Imposter Syndrome is Back
This week's blog post has been written by University Chaplain, Harriet Harris.
It’s back, it’s bigger, it’s better. How do we tame Imposter Syndrome?
I blogged on Imposter Syndrome at University before the pandemic, after which a novelist told me that she was too terrified to go into the Authors’ Lounge at a book festival where she was giving a reading, so she spent the evening alone in her hotel room instead. My brother, a street photographer, told me that he almost didn’t go to the opening of a show featuring his work, because he was ‘just an amateur’; yet, his image had been selected to advertise the exhibition!
This was ‘before’, when exhibitions and festivals happened in physical space! How is Imposter Syndrome affecting us during the pandemic, and as we enter the season of exams, assignments, dissertations and job applications?
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Not everyone knows the name ‘Imposter syndrome’ but almost all of us know the symptoms. It is the belief that we have got to where we are by fluke, and that we will be found out as a fraud. We fear being unmasked as imposters in our studies, our workplaces, our creative pursuits, or even in our roles as decent partners, parents or offspring.
Maya Angelou, American poet and civil rights activist, and recipient of over 50 honorary degrees, put it like this: ‘I’ve written 11 books, but each time I think: “Uh oh, they’re going to found out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” ’
Our imposter voice speaks up when we have not internalised and owned our achievements.
Why has Imposter Syndrome grown more powerful during the pandemic?
Imposter syndrome looms large at university, and with Covid19 it has grown bigger and stronger.
At the root of imposter syndrome is a fear of being rejected. Human beings are social animals, and we need to belong with others of our species for our survival. Imposter syndrome has us play small, so that we will not offend or look foolish, and thereby be cast out from the herd.
Social distancing during the pandemic has isolated us from one another to an unnatural degree, and so our threat response is running higher than usual. We have fewer opportunities to check-in with one another and to receive that soothing balm of a sense of belonging. We also have fewer cues from our fellow human beings as to whether we are doing ok, and whether they share the same fears and qualms as we do. We can more easily believe, therefore, that we are the only ones faking at doing ok, while everyone else is both doing brilliantly and feeling confident.
Some helpful things to understand about Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome is not a sign that we are less capable than others. It is a sign that we are accomplished and are stretching ourselves. It strikes when we are raising our game, and is especially common among high-achievers, including at those points where they are performing well. While working on his classic The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck wrote in his journal, `I am not a writer. I have been fooling myself and others’. Kate Winslet goes out to film-shoots with a voice in her head saying: ‘I can’t do this. I am a fraud’.
A sense of belonging calms imposter syndrome. Conversely, if we feel that we do not belong to the norm, we are more susceptible to the sense of threat that triggers imposter syndrome. Women suffer imposter syndrome more than men, members of ethnic minorities more than members of dominant ethnic groups, LGBT+ people more than hetero-normative people – we can see a pattern that will apply in many contexts where people feel ‘other’ to the norm.
Imposter syndrome would have us play small, so that we cannot be brought down. So, when we feel the imposter pulling us back, we can develop the understanding that this happens because we are moving upwards and onwards.
If you are suffering imposter syndrome, what are some things you can do?
You can ask yourself, ‘If my imposter syndrome had a purpose, what would that purpose be?’, and you will probably get insightful answers. These may be along the lines of: ‘It’s purpose is to keep me small and acceptable to my family/friends/peers, so that they don’t cut me off’. You may have developed a story that by keeping yourself unthreateningly small, you are protecting your place in the group. Once you understand that story, you can begin to change it. You can challenge the beliefs you have developed, or the limits on your own expectations that you may have accepted.
You can create a brag-list, writing down ALL of your achievements (including getting into university), ALL of your skills (making fabulous omelettes, computer coding), and ALL of your natural talents (a winning smile, an ability to beautify spaces). Include EVERYTHING. You don’t have to show the list to anyone else – though of course you can also do that! But the list can be between you and your own soul, for consultation whenever you need a reminder and a pick-me-up. It will also serve as a useful inventory when thinking about jobs and career.
Perhaps most powerfully, you can own your imposter syndrome. Name it, and instead of letting it stop you, treat it as an asset. Actor Jodie Foster calls her imposter syndrome ‘the secret of my success’. She says: ‘I feel fragile ... unsure, struggling to figure it all out…I always feel like something of an impostor. I don't know what I'm doing.’ It’s in the ‘don’t know what I’m doing’ that she becomes playful, and enjoys herself. When we allow ourselves to feel that we don’t know what we are doing, we can become the best learners, and we can break through our fear of rejection to a wholeheartedness about what we are doing. We can step into our vulnerability and become humble, attentive, approachable learners, reducing the imposter fear in others around us too. Everyone will win from our presence.