Imposter Syndrome

I don’t usually go to Psychology Today for feminist content (they’re all but obsessed with sexist evolutionary psychology), but I was intrigued by this post on something called “imposter syndrome”:

According to [Susan] Pinker, many highly accomplished women suffer from the feeling that they are imposters and they do not belong where they are and they don’t deserve what they have accomplished through their own talent and hard work…The stories of professional women Pinker interviews vividly illustrate a widespread phenomenon first documented by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in their 1978 study of 150 highly successful professional women in various fields. “Despite accolades, rank, and salary, these women felt like phonies. They didn’t believe in their own accomplishments; they felt they were scamming everyone about their skills.”

It turns out this is a widely-known concept, though not an official part of the DSMIV. The blogger mistakenly notes that “imposter syndrome” is only something that afflicts women, when in fact it was also documented widely in working class kids first entering elite colleges in the 40s and 50s, and today among kids who are pipe lined into elite schools from low income neighborhoods (programs like Prep for Prep).
I was sitting across the table from a highly successful friend of mine in the restaurant business the other day and she expressed this exact sentiment–being asked to speak in a capacity she couldn’t believe she was qualified for–and I quipped back, “Welcome to my world. I feel that way all the time.”
The more I thought about my response, however, the more I realized I had some reflecting to do. It’s one thing to be intimidated by new situations, to do the ol’ fake it till you make it trick, but it’s another to truly not feel like one belongs or deserves certain kinds of opportunities or accolades. Where’s the line? How do you know? In what ways is this gendered? In what ways is it “raced” or “classed”?

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82 Comments

  1. kb
    Posted November 14, 2009 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    I’m not trying to minimize the shit that you went through, but this isn’t imposter syndrome. feeling uncomfortable because people are sexually harassing you and not keeping their end of the bargains isn’t feeling like you’re less qualified than you are-it’s a hostile work environment. It sounds like you got out of there, and I’m glad for you. but that isn’t what the article/people above are talking about. that’s an entirely different kettle of fish

  2. TD
    Posted November 14, 2009 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Personal experience I’ve been asked out twice, one of those times the girl was considered a slut for her straight forward nature (I personally though it was intelligent and refreshing)
    I won’t disagree it happens, but it is not all the time, nor is it the standard situation. Don’t mistake my position, I am not suggesting this is a good situation for either party merely that is far more common for a guy to ask a girl out then visa versa.

  3. Charybdis
    Posted November 14, 2009 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    Yes and no. I should have added that I had a graduate degree and plenty of journalism experience, so I should not have felt so unbelievably insecure. The treatment I endured *increased* my feeling of insecurity and I ended up feeling like an illiterate fool, when in fact I should have identified my anger much sooner and not internalized what happened as my inadequacy.

  4. Gopher
    Posted November 14, 2009 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    Gawd I know. I’m surprised he’s even on this site. He seems so eager to buy into stereotypes about feminists. I think he meant to be on the MRA pages not a feminist one. He’s gender martyr complex would be more than welcome on glenn sacks. Like TD is a gendered name?
    You said it: WOW.

  5. Gopher
    Posted November 14, 2009 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    Scuse me? And gopher is a feminist, genius.
    I post here more than you. So, as far as I can tell, youre not the feminist. TD is clearly suffering a case of the MRA man martyr syndrome. How is TD even a gendered name for me to even be picking on him just because he has a penis. Bradley sounds like a guys name. Are you joining his side just because youre the same gender. This isnt a MRA blog, bub.

  6. Gopher
    Posted November 14, 2009 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    Then go to glenn sacks whiney. And bet your bum I’m an extension of the larger movement. The larger movement doesnt put up with B.S. and male martyrs who every time a woman has an opinion screeches “man hater.”
    I sum up what others have already written: why are you even on this site? This isnt the first time youve had a case of martyrdom nor written something ignorant and sexist.

  7. Gopher
    Posted November 14, 2009 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    And comparing social inequalities to mustering up the courage to ask someone out is incomparable. One isnt social inequality nor is it identity issues that affect ones self esteem in regards to accomplishment.
    Glenn Sacks calls brother……go now

  8. Gopher
    Posted November 14, 2009 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    Wow, TD looks like most on this site are like me. That is committed, intelligent, strong and open minded realists that dont put up with B.S. and man martyrs.

  9. Gopher
    Posted November 14, 2009 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    Not comparable nor a realist example. One is sociological and ingrained out of self doubt due to ones gender, the other is just learning to focus enough on your positive attributes in order to project confidence to eventually get the woman to find you attractive enough to go on a date. Not the same things AT ALL.

  10. Gopher
    Posted November 14, 2009 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    I agree. Some guys feel its a threat to their masculinity. I’ve had that happen once. The guy was put off of me just because of that. Of course I was put off of him after that too.

