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Why self-help won’t cure impostor syndrome

Do you feel as if your professional success is due to some kind of mistake? That you don’t deserve your grades, promotions, or accolades? That you’re somehow getting away with a fraud which could be uncovered at any moment?  We have a name for that cluster of anxieties: you’re suffering from impostor syndrome.

At the heart of impostor syndrome is a mismatch between external measures of success – prizes or good grades, entry to a selective university or career, workplace progression – and internal feelings of self-doubt. It’s said that sufferers from impostor syndrome fail to “internalise” their success, that they ignore objective evidence which is apparent to their friends and mentors. Impostor syndrome is pictured as a form of irrationality, a psychological deficiency characterised by flawed thinking.

If you suffer from impostor syndrome, then you’re in impressive company: Many celebrities have claimed the label, including Meryl Streep, Tina Fey, Tom Hanks, and Maya Angelou. It features in Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling Lean In, which urges professional women to forge their own destinies by shedding or powering through impostor feelings. Lean In is only the most prominent of many self-help guides that feature impostor syndrome, and talk of impostor syndrome is a staple of advice for women and minorities in many professional fields.

This balloon of cultural significance floats over a rather ambivalent basis of psychological research. There are many interesting individual studies, but little consensus about whether impostor syndrome afflicts women more than men, about how widespread it is (the most ambitious figure is that 70% of us suffer), or about its causes, correlates, or potential cures. Impostor syndrome is not a clinically-diagnosable mental disorder, and researchers prefer the term “impostor phenomenon”.

Nevertheless, the high cultural profile of impostor syndrome suggests that it chimes with some common experiences. Learning about the apparent prevalence of impostor syndrome may help people to recognise their own troubling feelings. Indeed, self-help guides presuppose that self-diagnosis is an important first step towards recovery. Once we somehow recognise this flaw in our own thinking, we can get to work on fixing that flaw.

But the self-help approach to impostor syndrome is fundamentally misguided, for several interlocking reasons.

First, self-diagnosis requires the sufferer to combine conflicting thoughts: I doubt my talent, my success, or my entitlement to that success, and yet I am talented, successful, and deserving of success. This is because recognising my doubts is not enough for self-diagnosis: I must also recognise that those doubts are misplaced. After all, if I am genuinely an impostor, then my impostor feelings accurately reflect reality. So reading about impostor syndrome can open up more self-doubt: can I really claim the diagnosis for myself? Or am I an impostor-syndrome impostor?

Secondly, public discussions of impostor syndrome make it difficult to step up and say “Actually, I don’t have impostor syndrome”. What, you think your success is all down to your personal talent? You never worry that your next project will fail? What kind of narcissist are you? Again, self-diagnosis requires us to identify our own feelings and evaluate whether these are a rational response to reality. And hearing that many people do this badly can make this task even harder.

Thirdly, hearing that impostor syndrome is relatively common can promote fatalism. If multi-Oscar-winning Meryl Streep can’t lean into her talent, what hope do the rest of us have? Celebrity confessions also add to the social difficulty of disclaiming impostor syndrome: so you’re more self-confident than Meryl Streep?

Most importantly, the self-help approach to impostor syndrome frames impostor thoughts and feelings as individual psychological deficiencies, to be overcome (somehow) through more rational thinking and feeling. But instead of individualising responsibility, we should ask why so many otherwise clear-thinking and capable people feel this way. Could they be responding rationally to a very mixed bag of evidence? This may include good grades, promotions and prizes, but also minority status in the workplace, hostile or indifferent responses from co-workers or managers, unrealistic expectations, or confusing feedback. It may be entirely sensible to feel like an impostor in such a challenging epistemic environment, even if you are in fact successful and talented.

We should also scrutinise our collective habits of thinking and talking about success and achievement. In public and in private, how do we value persistence, teamwork, and learning through experience, as opposed to lone genius and (apparently) effortless superiority? What do we expect success to look like on the outside, and feel like on the inside?

Treating impostor syndrome as a self-help issue heaps extra burdens upon those who suffer, and allows the rest of us to ignore the social factors which incubate impostor feelings. Instead of asking people to fix themselves, one at a time, we should be working together to fix our collective environment.

Featured Image Credit: by Nik Shuliahin via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. ROGER ALLEN

    The people you cite as examples of sufferers from impostor syndrome – “Meryl Streep, Tina Fey, Tom Hanks, and Maya Angelou” – are all artists, and the arts are the area where chance and fashion have more influence than any other. It is there that the unjustly neglected are common and where a reputation can burst like a bubble – look at the people who won the Nobel Prize for Literature and then were forgotten, or the actors whose films failed and they never had to have the chance to reach the heights again,
    Much more frightening – and much more common, I suspect – are the two opposites of impostor syndrome: people who -rightly or wrongly – believe that their proffessional failure does not reflect their personal qualities and abilities and – the really scary one – people who believe their success reflects their abilities and personalities and is no more than they deserve. The latter seem to make very good political leaders, unfortunately.

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