I am on a one woman mission to ban the term ‘imposter syndrome’ as an unhelpful and misleading trope unfairly associated with women that serves to disempower by mere association. If you want an instant cure of your so-called imposter syndrome, read on. You’ll understand that you have been duped by poor research and a system that is stacked against you.
Impostor syndrome is the idea that your success is down to luck and that at some point someone is going to call you out as an imposter, probably in some sort of public way. (“Stop everything. All eyes on (insert your name here). She’s just making it up as she goes along”). Yes, men can relate to this term as well, but the phenomena that has become increasingly popular over the last 30-40 years, the same time period in fact as my actual career, has been mainly pinned on women.
The reason for this is that it was first identified in 1978 by two well-meaning psychologists, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who researched women afflicted by a sense that they weren’t actually quite good enough. It manifests itself in a number of ways including working really really hard to prevent anyone discovering the real you. So it’s no wonder that in New Zealand (as in many other western nations) across all age groups and all ethnicities, and across all tertiary study from certificates to PhDs, women significantly outnumber men in gaining education. And this is more stark amongst Māori and Pasifika.. What a pity all this education and knowledge is not translated into leadership positions or pay scales.
In one of my favourite HBR articles published in 2021 called Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome, authors Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey, explain that the original research that gave rise to the syndrome, was, on reflection, rather simplistic i.e. the sample excluded women of colour and people of various income levels, genders, and professional backgrounds. Additionally, it was published years before the impact of systemic racism, classism, xenophobia, and other biases that create the imbalanced system of power we find ourselves in, was brought to their fore.
The result has been that the feeling of anxiety and of not fitting into a system that was clearly not designed for them, was pathologised into a mental health syndrome common in women. This highly problematic phenomena is just one more example of how diversity and inclusion rhetoric is very much focussed on fixing women rather than the system that disadvantages them.
As Tulshyan and Burey point out, the undertone denoted by calling this feeling a ‘syndrome’ medicalises the issue giving it a certain scientific legitimacy. It has strong parallels to “female hysteria” of the 19th and early 20th centuries which, as urban legend has it, was thought to be cured with regular use of a vibrator. (If only the cure for so-called imposter syndrome was as creative or exciting). What is underplayed or in fact ignored is the socio-cultural context that these female conditions play out in. Older readers who were around in the 70’s might remember the descriptor “nymphomaniac” being used in the vernacular when referring to women who want ‘too much sex’. This term, was only removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1980, along with oral sex, masturbation and homosexuality - finally the sexual revolution had kicked in to normalise behaviours once considered deviant. Actually, these days, it’s the women who don’t want ‘enough sex’ who are at risk of a psychiatric diagnosis*.
Women inadvertently opt into the label of imposter syndrome because they are trying to make sense of how they feel without fully understanding the complexities of the system in which they are trying to swim upstream. But I also suggest that labelling oneself in contemporary times has become habitual. It is a reflection of a social need to categorise and make sense of the world and where one (and others) might fit into it, especially in these complicated times. This runs from gender identifiers and sexual preference indicators right through to food choices and relationship contructs; intellectualising identity rather than just being e.g. “I am a non-binary, polyamourous, gluten-free non-vaxxer”
We often say at Play CoLab that our work is about the ‘personal to the global’ ie. It sits in the intersection of a) understanding the interiority of the human being in developmental terms b) how power runs through organisations and executive teams in largely invisible ways and c) social and cultural systems. Understanding that you, yes you, the individual, is inextricably and often unconsciously linked to systems, is the basis of a wake up call that many need. Disentangling oneself from an overarching system is impossible, even if you are a bush-dwelling hermit. This is because by being alive you are part of the collective conscious (commonly called the human race) and unwittingly part of what Jung referred to as the collective unconscious (perhaps best described as the soul of humanity at large).
In our leadership development work we often start working with executives by going under the waterline to explore ruling narratives and false beliefs stemming from childhood. “I’m not good enough” is one of the most popular false beliefs. It takes a bit of work to uncover these hidden false beliefs – sometimes people don’t want to admit it or they have simply been unconscious to this sort of ruling narrative. But those who, in the depths of their psyche, believe something like this about themselves will spot all the hallmarks of this belief in ‘imposter syndrome’. If this is you, know that there are thousands out there like you, googling how to deal with this affliction and making it all the more real by doing so. These are the ones who try and quash their discomfort by working ridiculously long hours, getting a second degree, remaining silent on topics they actually have an opinion on or tolerating complete a**holes. But it’s an endless cycle of running away from the feeling of discomfort but never managing to escape it.
So what’s the cure for your so-called imposter syndrome? You could do yourself and the world a favour by reframing what’s actually going on. Realise you have been duped into thinking it must be you vs the system around you. This may not help short-term feelings of inadequacy but if you understand that these feelings are not a syndrome but due to something else completely, it will help unlock the pattern. I would also recommend a deliberate shift in your language. Rather than saying “I have imposter syndrome” or agreeing with someone who suggests you have it, say something more helpful such as “it is true that sometimes I feel I am not good enough but that’s no surprise given the overarching system is a bitch”. And finally reframe those feelings of discomfort as leadership i.e. You’re playing on the edge.
If all else fails, grab a vibrator, and ‘don’t be so hysterical’.
Founder, Play Contemporary Leadership CoLab
*Professor Jane Ussher https://theconversation.com/what-makes-a-woman-a-nymphomaniac-20306