On Imposter Syndrome

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

We are all more blind to what we have than to what we don't have.

I saw my professor a couple of months ago to discuss my plans for pursuing an academic career in the near future. I expressed how difficult it has been to configure my life without this incessant fear that I would fail at everything that I attempted to do. ‘It sounds like your experiencing a bit of the imposter syndrome, don’t worry, I have as well in my life’. I’d come across this term before in my feminist readings after reading an interview with Emma Watson who expressed her feelings of it. I hadn’t however until this moment, considered it as the root of my feelings of insecurity about my future.

So what is this ‘imposter syndrome’ and why was it dictating my self-belief? This term was coined by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 who in their paper, theorised that women were uniquely affected by impostor syndrome. Women who experience imposter syndrome believe that they are not really accomplished or successful, often despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, believing instead that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. It comes with this fear that you will be ‘found out’ for being a fraud despite the capacity and ability that you posses in your field or career. More recent studies on imposter syndrome include men and the impact that this has on their well-being.

2018 was a year of massive changes for me. I was on a career trajectory that I did not really set in motion for myself but rather, it came from consistency with my creative endeavours and what I put down as ‘luck’ and not hard work. I was performing poetry every other week, I was managing a few free-lance PR projects in the arts and striding through my final year of my anthropology degree despite some difficult personal problems amounting to a court case. I have a mental health condition- lets call it bi-polar for labels sake- and when you have that much going on, it can be difficult to remember to take a moment to breathe and before you know it, you’re in a full-fledged manic state with no way out except professional medical help. I came out of this period of my life really confused. I’d lost a significant amount of my year and felt like there was no way to compensate for that loss- especially as I’d managed to crash and burn my hard work through this manic episode including my professional networks and having to re-take my academic year.

The imposter syndrome I may have experienced before this ‘mental health crisis’ pales in comparison to the feelings I had about myself after. I remember thinking- I have been found out! And now the whole world knew my dirty secret- not only was I a fraud who couldn’t manage my own career, let alone other artists, I was crazy too and therefore incapable of future success. I was conscious that I had to change this narrative, to acknowledge this set back as a moment and not as a lifetime if I was ever going to move on with my life. So I took the first step in challenging my imposter syndrome. I got a career mentor, a mental health mentor and a therapist. Valerie Young in The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women recognises 5 different types of imposter syndrome:

  • Perfectionist

  • Expert

  • Natural Genius

  • Soloist

  • Superman or Superwoman

In a manic state I have been all of the above and certainly before the big crash, I switched between at least two of these traits consistently. The recurrent and unifying trait in these 5 types is the dismissal of help, and when I recovered enough to get on my feet again, I recognised that I needed all the support that I could get. Setting up mentoring and therapy to challenge my destructive thinking has gone a really long way in overcoming some of the negative feelings associated with imposter syndrome. It is also reassuring to learn from my mentors (who are all women) that they have at some point in their life had to struggle with these feelings.

Young recognises that being an outsider in the environment you’re in contributes to imposter syndrome and that institutionalised discrimination can majorly bring about these feelings. As a woman of colour, it goes without saying that being an outsider is part and parcel of my existence. However, the extent of this outsider identity is only increased when you go through a mental health crisis which consequently impacts your career and education. It’s like imposter syndrome on steroids.

‘Feel like an imposter? Join the club’ is chapter 1 of Young’s book so if you’ve experienced or are experiencing imposter syndrome in your career or education, you can rest assured that you’re not the only one. If the destructive thoughts associated with imposter syndrome begin to negatively affect your life and health, be proactive in challenging these destructive thoughts and remember:

“We are all more blind to what we have than to what we have not.”

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