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Why Impostor Syndrome is a Sham

The term ‘impostor syndrome’ became the internet’s ‘buzzword of the month’ during the Covid-19 lockdown with search results peaking by a wide margin in September 2020. Forced inside our houses for months on end, joining and leaving Zoom meetings on a daily basis and this persistent monotonous feeling- all compelled us to contemplate our lives. As the anxiety-ridden generation that we are, it automatically opened a chasm of self-doubt; doubt over our identity, our choices, our companions and most importantly, our abilities. Supplemented by a quarter cup of TikTok-ism, a dollop of misinformation and a pinch of exaggeration, this created the perfect recipe for an entire generation of people being tricked into believing in the existence of an ‘impostor syndrome’.

The problem, however, did not start here. In 1978, psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes conceived an ingenious idea. They wanted to study high-achieving women, more specifically, the feelings of self-doubt and fraudulency many of them experienced. “The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention became the cornerstone of what we today know as “impostor syndrome”. It put forth that “despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience impostor phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”

It triggered decades of work in the area that culminated into the contemporary idea of “impostor syndrome” - a feeling of inadequacy and a belief that one’s success is underserved, falsified and is going to get caught sooner or later. Today, there is widespread consensus that this “syndrome” affects not only highly successful women, but everyone irrespective of their achievement level or gender. However, this is a false belief system focused on unfair victim-blaming which consequently hides the real perpetrators behind this phenomenon. A thought process teaching generations of workers, especially women, that this feeling of inadequacy is their fault.

In turn, they are told simple ways to ‘cure’ it - from attending conferences to reciting affirmations in front of the mirror. However in reality, it is an issue stemming from systemic social biases and the oppressive nature of the capitalist system that never ceases to demand more. To understand how this concept grabbed the psyche of millions around the world, we have to go back to the very beginning - the 1978 Clance and Imes study. While the researchers made a pioneering effort in understanding how feelings of self-doubt disproportionately affected women more, their study had a fatal flaw regarding its sample of subjects.

At the time of the study, many racial, social, economic and religious groups were excluded. Their sample consisted primarily of white middle to upper-class women between the ages of 20 and 45. This lack of diversity meant that the effect of negative societal biases like racism, xenophobia and bigotry was completely removed from the scope of the study. What’s even more shocking is the fact that one-third of the subjects had specific presenting problems (other than the ‘impostor phenomenon’) for which they were seeking therapy. Implying the data obtained from this already skewed sample would be tainted and thus could not be generalised to represent the wider public. Observing that the very basis of “impostor syndrome” is a flawed psychological study with skewed data and overreaching generalisations should be reason enough to entirely discard the concept.

Another issue is with its nomenclature. Originally called the ‘impostor phenomenon’, it has been increasingly popularised as a ‘syndrome’. Such clinical terminology implies that it is a medical diagnosis and that, like any other diagnosis, it has a definite treatment plan that one can follow to rid oneself of this ailment. By enforcing this idea, we are effectively writing a clean chit to the real perpetrators and blaming the victims for their lack of self-confidence. It is telling anyone feeling stifled by the impossible demands of the contemporary capitalist workplace or hurt by stereotypes and prejudices that their self-doubt is the reason for their suffering, and not the modern social evils. (Prejudice and stereotypes? An overbearing economic framework that pushes workers to the extreme? Pfft. Just read a self-help book or attend this $500 seminar. Have you tried journaling? Maybe a life coach will help you. You are afraid of both success and failure! Sigh, if only you believed in yourself!). It also opens up the possibility of self-diagnosis.

Since ‘impostor syndrome’ is not actually a syndrome by definition and there exist no formal methods of assessment that medical professionals can use for diagnosis, it leads to self-diagnosis as more and more people claim to be patients of this ‘syndrome’ using loosely defined symptoms and traits given to us by the self-help gurus of Instagram. In such a scenario, people become prisoners of their own mind and come to believe that the feelings of inadequacy they suffer from are their fault. Despite all this, we are yet to come to arguably the real villain, the one who is truly causing millions of skilled and accomplished people deserving of their success to feel like frauds.

Mankind truly finds the most ingenious ways to make life harder for itself and a personal favourite is capitalism. Our contemporary economic system, modelled around capitalism, is the real devil here. Not only does it set ceiling-high, unreachable expectations for workers in terms of the volume and quality of their work, it then dares to shame them for being unable to meet this unrealistic standard. And yet the nightmare doesn’t end here - even against all odds if a regular person claws their way to the top, they still aren’t allowed respite because now they have to focus on the next big thing. Nothing is ever enough for the capitalist machine.

It demands consistent perfection regardless of the situation and aggressively promotes the ‘hustle’ or ‘grind’ mindset, to “never settle” and always want bigger, better, brighter things in life. Then we wonder why our workforce lacks confidence in its abilities. The need of the hour is not the misinformation gravy train that’s been terrorising online platforms. No amount of self-reflection or affirmations can ‘cure’ this because it is not an individual deficiency, to begin with. To effectively tackle this issue, a complete dismantling of the victim-blaming mindset is required. If we are to instil our workforce with dignity, self-confidence and pride in their abilities, there need to be pragmatic changes made to our current socio-economic system - ones that reward, and not shame us. It is an uphill battle against misinformation, especially in the age of self-proclaimed experts of TikTok and Instagram, but if there’s one thing we humans know how to do, it’s how to win battles against all odds. I leave you all with this - if it was really a ‘you’ problem, they would have found a way to fire you for it.

Arhaan Akmal
High School Student

References

The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. (n.d.). https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fh0086006. Retrieved October 16, 2022, from https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fh0086006

Harvey, J. C. (n.d.). THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON AND ACHIEVEMENT: A FAILURE TO INTERNALIZE SUCCESS. protest.com. Retrieved October 16, 2022, from https://www.proquest.com/openview/af73692323572e8a3c1a4cda93ae39dd/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y

Harvey, J. C. (n.d.). If I’m so successful, why do I feel like a fake? : the impostor phenomenon. archive.org. Retrieved October 16, 2022, from https://archive.org/details/ifimsosuccessful00harv/page/n9/mode/2up

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. (n.d.). The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. paulineroseclance.com. Retrieved October 16, 2022, from https://www.paulineroseclance.com/pdf/ip_high_achieving_women.pdf

Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome. (n.d.). hbr.com. Retrieved October 16, 2022, from https://hbr.org/2021/02/stop-telling-women-they-have-imposter-syndrome

Actual impostors don’t get impostor syndrome. (n.d.). zapier.com. Retrieved October 16, 2022, from https://zapier.com/blog/actual-impostors-dont-get-impostor-syndrome/

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