a rock band; and working with a Hollywood movie studio. I even walked and was interviewed on a red carpet!
I wrote and published a fictional book that has just been re-released on Kindle; spoke at numerous conferences and on panels; have been mentioned in the New York Times and interviewed by multiple media outlets; hung out with The Who (and stood on stage at their show at Shea Stadium in 1982) – I even hosted a party for the band in 1989, and they all showed up! I know!
I could go on, but I assume you get the point. I’ve had, and am having, an extraordinary life – that continues to today! Last weekend I explored and was blown away by the Bisti Badlands/De-Na-Zin Wilderness in northwestern New Mexico (you must go!) and am working toward making each day of my life a memorable experience.
But I have a ways to go. I can still question what I’m doing and if I’m a productive member of society. I’m currently changing careers, and I often wonder if anyone will notice or care. I grapple with feelings of failure. It’s such an old and tired feeling that’s downright annoying.
How could this happen to someone? I came across an enlightening article by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey in the Harvard Business Review while writing this, and I realize now that my environment played a large part – it wasn’t just me. What a liberating feeling!
Imposter syndrome plagued me even in high school. I had figured out a new way to do multiplication. I don’t remember it exactly, but if you have two double-digit numbers, you multiply them diagonally and then add (I think) the row on the right. You get the same answer if you do it as we’re taught in school – but the way I “invented” is quicker. We were having math races one day, and the teacher put up a multiplication like 42 x 68.
I figured out the answer five or ten seconds before anyone else, but I was too afraid to put my hand up. I waited until the football team’s quarterback did and watched him puff up with pride, even though I had the correct answer and had it much faster than him. I was too afraid to speak up first because I was bullied back then for being too smart. People who stand out or try to do something different from others are more prone to imposter syndrome.
I existed in a system where boys were treated better and were assumed to be more intelligent. Girls were constantly kept down in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. For example, my high school math teacher told me girls weren’t capable of doing math. I had to drop out of the astronomy class I had signed up for, which I’d done as a path toward becoming a physicist, which is something I was really interested in up until that day.
According to organizational psychologist Tomas Chamorro Premuzic, “The truth of the matter is that pretty much anywhere in the world men tend to think that they are much smarter than women. Yet arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent.”
Men think they’re smarter and also act as if they’re smarter – and they’re encouraged and rewarded for being this way. Women are punished or judged for lacking confidence or having too much of it. If a woman acts authoritatively, she’s often labeled difficult and a bitch. If a man acts the same way, he’s authoritative and a leader. Trust me, I have direct experience with this phenomenon.
All men are not at fault – I want to be clear about that. It’s the system that we live in. The researchers who identified imposter syndrome didn’t consider classism, sexism, racism, or ageism, nor how boys are treated more favorably as far back as grade school. We need to look at environments – school, work, and even home – and work to make those more equal. That will help bring more equality into the world and help make imposter syndrome a thing of the past.
Do you think you have imposter syndrome? I’d love to hear about your experiences. And if you do feel you have it, here are a few things you might do to lessen its effects:
- Reframe your thinking. Spend less time trying to be perfect. Look into cognitive-behavior-type (CBT) courses that help you think differently. You are good enough just as you are!
- Stop caring what other people think. I know, that’s easier said than done, but we’re all born alone, and we all die alone. We don’t have that much time in between, so screw others’ opinions and go be you!
- Talk to someone. Speak with others who’ve dealt with imposter syndrome, find a mentor, hire a therapist. Talking about it will minimize its impact on you.
- See yourself as an expert. You might not have a Ph.D., but you can probably tutor a child. To them, you are an expert.
- Understand your assets. No one is perfect, but we all have some things we’re good at. Make a list of your good qualities and sit with them until you feel them.
- Get outside. If your issues stem from work, get outside and go for a walk or find a hobby. Go scream from a mountain – really. It’s so cathartic. And there’s a beautiful, exciting world out there – go explore some of it!
Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome, by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey, Harvard Business Review, 2021. (An excellent article and must-read!)
“Feel Like a Fraud?” by Kirsten Weir, American psychological Association, 2013.