The Way We Think About Imposter Syndrome Needs to Change
If we want to combat imposter syndrome, we have to stop thinking about it as an individual problem
“Facilitating adaptation to unhealthy systems does not lead to healthy development or fully lived lives.” — Arthur M. Horne
I first learned about the imposter syndrome as a first-year counseling psychology PhD student researching articles for a class assignment. What I had always referred to as “self-doubt that doesn’t fully make sense because of my history of objective achievement” actually had a (much shorter) name, description, and a plethora of associated research to back it up. The imposter syndrome also known as the impostor phenomenon describes the tendency for high-achieving people to discount their successes and, generally, feel like frauds waiting to be found out by people of significance to them.
In recent years, academia and the general public have grown fascinated by this concept and how it manifests in evaluative settings such as colleges and workplaces. While the original study coining the term is still noteworthy, it did very little to advance the cultural and contextual nuances that might explain how the development of this phenomenon may differ for those with non-privileged identities compared to those holding more privilege. Many people still conceptualize the imposter syndrome as an individual challenge that needs individual solutions. Though, current researchers — self included — are more interested in how environmental and social context impacts how impostorism is developed and maintained and how we can offer solutions beyond the individual level.
When we focus on imposter syndrome interventions that solely target the individual and their inner world, we fail to address the hostile environments individuals live, work, and play in. We, once again, shift the onus of responsibility to the people harmed by society rather than the systems that make them sick. We have to understand that so many of our society’s institutions are historically oppressive and have actively excluded people who are not wealthy and cis-heterosexual White men. Consequently, inclusion into these traditionally restricted spaces in recent decades or years doesn’t erase the oppressive norms that these institutions were built on.
A more honest approach to the imposter syndrome centers on challenging environments to better affirm those they’re supposed to be serving. It means actively empowering individuals rather than telling them that their impostor feelings are theirs alone to remedy. It means taking approaches that prioritize equity and interconnectedness over social stratification and power; utilizing 360-degree evaluations; investing in resources to fund, hire, promote, and retain individuals from minoritized backgrounds; holding students and employees responsible for incidents of bias and discrimination; actively soliciting and applying feedback from students and employees; and, primarily, being accountable for any harm and toxicity that results in people feeling unworthy despite all they have to offer the world.
What I most love about psychology and, particularly counseling psychology, is the opportunity for truth telling and creating space to honor the lived experiences of minoritized groups through scholarship and practice. For me, part of telling the truth means acknowledging how context impacts how individuals make sense of themselves and their worlds. It means explicitly naming the role White supremacy takes in fostering toxic environments that cause brilliant individuals to doubt themselves, tie their worthiness to superficial markers of success, and engage in social comparison and competition rather than community.