Facing the Impostor Within Us

Areeshya Thevamanohar is a third year Politics student at King’s. Growing up in Malaysia, and then moving to London, she hopes to keep exploring the interchangeable relationship between gender and societal norms.

[Featured Image: Illustration of various women standing behind large masks, hinting at the experience of imposter syndrome. Source.]

“Impostor syndrome” is a term that has been gaining particular traction recently, especially in regard to women and the workplace. Originally coined by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in their 1978 study that focused on high-achieving women, they explained that “despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the impostor phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.” Essentially, you may have impostor syndrome if you are strongly grounded by the idea that your success is solely due to luck and not your abilities. As a result, you are constantly concerned that the people around you will figure out that you are a “fraud”.

An article by The Economist outlined a few different types of impostors, The Anxious Impostor usually has a negative view about themselves and remains unconvinced even if there is evidence that proves otherwise. The Hustling Impostor usually focuses on self-presentation to achieve goals that they may not be able to achieve otherwise. The Lazy Impostors tell themselves they aren’t up to doing a particular task because they don’t really want to do it. The Modest Imposter usually doubts anything positive others may have said about them or their performance, because they don’t want to be viewed as seeing themselves superior to others. The Wise Impostor acknowledges that most of us are faking how much we know to an extent and usually when surrounded by others who are also in the same line of work or position, may be able to admit to each other that there is a certain degree of bluffing to maintain authority. Research suggests we can take on more than one of these types of impostors, sometimes at the same time. 

Impostor syndrome does not necessarily come through just in the workplace, and it’s not only applicable to women. However, there seems to be an overwhelming amount of evidence that suggests that it shows up more with women at work. You could however, feel it in other situations like in classes, society meetings and more. Often, signs that you may have impostor syndrome include you being hesitant and often not speaking up during meetings or discussions. In this situation you may also spend a lot of time questioning whether what you want to say has value and you may believe that everyone else in the room knows more than you do and they may perhaps think less of you or identify you as the “fraud” if you say the wrong thing. You may therefore choose to not say anything because you don’t think your input is necessary and you may also need other people to validate what you have to say in order for you to be comfortable with what you’ve said. For me, my earliest experience with impostor syndrome was when I started playing football at school. I never had to doubt or question myself and my skills when we played an all-girls game but when I had to play with the boys, it felt different. When I was fourteen, there was one instance when I was the only girl on the pitch. I distinctly remember feeling like I didn’t belong because I stood out like a sore thumb, and was going to be judged differently because of it. There was a lot of “I’m not good enough and they’re going to realise it” even if I had performed well.

If you do think you may face impostor syndrome, there are many resources online to help work through it. An article by Forbes has suggested self-examination and being aware of how you feel. For instance, writing down when you feel like an impostor. It also suggests separating the facts from the story, and you can do this by looking at the thoughts you are having and then filtering through what has evidence to back it up and what does not. Identifying patterns is also important because then you can understand whether your thought process at the moment is helping you or doing a disservice to you. 

However, there has been a question as well over whether impostor syndrome really exists. Impostor syndrome implies a confidence problem, which to an extent, it is, but it really depends on the person. There may be certain insecurities within you that manifest as impostor syndrome, however, it could also be environmental. An article by the Harvard Business Review found that impostor syndrome is especially prevalent in “biased, toxic cultures that value individualism and overwork.” This could have played out at home and manifested internally growing up for some. However, a lot of the time it appears quite strongly in the workplace especially amongst individuals who tend to be outnumbered, whether they are members from a minority race, minority gender or minority socio-economic class. If that environment does not embrace and encourage you and your voice in practice, it is easy to feel like your contributions are of less value. And the danger with impostor syndrome is that it tends to put the blame on the person feeling it, when there is only so much they can fix. If those around you are making you feel like you are not good enough, even if your work suggests otherwise, you will – to the surprise of none – feel like an impostor. And in situations like that, especially in the workplace, it is not on the person feeling like an impostor to have it figured out, it is on that company. 

I do believe that impostor syndrome is common, and I think it is beneficial to discuss because it gave a name to a problem I had been battling for years without realising. However, it is not on us to completely face the impostor within us, especially if we realise that our environment is playing a part in keeping it alive. 


References: 

Abigail Abrams (2018) Yes, Impostor Syndrome is real. Here’s how to deal with it. Times. Available at: https://time.com/5312483/how-to-deal-with-impostor-syndrome/

Alice Liu (2014) Impostor syndrome Is Not Just a Confidence Problem. Medium. Available at: https://medium.com/counter-intuition/impostor-syndrome-is-not-just-a-confidence-problem-dea670e59f6e

Caroline Castrillon (2020) How Impostor Syndrome can be your secret weapon at work. Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolinecastrillon/2020/10/25/how-imposter-syndrome-can-be-your-secret-weapon-at-work/

Clancy Martin (2020) Impostor Syndrome: do you sometimes feel like a fraud? The Economist. Available at: https://www.economist.com/1843/2020/01/20/impostor-syndrome-do-you-sometimes-feel-like-a-fraud

Melissa Lawrence (2021) These Three Steps Will Cure Impostor Syndrome. Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/ellevate/2021/01/18/these-three-steps-will-cure-imposter-syndrome/?sh=393f415d58d5

Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey (2021) Stop Telling Women They Have Impostor Syndrome. The Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/2021/02/stop-telling-women-they-have-imposter-syndrome

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