“Impostor syndrome” is the internet’s favourite term for the internal struggles of ambitious people, particularly women and people of colour (although white men are frequently victims, too). Coined by two psychologists in the 1970s, it describes the feelings of those who work competently, maybe even succeed spectacularly, but nonetheless worry that they are frauds about to be “found out.” It’s a real problem and a uniquely capitalist one, “the domain of the high achiever” according to Forbes — dependent on a society where professional performance is intrinsic to self-worth. Whenever a new quiz or essay about imposter syndrome shows up, I see it shared up and down my social media feeds, mostly by women friends saying they relate deeply. But these days, I don’t relate to impostor syndrome at all. In fact, I find it exasperating to see so many people sharing these stories.
Forgive me for sounding like that Marx-reading dude in your college classroom, but the problem is more with the system than a syndrome. “We’re not frauds! Blame the Man!” I feel inclined to shout. Just like “leaning in,” overcoming impostor syndrome is not a catch-all solution to a society that values us only as worker bees. You can go to work each day feeling like the genuine article and still face great frustrations, particularly if you come from an underrepresented, discriminated-against population.
Personally, I never had full-on impostor syndrome, but I did have a period of self-sabotage — basically, impostor syndrome’s fumbling cousin. Early on in my 20s, as I transitioned from being an educator to a writer, I was hampered by ambivalence and felt like a sellout for leaving teaching to enter the media world. I made a few bad choices, including passing up a promising internship and screwing up an interview or two. I felt unworthy and confused about my path, but I also wanted my career to magically rescue me from a general lack of self-definition and purpose. In our society, jobs are automatic bestowers of those qualities.
I never had full-on impostor syndrome, but I did have a period of self-sabotage.
Today, I try to council younger women in the same boat, and tell them that I figured out a happy balance, but not without some tears and self-searching. One of the best salves for my sanity involved spending time with women friends who were in similar places career-wise. Over drinks, we evolved away from the impostor syndrome or self-sabotage that marked our entries into the workplace. We recognised each other’s strengths and also helped each other feel less crazy: This or that boss was unfair, and this or that (usually male) colleague was getting special treatment. And we also acknowledged that work wasn’t everything; that we were people with interests (hiking! cats! photography! Jane Austen!), relationships, and skills that could never be fully summed up by a job title or salary. With this emotional growth came a more honest ability to appraise ourselves, to figure out where we belonged and what we deserved.
But here’s the big problem: Once you become less insecure, you may end up becoming more pissed off. Many of my peers know they are competent workers with specific talents — and they still feel frustrated by subtle sexism, racism, or homophobia at work, or just a general sense that they are stuck on the proverbial hamster wheel until they retire.
Outrage about these indignities can be a good motivator, but when anger stops pushing you, it fizzles out, leading to apathy, disengagement, despair, “yelling at mansplaining strangers on the internet” as one friend put it, or as another pal said, “resentment toward colleagues for not having to put up with the same bullshit you do, and being oblivious to said bullshit.” It can also lead to plain old exhaustion.
Once you become less insecure, you may end up becoming more pissed off.
When I see regular exhortations for women to put ourselves out there and make this the year of epic achievement, I feel guilty for all the times I know I will feel I have to do the opposite: recharge and spend time without networking, “risk-taking,” or leaning in any direction except back on my couch. I take these breaks for my health and to nurture my creativity. I know they’re important, but the conversation around impostor syndrome and ambition and women at work always has me questioning my instincts: Am I burned out or self-sabotaging? Am I being smart about my time and energy, or do I not have enough faith in myself?
In tandem with this, another issue rears its head once one stops feeling like an impostor: worry about the future and caretaking for sick relatives or children. Sure, “leaning in” might help women avoid opting out of the work force when family issues crop up, but it doesn’t help the anxiety, anger, or sadness that having to make these tough career decisions can bring up. And when we take time to be caretakers or better human beings, it’s hard not to feel like we’re betraying the sisterhood.
Ambivalence, apathy, rage, self-sabotage — all these other “ambition conditions” are the quirky relatives of impostor syndrome. In fact, it may actually be less depressing to walk around feeling like, I’m a fraud, than it is to think, The system is rigged against me, and nothing will ever change. But all these feelings are connected, because they all have to do with a status quo that only prizes certain kinds of success — the externally validated kind.
Imagine waking up every day and going to work in a country with more humane policies, like paid sick and family leave, longer vacation time, universal basic incomes, occasional sabbaticals, or anything else that would allow us to pursue our intellectual and career ambitions in a healthier way — without feeling like they were the only things that mattered. It might sound like a pipe dream, but in an election year with issues like paid leave and universal basic income actually being discussed by serious candidates and in serious circles, it’s not entirely impossible. In that country, which would look a lot like every other industrialised nation, I think a lot fewer of us would feel like impostors, and a lot more of us would feel like people. That’s why I particularly love to see women talking to each other, reassuring each other, and examining our shared condition instead of merely wringing our hands and worrying that we’re frauds.