  11. Gopher
    Posted November 14, 2009 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    I agree. Some guys feel its a threat to their masculinity. I’ve had that happen once. The guy was put off of me just because of that. Of course I was put off of him after that too.

  12. Gopher
    Posted November 14, 2009 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    I’m just saying an inferiority complex which induces an imposter syndrome isnt comparable to ‘asking a woman/girl out on a date’ and mustering up the ocurage to do so. Guys dont think theyre inferior and undeserving due to their gender like what happens with imposter syndrome.
    Also teh example overlooked homosexuals. Couldnt he (which he so clearly wants us to know) just have said anyone who asks another out on a date. This applies regardless of which gender does the asking.

  13. Gopher
    Posted November 14, 2009 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    …and regarding trying not to paint kimmel as a man hater is impossible for a poster who thinks every feminist is a man hater and has a serious case of man martyr going on. Talking to a wall.

  14. Gopher
    Posted November 14, 2009 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    Wow. Thats fucked up.

  15. jeana
    Posted November 15, 2009 at 12:42 am | Permalink

    Evolutionary psychology seems like it could be used to explain some things or at least give ideas about humans and human development. But because it’s used to justify so much sexist and misogynistic rhetoric, you can’t expect most feminists to embrace it. I’ve read MRAs (who dismiss rape as rarely occurring or excuse it when it does or talk derisively to women who say they were raped) extol the virtues of evolutionary psychology. And then I read the article in Psychology Today by that sexist guy when it was first linked on Feministing. It makes me angry. I’ll read what you linked to above, though.
    Maybe evolutionary psychologists should reclaim the field and ideas from those who use it to further their sexist, hateful, and pseudo-scientific anti-woman propaganda.

  16. jeana
    Posted November 15, 2009 at 12:44 am | Permalink

    I liked this article. Thank you for it.

  17. jeana
    Posted November 15, 2009 at 12:59 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure what TD said that struck such a nerve. Men don’t seem to be as self-conscious or self-defeating or unsure of themselves as women. My husband thinks he’s brilliant and extremely capable at his job, and half of his success is that he believes in himself and so others do too. I and many other women including my female managers always apologize and ask if they’re too assertive and demean themselves and their abilities. I don’t ever notice guys doing that. And isn’t TD right in that guys are primarily the ones who do most of the approaching in dating situations, even though yes, that’s changed a lot? Maybe they also fake their bravado, but I think–for reasons biological, social, and whatever else–men do much better than women with conquering their fears regarding “imposter syndrome”. If they have any to begin with.

  18. Gopher
    Posted November 15, 2009 at 1:50 am | Permalink

    The thing is, is that its a completely proposterous claim to compare getting the nerve to ask SOMEONE out and having an imposter syndrome that revolves around indocrinated inferiority in regards to your gender. Anyways, if TD’s post was simply in regards to mustering up courage theres nothing that shouldve kept him from including both genders, especially as all initiation of dating isnt done exclusively by heterosexual males.

  19. Nepenthe
    Posted November 15, 2009 at 3:41 am | Permalink

    Yeah, that’s one of the big reasons I decided not to go to MIT. I’d hadn’t even received my fat envelope when people started accusing me of only getting in due to being a woman.

  20. TD
    Posted November 15, 2009 at 5:26 am | Permalink

    Seriously what is your problem? I was suggesting a way society disadvantages women. In the example you just frothed over I spoke about how a woman who did not match societies expectations was met with condemnation by other people.
    In my original comment I mentioned how the prevailing traditions and social mores regarding dating ultimately give young men working knowledge of ‘faking it until you make it’ and proof of concept which ultimately makes them feel more at ease when applying it to a professional or academic setting. Girls who do not have the same level of experience with displaying false bravado until genuine confidence can take its place, are at a disadvantage resulting in the increased anxiety which the OP discussed which can sometimes continue to manifest itself even in later life.

  21. kandela
    Posted November 15, 2009 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    I’d argue that both are learned. Patriarchal gender schmas teach women to have an inferiority complex. I agree with the OP that this phenomenon is not unique to women but is prevalent also in other socio-economic groups. It seems reasonable then to believe that individuals through unique circumstances might have similar difficulties.

  22. kandela
    Posted November 15, 2009 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    I would suggest that if you are going to respond individually to Gopher like that you take precautions.
    The problem you are having here is that ‘you’ is both second person singular and plural.
    Try using thee/thou which are specifically second person singular. Then your remarks to Gopher won’t be taken as being directed at all feminists on this site.

  23. kandela
    Posted November 15, 2009 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    I’ve met one, but he displayed the attitude that all the other grad students were stupid and didn’t deserve to be there.

  24. Posted November 15, 2009 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Here’s what I wrote some time ago on the subject:

    Um. I wasn’t aware there was a name for how I feel. Fortunately, my ego is as big as all outdoors, so it doesn’t trouble me.

