On impostor syndrome

12 February 2016

I’m tired of hearing about impostor syndrome. There, I said it.

I generally don’t say it, because it requires a lot of follow-up explanation and I’m generally not in the place with the time to do it. Impostor syndrome is a hot topic in the circles in which I move, especially the one concerned with increasing diverse representation in the tech community, and it now seems so commonly accepted as a necessary concept that it’s sometimes difficult to have a conversation about its intricacies or potential flaws. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, it asserts that many people who come from demographics that are unfairly stereotyped have internalized these assumed limitations and tend to distrust their capacity for success. For example, women often downplay their own achievements or goals, convinced that they don’t truly deserve the success they either have or want. They feel like impostors who are going to be found out, and it ends up constricting their goals and widening the gap between themselves and those who don’t labor under the same mental restrictions.

Of course, as a concept, it’s worth talking about. And, lately, it has been. A lot. Recent research on the subject has brought the phenomenon of imposter syndrome to prominence in our consciousness. There is now a wealth of information we can use to educate ourselves about bias. and how it intersects with our lives, and that’s a great thing. It’s not so much imposter syndrome itself I’m tired of hearing about—it’s the way we have established dealing with it. I most often hear about imposter syndrome now in the context of encouragement, workshops and initiatives for women to overcome it. Again, not a bad thing. But this is the only way we talk about it anymore. Women have impostor syndrome. Hey, women, here’s how to not have impostor syndrome. Which sets up a dynamic in which impostor syndrome is women’s fault, and the responsibility of fixing it is also theirs—and the way to fix it is to learn how to conform to the male standard of doing things.

As well-intentioned as this is, the problem with it is that it’s solving the wrong problem. It can be immensely useful on an individual level of personal growth, but it’s now become a way to avoid the far more necessary work of examining and dismantling the original biased system. We talk about people needing to have more confidence in themselves. How often do we talk about people who have too much confidence, invalid confidence or confidence gained at the expense of others? How often do we talk about the dangers of puffed-up and unexamined egos? How often do we talk about the need for everyone to understand and feel comfortable with their own capacities for learning and growth? How often do we talk about a system that pushes us to be whatever gets us success, whether we really are that or not, and how often do we talk about whether or not that universal definition of success is one we really ought to be using?

There are some heavy costs to pushing the “let’s fix impostor syndrome by teaching them to play the game” ideas we have out there now. If someone dismisses my concerns about not fully knowing a topic or needing more practice because they write it off as “impostor syndrome,” it is not helpful. It means they’re not listening to me, and it means they don’t respect my self-awareness. It means they’re cheating me out of the opportunity to grow. They may have good intentions in mind. They may be trying to protect me. But I’m not scared of growing, I’m not scared of learning, and I’m not scared to do either openly. Others’ assumptions that these are things to be ashamed of limit me, and it’s made all the worse because they do it under a guise of sensitivity, so that even they are not aware of what they’re doing, and, most likely, how they may be limiting themselves at the same time. The truth is, our unquestioning acceptance that impostor syndrome is a thing that needs to be fixed in individual people is the only real limitation here.

Listen. You—yes, you, right there, reading this—I want you to be confident. I want you to believe in yourself. I want you to know your capacity for success and go after it and know when you get it that you deserve it. I’m convinced you have something awesome to offer. It’s probably not what the person next to you have to offer, which is one of the reasons why it’s awesome. I want you to put your awesome into the world. But I want you to do it on your own terms. I don’t want you to do it just so you match someone who has sailed along their lives never imagining they should feel any way else. I want you to have empathy, I want you to know the deep, difficult value of what you achieve. I want you to have self-awareness, and self-respect, and to know and to love yourself so well that you embrace learning, you embrace growth and you are crystal clear on the reality of the world in which you live. Listen to me: You are not the problem. Use the lessons of impostor syndrome to grow, even teach them to others as a way to survive—but do not use them, or dictate others use them, as a way to make yourself into a specimen suitable only to move through the existing system.

Because the existing system is not necessarily about your value. It’s not about the diversity of value diverse individuals bring. It often doesn’t value ideas it’s not ready for and it often does value the surface more than the substance. If you feel like an impostor in that world, good. You’re on the right track. The secret is everyone feels like impostors in that world, and it’s about time we spend more time fixing a broken world than we do telling people how to break themselves in order to live there.

See all essays