Who Gets to Have Imposter Syndrome?
An article in Glamour today addresses a very familiar bugaboo: imposter syndrome.
My father called imposter syndrome “the suspicion of one’s own fraudulence.” It’s that nagging sense that you don’t belong, that you’re not quite good enough, that those who have hired you have made an unfortunate mistake that they are always on the verge of discovering. The classic symptom of imposter syndrome is the daydream of being called into your supervisor’s office and have him or her tell you “I’m terribly sorry, we just discovered we meant to hire this other person.”
Other friends describe imposter syndrome as the feeling that everyone else has an instruction manual to follow, while you fly blind. Perhaps you were absent the day that manual was distributed?
Imposter syndrome – or “the suspicion of one’s own fraudulence” is a deeply human thing. It is not quite universal, but its absence is perhaps a little suspicious. An old grad school friend of mine, a brilliant man who is now a tenured faculty member at a prestigious institution, liked to say that the want of imposter syndrome was itself damning. Crushing self-doubt, he held, was not the only marker of competence, but the lack of it was a sure sign of mediocrity.
“Impostor syndrome was a reaction to women’s progress,” Reshma Saujani declares in Glamour. “It’s probably no coincidence that the concept emerged just as Title IX became law and more and more women began attending college. Or that it gained traction as Roe v. Wade was decided.”
My father would be fascinated to know that the suspicion of his own fraudulence that he experienced in graduate school in the early Sixties was a reaction to Title IX. It is true that the term imposter syndrome wasn’t coined until the 1970s, but that doesn’t tell us much. Veterans of combat suffered shellshock long before anyone came up with the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Naming a thing is not – pace, post-modernist friends – the same as inventing a thing.
There’s no question that race, class, and sex can impact our sense of whether we belong somewhere. We’ve all had the experience of walking into a particular space, looking around, and thinking, “Hey, I’m the only man (or woman/Black person/Asian person/queer person/young person/Hasidic Jew/working-class person) here. It’s weird to stand out. Maybe I don’t belong.” Walking through doors your parents never walked through can be unsettling. It doesn’t help when other people draw attention to your outsider status.
The sense of being judged an outsider is not, however, imposter syndrome. An imposter is accepted and welcomed, but despite that welcome, feels as if they don’t truly belong. To be an imposter is to wonder if you’ve fooled everyone. If everyone rejects you or diminishes you or excludes you, you may be a victim of bigotry, but not of imposter syndrome. Of course, if you suspect that you are only being included because of tokenism, and that everyone is just pretending to accept you, that is indeed one particular variation on imposter syndrome.
A common slogan on the feminist left — it appears on many a t-shirt — is “Lord, Give me the Confidence of a Mediocre White Man.” (For some on the left, one suspects that “mediocre white man” is a tautology.) Because white men are privileged and coddled, they do not experience the necessary challenges to cultivate true resilience or truly exceptional intellectual ability. Mediocre white men are always unduly confident, largely devoid of an interesting inner terrain. We simply walk through doors, breaking bodies and hearts and ecosystems, bristling with entitlement and appetite, untroubled by doubt.
That’s a caricature, but it’s one that has a real hold on Reshma Saujani.
When I was in graduate school, I read Catherine MacKinnon’s Are Women Human? MacKinnon, one of the leading lights of Second Wave radical feminism, offered a fierce meditation on the ways in which the regulation and exploitation of women’s bodies rendered them something less than persons. Reading Saujani’s piece today, I wonder if she recognizes that white men are human, or if we are just avatars of resentment, violence, and mediocrity.
It's a common trope on the feminist left to sneer when someone asks, “But what about the men?” In a patriarchal society, men are already the focus, so shifting our gaze to focus on women’s experience is an essential first step on the road to real equity. There’s a lot to be said for listening to voices we haven’t heard; there’s a lot to be said for including those who have historically been excluded. At the same time, there’s a hell of a distinction between saying, “Women and minorities may have particular reasons to experience imposter syndrome” and saying, “Imposter syndrome was devised to oppress women and non-white men.”
There’s a colossal difference between arguing that women experience imposter syndrome too -- and claiming that white men do not in fact experience it at all. Saujani cites a study that says that 82% of women experience imposter syndrome. The same study, however, offers a more nuanced assessment:
Thirty-three articles compared the rates of impostor syndrome by gender. Sixteen of these found that women reported statistically significantly higher rates of impostor feelings than men. In contrast, 17 studies found no difference in rates of impostor syndrome between men and women. Thus, the body of evidence suggests that while impostor syndrome is common in women, it also affects men.
I am a white man who went to Berkeley. Both my parents got their PhDs at Berkeley. My maternal grandparents went to Berkeley. Both my maternal great-grandfathers went to Berkeley. I was born in Santa Barbara and raised in Carmel by-the-Sea in a house filled with light and books. If anyone should not have had imposter syndrome, it should have been me. As it turned out, neither my ancestors nor my sex was a prophylaxis against crippling self-doubt. Privilege and penises are not vaccinations against imposter syndrome.
You know the old saying: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you adopt a totalizing world view, you filter everything through the rubric of your ideological commitments. If you think racism and misogyny constitute the American Original Sin, then you’ll think all human suffering must be a manifestation of that sin. Everything can be explained in terms of sex and race; all humans who hurt, hurt chiefly (if not exclusively) because of white supremacy.
It is not a denial of the reality of racism and sexism to say that there are other lenses through which to see human experience. Imposter syndrome is crippling and exhausting. It is also nearly universal. To pretend otherwise in the service of an ideological agenda is, if not downright wicked, at least profoundly dishonest.