    Oddly enough… though I’m IS/TS, my femininity is one of the few things I’m not insecure about. I wonder why?
    Maybe because when I was presenting as male, I felt fraudulent. I felt like an imposter because I was one. I don’t have that now.

  25. jeana
    Posted November 15, 2009 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    But don’t you think that the example of asking females out is a sign that males do not have nearly the kind of indoctrinated inferiority (generally speaking) that females have? I don’t think I could have ever asked a guy out (at least in the past). Don’t males generally do most of the actual asking out in date situations? Why is that? They don’t seem to have the kind of fear of failure that lots of females have. His example was maybe not the most accurate example of what the thread was getting at, but in my mind it was indicative of one offshoot of imposter syndrome.
    And then hearing mention of Glenn Sacks reminded me of how I was always treated there—anything I said was always assumed to be with the most vile intention instead of it being just a comment with no harm intended. I don’t know how TD normally responds, but he did not appear to be nearly the angry, hateful, manipulative, woman-hating, pretend victim-of-female-oppression-MRA that I was used to.

  26. sherunslunatic
    Posted November 15, 2009 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I’m in academia too (submitting my dissertation tomorrow! Woo-hoo!), and yeah, it’s crazy common here. I suspect that it’s because the constructive feedback we get in high school and college (where we’re usually the “smart kids,” at least in our fields) disappears when you get to grad school. I could see how that would also apply to women who fight to do well in their careers and then find they’re treated like outsiders in the business world. It’s really pervasive and incredibly stressful. I suspect that the impostor mentality contributed a lot to my near-breakdown from anxiety a couple years ago–not because it caused my anxiety disorder, but because it kept me from getting help for a long time. After all, I assumed that a constant state of overwhelming doom was simply part of the grad school experience.

  27. EndersGames
    Posted November 15, 2009 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    I understand where you are coming from. MRAs will latch on to anything they think will bolster their position, and some hijack evolutionary/biological perspectives to justify their social prescriptions. Historically references to biology have been used to justify inequalities because people have a lay misconception of biology = fixed and impervious to environmental influence. Almost all evolutionary psychologists regard these ideas as idiotic, and regard MRAs like creationists – twisting science to support nefarious social goals.
    As you might imagine, being in academia, evolutionary psychologists are overwhelmingly liberal. About 33% folks who publish in ev psych are women (40% in my generation). In the lab I work in (about 40 scientists), about half are women, and almost all self-identify as feminists or generally supportive of feminism. Last year a group of women (and men) within evolutionary psychology formed the Feminist Evolutionary Psychology Society and are currently meeting and working on their position statements and goals. But routinely evolutionary psychologists have put the smack down on people who try to pervert scientific theories into gender prescriptions (for example: http://personal.lse.ac.uk/SEAR/pdfs/biology%20at%20work%20review.pdf
    I’ve personally published work in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior (the main ev psych journal) critiquing the way some ev psych is publicized. And specifically critiquing Kanazawa (who is likely the author at of the article at Psychology Today that pissed you off).
    The reason we think it is important to consider evolutionary perspectives is that you can’t fully understand men and women’s behavior without it. Why does menopause occur? Why is ovulation in humans concealed? Why do women’s sexual motivations increase during ovulation? Why does testosterone level rise after an aggressive competition? An evolutionary perspective provides clues to the answers to these questions.

  28. kat
    Posted November 16, 2009 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    I totally have the imposter syndrome. I just started a new job – senior management, high-paying position.
    I keep waiting for them to figure out they’ve made a mistake and that I’m not really qualified. I work in a field dominated by women, in a very un-sexist organization, so it’s definitely not the result of my work environment, but my own issues.
    Just the other day I turned over something for review. I received praise for my innovative approach and clear writing, but spent the day beating myself up for the stupid typos that my boss found. I convinced myself that the praise was meaningless because of them.

  29. mwoe
    Posted November 16, 2009 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    This is me too. I’m in grad school and keep doubting the quality of the class when I keep getting A’s. I assume that the org I work for is deficient because they promote and rely on me. I contradict this feeling all the time by continually striving for more and better opportunities. At this point I’ve learned to not let it get in my way, but stamping down the conflicted feelings is hard. Its such a relief to see a name for this and know that self doubt is something ambitious people can have too.

  30. Bethany
    Posted November 16, 2009 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    This is my experience in academia too. My dad did his PhD research on gifted adolescents and named Impostor Syndrome as a common trait among gifted kids.

  31. bradley
    Posted November 16, 2009 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    Interested to hear your thoughts, but I had a hard time making any sense of them.

  32. Terrils
    Posted November 17, 2009 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Hm … gotta say: “natural” in what sense? That it happens? That makes rape, murder, child abuse … all those things are “natural” in the sense that they happen and have always happened. I think I’d need to understand better what people mean by “natural,” because if it means, as I take it, “what happens in nature,” then human rape (along with murder, etc.) is natural.

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