As a psychologist, who writes and speaks about Imposter Syndrome often, I felt compelled to respond to the article that Harvard Business Review recently published entitled “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome.” It is one of a rash of new articles and posts on social media indicating that oppression is the cause of Imposter Syndrome and that eradicating it is the solution. While I do appreciate the concerns raised by the authors around how oppression and discrimination play a role in Imposter Syndrome, I do not support some of their premises which are factually inaccurate. In the article, I want to clear up some details that are detrimental to the many women who have had the courage to share and be vulnerable in their declaration of experiencing Imposter Syndrome.
The concept of Imposter Syndrome is more than 40 years old. In HBR article, the authors refer to it as a diagnosis. It is NOT and never has been a mental health diagnosis, and cannot be found in any diagnostic manual neither the DSM 5 nor the ICD 10. Drs. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, who initially formulated the concept, used the term Imposter Phenomenon, expressly for the purpose of differentiating it from a diagnostic condition, and to not pathologize women or anyone else experiencing it. We, in society and in the press, have felt more comfortable with the term Imposter Syndrome and took on that term in the popular vernacular. To this day, Drs. Clance and Imes insist on the term, Impostor Phenomenon.
The article also mischaracterized the experience of Imposter Syndrome, suggesting that it consists of “a universal feeling of discomfort,” “mild anxiety” and “second-guessing.” This is not a useful description of the experience. This kind of definition leads many to be included in the experience, when they may not be struggling with it.
Imposter Syndrome is characterized by a pervasive feeling that you are a fraud or incompetent, even when you are highly accomplished, and have credentials, experience, and skills that can be well documented. As a result of these feelings of fraudulence or incompetence, you either overwork or self-sabotage to manage the performance anxiety that results from highly visible, new, or triggering tasks. Further, those who experience impostor syndrome have difficulty internalizing their achievements and believe their success is a result of luck, a mistake, or a key relationship.
Imposter Syndrome is not Universal
The authors also state in the article that imposter syndrome is universal. It is not. The research finds that about 70% of people experience it at some point in their life. There is not a single study that finds that everyone with some discriminatory or oppressive experience has Imposter Syndrome.
Not everyone has it– some people are actually able to build the skills to overcome it, some people never experience it at all, and some even have the opposite experience known as the Dunning-Krueger effect (e.g., when you have low ability, but overestimate your competency.) Workplace oppression is NOT synonymous with causing Imposter Phenomenon. There are many ways to react to workplace oppression, not just one.
Toxic and discriminatory experiences can trigger your Imposter Syndrome, but from the research and scholarship on the phenomenon, it is not what originates or is the foundation of this experience. There are many childhood experiences and familial dynamics that typically set the stages. That’s why a vast amount of people experience it, including men and other privileged groups as well. You can see from the image below some, but not all, of the childhood experiences and family dynamics that can be involved.
All oppressed people do not experience Imposter Syndrome
I do agree with the authors’ contention that discriminatory and oppressive experiences at work can affect one’s ability to overcome it. We discuss it as the “double impact” of Imposter Syndrome, which is the experience that while you are feeling that you are a fraud internally, that simultaneously the external world, as it perpetrates discriminatory behaviors toward you, related to your salient identity(ies), conveys to you that you are considered an imposter or incompetent, and/or receiving unfair advantage based on your identity. This serves to make the experience significantly harder to overcome, because you are contending with the internal and external experience of being told you are an imposter, one that may serve to reinforce early personal narratives, and the other that serves to reinforce historically & culturally oppressive narratives.
The research over the 40 years on Imposter Phenomenon has addressed some of the diverse experiences of those who are struggling with it. However, there is clearly much more work to be done in terms of research on diverse populations and intersectionality. In addition, in none of those articles currently in the literature, is any researcher or scholar attempting to “fix” anyone, as that is not how the field of psychology approaches any issue? Rather, the approach has been to offer informed interventions and support for changing the experience of Imposter Syndrome for many, who do experience it, in order to decrease its impact on one’s overall functioning. Empirical studies have found that those with Imposter Syndrome can experience lower job satisfaction, greater organizational commitment, reduced knowledge of the job market, and be less optimistic about their career.
Systems are oppressive AND you can combat your experience of Imposter Syndrome
We certainly believe that we must combat oppression in the workplace, but we definitely don’t think it’s a good idea to wait until oppression is finally conquered, before we support individuals in overcoming the experience of Imposter Syndrome. We also think it’s incredibly important to counter Imposter Syndrome triggering workplaces, where organizational cultures benefit from maintaining Impostor Syndrome in their employees, because they work harder for the organization, and look for approval from oppressive forces. It is possible to really change your experience of Imposter Syndrome, even while oppression still happens. It’s actually incredibly necessary for those of us from oppressed groups to tackle our Imposter Syndrome in the midst of oppression because it influences our ability to maximize our own career potential and the impact that we can make.
Most women, with whom we have worked, and who have spoken about identifying themselves as having had, or someone mentioning to them that they might be struggling with, Imposter Syndrome feel freed and find community, not burdened, by understanding what has been plaguing them all these years. When they can work on building the skills, tools, and community to really minimize their experience of Imposter Syndrome, they feel a sense of incredible agency over their future. It’s when they have no solutions to address the feelings, and it is suggested that systemic issues must be eradicated before they can ever have some semblance of control, that they tend to feel helpless.
Let’s stop gaslighting women when they say they are experiencing Imposter Syndrome. With more and more people sharing their experiences of it, it has finally made it more normalizing to discuss it. It often takes women so long to disclose this experience to others – it does not benefit them to tell them that it doesn’t exist.
Shall we instead trust our society to eradicate racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, and any other oppressive systems before we deal with the experience of Imposter Syndrome?
That is a terrifying and overly optimistic proposition because society has failed to do so thus far. When you struggle with Imposter Syndrome, you don’t feel agency – some of the best things you can do for yourself are to take charge of your experience, make decisions about how you want to address it, and not wait for the systemic oppression to end.
Unfortunately, there are so many current misconceptions about imposter syndrome, and we feel it is our mission to consistently debunk myths about it, in order to support those who are struggling with it, especially those individuals from oppressed groups, who suffer from its double impact. We hope this article will provide an opportunity for further dialogue about the complexities of Imposter Syndrome, the true impact of oppression, and how to continue to educate the population as a whole.