Imposter Syndrome Isn’t Just a Feeling, But a Result of Societal Conditioning
When Jodie Foster won an Academy Award for The Accused in 1988, she said: “I thought it was a big fluke. I thought everybody would find out, and then they’d take the Oscar back. They’d come to my house, knocking on the door, ‘Excuse me, we meant to give that to someone else. That was going to Meryl Streep.'” Streep, on the other hand, said in a 2002 interview: “You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?'”
When Aasha Sahni, 38, got a sought-after promotion at a high-powered law firm in Bangalore, her first thought was maybe she got it because she’s a woman and the firm needed to fill some diversity quota in senior leadership roles. “I sat down and went through all the achievements that could have possibly led to me deserving the promotion, but it didn’t add up. I felt like a fraud; I felt I didn’t deserve it.”
The common thread tying up bigwigs like Fisher and Streep — and Maya Angelou, Albert Einstein, Michelle Obama, a whole host of celebrity personalities, and innumerable women like Sahni — is the imposter syndrome. The term was coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clane and Suzanne Imes to define a “psychological pattern in which [an] individual doubts their accomplishments … despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds, and do not deserve all they have achieved.”
Three decades since Clane and Imes’ groundbreaking research paper, imposter syndrome has been found everywhere, “including but not limited to teachers, accountants, physicians, physician assistants, nurses, engineering students, dental students, medical students, nursing students, pharmacy students, undergraduate entrepreneurs, high school students, people new to the Internet, African Americans, Koreans, Japanese, Canadians, disturbed adolescents, ‘normal’ adolescents, pre-adolescents, adult children of high achievers, people with eating disorders, people without eating disorders, people who have recently experienced failure, people who have recently experienced success … and so on,” writes Harvard University social psychologist Amy Cuddy in her book Presence.
People who suffer from imposter syndrome tend to attribute their success to sheer luck, with a sinking feeling that they have somehow tricked people into believing they are smarter than they actually are. “Every time my friends and family see some of the ad films I create, they discuss how smart and creative I am and in my head, there’s just a constant loop playing: ‘Not really’ and ‘How and why am I deceiving them?'” says Anita Singhal, a 28-year-old living in Delhi.
In 1978, the scientists felt the mind-trap was specific to women, but since then, imposter syndrome has been found to manifest in men, as well. However, there remains a significant difference in the extent to which it affects both genders. In 2018, a study found that 70% of the women interviewed suffered from imposter syndrome, as opposed to 52% of the male participants.
This gendered gap exists for two reasons: Firstly, women produce less testosterone, the ‘confidence’ hormone; and secondly (and more importantly), society simply isn’t built for women to succeed.
The gap between potential and experience, which both Sahni and Singhal are trying to make sense of, is most symptomatic of the second reason. A study of employees at Hewlett Packard revealed that men were hired based on their potential while women were hired based on their experience. And since most women don’t feel they are ever experienced enough to deserve progress or laurels, men applied to jobs when they possessed only 60% of the job’s qualifications, whereas women waited till they felt they fulfilled all of them, and then some. “There was an opening for an Assistant Director role in a small indie film — and I’ve been meaning to shift from ad films to films for a while — but when I spoke to the director’s team, I knew I didn’t have enough experience on a real set,” Singhal says. When asked what constitutes a real set, she said, “I don’t know. I just know I haven’t been on one.”
This persistent inability to recognize one’s success even in the face of hard evidence, though not technically a disorder, can lead to stress, anxiety, shame, low self-esteem and in some cases, even depression.
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It can affect entire careers, too. According to one study, 60% of the women interviewed, who had considered starting a business, did not end up doing so because they either lacked the confidence, or felt they weren’t the “type of person” who could start a business. The study also showed that 28% of working women didn’t speak up in a meeting; 21% of the women never suggested a new idea at work; and 26% of the women didn’t change careers or job roles — all because of a feeling that they weren’t good enough, and if they accidentally succeeded, they would ‘get caught.’
Maanvi, 25, a Ph.D. student, has had a business idea for five years now, which she had intended on converting into reality at the age of 22. “I just didn’t feel like I was ready to take such a big leap. What do I even know about having my own start-up? I don’t know what I’m doing. So, I chose to continue my further studies instead.” Author of the book Ditching Imposter Syndrome, Clare Jose said in an interview: “[Imposter syndrome] is the single biggest block to success … It means people play small, they don’t take risks and won’t put forward their ideas.” According to preliminary results of a large-scale study currently underway, 56% of the entrepreneurs interviewed said they suffered from imposter syndrome “regularly” or “daily,” limiting their courage to go after new opportunities and explore new areas of interest and projects.
Recent research has further expanded the scope of the impact of imposter syndrome. According to it, employees who suffer from it at work suffer from emotional exhaustion, which leads to a conflict between work and personal life, and consequently, dissatisfaction with the latter. Lisa Sublett, assistant professor who teaches the psychology behind work-lives inside large organizations at the University of Houston, with her team interviewed more than 450 employed people in the U.S. for the study, said: “Our study also adds legitimacy to discussing imposter Syndrome as an important talent development issue, especially for high-potential employees.”
Sahni, who has been married for nine years now has also noticed how this constant feeling of not being enough is impacting her personal life. “Whenever I’m working on a big brief within a team, in those high-pressure months I can almost sense myself withdrawing from my husband. It’s not just that I’m tired. … It’s almost as if he won’t understand how inauthentic I feel at the end of the day when I come home. Will he understand? I don’t know. Or will he also realize I’m not that great if I bring it up? I don’t know,” she says.
There is good-ish news, though. Women scored more than men in 17 out of 19 leadership traits as published in this study in the Harvard Business Review; a piece on Bloomberg sheds light on how female leadership improves organizational risk-taking because women are “more cautious and less prone to overconfidence.” But this is just an accidental good-ish side effect of an otherwise debilitating mental load that people, especially women, carry around daily. Is there a way to resolve it?
Sure, if ‘believe in yourself’ and ‘take risks’ are considered solutions; but they’re not. They’re simply motivating platitudes that do nothing to resolve the problem at the root of imposter syndrome: for women, life is a perpetual juggling act of societal expectations (sometimes even in sky-high heels) and impossibly high self-expectations as well, because they are treated as less-than their entire lives.
“But if you are continually treated as though you are, you eventually internalize it. And this is not merely a synonym for low confidence – impostor syndrome is the logical outcome of a world that was never designed for women to be successful. It is time we stopped seeing the problem as being women’s refusal to believe in themselves and rather a world that actively refuses to believe in women,” writes Yomi Adegoke in The Guardian. It then isn’t about what women can do to remedy their imposter syndrome — it’s about the world leveling the playing field in terms of opportunity and also extra encouragement, if needed, to undo the fierce damage patriarchy has done to women’s self-image on a subconscious level.