To Prosper is To Feel Like an Imposter

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Words: Rosie Lawrence (she/her)

I recently watched a video in which men and women were asked if they could successfully land a plane, to which the men largely replied ‘yes’ and the women ‘no’. It made me question where this sense of self-doubt stemmed from and why it was more prolific amongst women, leading me to the concept of “imposter syndrome”. Not to be mistaken as a synonym for insecurity, “imposter syndrome” is the relentless feeling of self-doubt; the feeling that our achievements are invalid, a coincidence, or a fluke. It’s the fear of revealing our own inadequacies to ourselves and to the people around us. The concept was originally coined the “imposter phenomenon” by researchers Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in the 1970s, who focused on its prevalence amongst high-achieving women. Through its growing discussion, the concept has evolved into what we now know as “imposter syndrome”, becoming a ubiquitous condition largely manifesting amongst Millennials and Generation Z. 

This concept of “imposter syndrome” feels particularly prevalent at the University of Glasgow, especially amongst my fellow women. I find myself silenced in seminar discussions by the feeling that what I have to say will be obvious, irrelevant, or subpar, as my self-doubt inhibits me from expressing my thoughts. Driven by the fear of failure and a doubt in my capabilities, I profess that ‘my essay hasn’t gone well this time’, because if I tell this to myself and to those around me, it makes it easier if I get a grade I don’t deem good enough. In doing so, we engage in a harmful process of self-deprecation, where we unfairly lower our expectations for ourselves. The instinct to compare myself to others leads me to question why some of my classmates appear to do so effortlessly well. I feel disillusioned, and credit my achievements to the hours I spent in the library rather than any sense of natural intelligence or capabilities. In turn, this fuels an urge to work relentlessly hard in order to maintain an image of academic success: notably, a psychological process that extends to serve capitalism (but that’s a whole other conversation). 

At university, the playing field is levelled as everyone around you has made it this far. Once an overachiever at school, in this new environment you are now just a drop in the ocean, a notion which I feel my own sense of “imposter syndrome” stems from. Author Clare Josa identifies people-pleasing to be a key factor in this sense of being an imposter. In school, I was desperate to be validated by my teachers, for them to confirm that the work I was producing was good. My teachers knew who I was, allowing us to establish a relationship. Meanwhile, it is the case in most of my courses at university that I feel like a number on the system. I am less surveyed and close to those who are judging and grading my work, removing this authority figure who I so desperately wanted to please at school. My source of validation has been removed, forcing me to find this validation within myself, a task I seem to struggle with.

Nevertheless, it’s important to consider that for someone to feel like an imposter, their achievements must have been credited in the first place. On this basis, having “imposter syndrome” is a privilege in itself. In her New Yorker article, Leslie Jamison questions why people in positions of academic privilege feel like imposters if they are surrounded by an education system and workforce that recognises their excellence, just as our admission into Glasgow University has arguably done. On reflection, I question why I sometimes feel like an imposter in a position that is moulded for me, and feel very lucky to live in a place where going to University is a well-walked path. Authors Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey shook the existing narrative by problematizing how “imposter syndrome” is branded as a natural pathology, rooted in the female psyche. They argue that we should look beyond the individual to systemic problems in society as the overarching cause of “imposter syndrome”, undermining its very label as a naturally occurring ‘’syndrome’’. Importantly, society fosters and exacerbates feeling like an imposter by emitting the message that those who are typically subordinated in society are less able and destined for success, extending the conversation beyond gender to race and class.

On reflection, the ongoing discussion around “imposter syndrome” is more complex than I initially suspected. A more nuanced look at the concept reveals it to be a largely misogynistic issue, in that it is wrongfully perceived as a problem of the female psyche. Looking forward, instead of wallowing in self-doubt as I initially found myself doing, we should look at the structures in society that cause this very notion of feeling like an imposter to productively tackle it as a societal issue.


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