OPINION: By Samata Joshi
BU News Service
A game of “Impostor Bingo” brought together young men and women a few weeks ago at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Students poured their emotions into a room with a little help from friends and humor.
The Bingo chart described feelings including, “I was admitted or hired because of some kind of mistake,” “Assume you will always fail so you will not be disappointed when you do” and “Eventually people will realize that I am under-qualified.” The winners then read out their string of insecurities to the crowd. In response, 35 heads nodded in solidarity and agreement.
The term “Impostor Phenomenon” was first coined by clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in 1978 in their paper, “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.” Their paper says that “the term impostor phenomenon is used to designate an internal experience of intellectual phonies, which appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high-achieving women.”
To put it simply, the impostor phenomenon lets you believe that you aren’t as talented as others claim you are — that it’s all a farce, a ruse you’ve led on that’s about to get uncovered.
Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk in 2012 made the impostor phenomenon a subject of widespread discussion in mainstream media. Articles began to highlight many high-achieving women’s comments and experiences — like Maya Angelou, Amy Cuddy, Sheryl Sandberg, Meryl Streep, among others — of the fear of being discovered as “fraudulent.”
Dr. Sarah Ballard, who conducted the MIT workshop, says that she often finds participants use strong words like “shame” and “nausea” to describe their impostor feelings. These words have both a physical and an emotional context, she says. “I believe that people who experience this syndrome share a deep sense of loneliness and hopelessness,” she adds.
In a recent Buzzfeed poll on the question “How Does Impostor Syndrome Affect You?”, a few answers echoed what Dr. Ballard said happens in her workshop. User @tswizzyb wrote, “I am incapable of believing in myself. I can’t take compliments to the point where it actually makes me uncomfortable, and I’ve actually felt sick from the anxiety of living up to others’ expectations when in actuality I’m perfectly capable. I cannot believe in my own competence at anything. I have backed out of so many things because I didn’t think it would go well.”
As someone who has experienced the impostor phenomenon myself, I noticed a problem. On the internet, how you would even determine @tswizzyb’s gender? Why and when did the impostor phenomenon get identified as a gendered problem?
One can argue that years of sexism, patriarchy, inequality, and suppression of my gender are good enough reasons to believe that it’s a phenomenon that’s unique to women. But this isn’t necessarily true.
In “Feeling Like an Impostor Is Not a Syndrome”, author L.V. Anderson writes, “Clance and Imes originally theorized that impostorism was a gendered phenomenon, but subsequent studies found no difference in self-reported impostor feelings among male and female college students, professors and professionals.” In fact, in 1993, Clance said that, considering men are also part of the same professional and social group and have similarly low expectations of success, her original theory of impostor syndrome “as a uniquely female problem had been incorrect.”
According to the paper “Impostor Phenomenon,” it’s estimated that 70 percent of people will experience at least one episode of the impostor phenomenon in their lives. “Anyone can view themselves as an impostor if they fail to internalize their success and this experience is not limited to people who are highly successful,” write the authors Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander.
With the increased influx of web conversations around the phenomenon, Dr. Ballard says, recently, she’s observed more men joining the conversation in her workshops. It’s about perception, says Patrick Beaudry, an MIT grad student and workshop participant. “I don’t personally think this is a gender issue, although the ratio in this room indicates that it’s more prevalent in women, don’t you think?” Beaudry said.
I stayed on this for hours, googling frantically. The more I read about the syndrome, the more I was convinced that the media enjoys attributing this phenomenon to women. Maya Angelou’s quote, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out,’” decorates these stories.
A woman clutching her head in pain or seeing her reflection in the mirror is used for stock imagery, validating my theory that because more famous women have spoken up about it than famous men have—admitting their insecurities publicly—it has become a woman’s problem. Comments by public figures like Seth Godin, even historical figures like John Steinbeck and Albert Einstein, rarely show up on search engines unless you specifically type “men who have impostor syndrome,” gendering the problem right there.
Before I decided to go to graduate school and reassess my career goals, I worked in a leadership position in a startup in India for a few years. I was young and motivated, but I never felt completely confident in my work. I was constantly questioning my authority, my talent. I was measuring my successes as someone else’s. I kept telling myself that I didn’t deserve to be there.
Coincidentally, during the same time, I was reading “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg, which helped me identify with what I was feeling. This feeling had a name and other women were going through it too. Three years into the job, the pressure of ‘hustling’ and performing at a 100% productivity index coupled with my increasing belief of being an impostor broke me down.
But I know I didn’t go through this alone. One of my male colleagues experienced something similar but we never talked about it openly because, I guess, we were supposed to be… hustlers? While at work, we didn’t find the time or the chance to remove ourselves from that fabricated dog-eat-dog environment and learn ways to process these feelings. Eventually, I talked to my staff about going through this anxiety, but I never found the courage to ask my former colleague if he did feel the same. I convinced myself that this was a problem unique to women, and asking him would be nothing but embarrassing.
Even if I asked, would he dare admit to it?
Dr. Valerie Young, author of “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women” says that even though men go through similar experiences, “women are more likely to internalize their mistakes.” To me, this seems to be the indicator that’s helped the media and public figures (like Young herself) develop a narrative and a business around the impostor phenomenon. First, it was turned from a phenomenon to a “syndrome” and then it was layered with gender. Because labelling women as more vulnerable—checking the “highly likely to suffer from this syndrome” box—has its own business value. It also makes for a better story, doesn’t it?
Recently, Jessica Yu was interviewed by Quartz as part of their “How We’ll Win” series. Yu was an instrumental member of The Wall Street Journal’s visual storytelling efforts, and now leads the Google Doodle team. One of the questions she answered was, “What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?” She said, “Imposter syndrome, if I’m being completely honest.” And there you go. The title of the interview now reads: “The woman leading Google’s doodles says imposter syndrome is her greatest strength.” Now every time someone googles Jessica Yu, her impostor syndrome will headline her accomplishments.
I don’t disagree that this helps create conversation and awareness, but doesn’t it also create bias? Doesn’t it also reduce Yu and her gender to a phenomenon that portrays them as weak and vulnerable professionally?
I brought up impostor syndrome to one of my new friends here in the U.S. and she enthusiastically responded in the affirmative saying, “yes, I totally know what you’re talking about.” I told her in conversation that this isn’t a gender problem. She looked at me, taken aback. “Really? Did they take that from us too? Oh, well.”
I mentioned it to one of my professors and she looked relieved. “I’ve read about this as an insecurity only women experience… Interesting. So it’s not just us then?” she said, smiling.
Attributing this phenomenon to women is more plausible, yes, but also unproven. Unless the gendered media narrative around imposter syndrome is expunged, women will continue to believe that they’re more disadvantaged in the workplace, adding to the existing list of roadblocks women face at work. Moreover, by reinforcing this idea, we’re failing at leveling the playing field and creating safe spaces for men to acknowledge their vulnerabilities.
Seth Godin’s words give me some comfort. “Yes, you’re an impostor. So am I and so is everyone else. Superman still lives on Krypton, and the rest of us are just doing our best. Isn’t doing your best all you can do?” he writes on his blog. His coping mechanism is universal, irrespective of gender and sans stereotype: “Dropping the narrative of the impostor isn’t arrogant, it’s merely a useful way to get your work done without giving into Resistance. Time spent fretting about our status as impostors is time away from dancing with our fear, from leading and from doing work that matters.”
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of Boston University News Service.