You Don’t Have Imposter Syndrome

You Were Just Taught Self-Doubt In A System Of Meritocracy

In 2012, I attended a conference directed towards diverse audiences who studied and worked in the tech industry. I walked into a workshop presenting on What You Have Might Be Imposter Syndrome, and found a questionnaire placed on each seat — a piece of paper that listed about two dozen prompts and questions, and asked me to rank these scenarios for how much I related to them.

  • Do you secretly worry that others will find out that you’re not as bright and capable as they think you are?
  • Do you hate making a mistake, being less than fully prepared or not doing things perfectly?
  • Do you believe that other people (students, colleagues, competitors) are smarter and more capable than you are?

The panelists asked, “So how many of you scored high?” Nearly everyone in the room sheepishly held their hands up. They said, “Those who scored high have Imposter Syndrome. Don’t worry — it’s natural. Keep working and over time, you’ll prove yourself wrong and these feelings will go away.”

And finally, the panelists asked, “So, how many of you are in undergrad?” and nearly the entire room raised their hands.

Oh, think of the malleable college kids!

I’ve attended workshop after workshop, heard personal journey after personal journey, of dozens of people who speak on how they “got over” Imposter Syndrome in this same way. The way that Imposter Syndrome is often taught in these contexts is that it’s something everyone has and nobody talks about, and so the best thing to do is to talk about it, to wait out any feelings of discomfort because those feelings will be felt even later on in your career, and that you can just become more confident after all is said and done.

Yes, Imposter Syndrome is something that describes the contradictory feeling of not-belonging by people who are advanced in their careers. And yes, Imposter Syndrome is a horrible thing to feel, and the symptoms that describe Imposter Syndrome, such as an unrealistic sense of incompetence, are terrible. It’s a serious conversation that many people will need to reflect on later in their careers. But Imposter Syndrome has become short form for “self-doubt” for recent graduates who attend these talks and see these motivational speeches, and instead of meaning the same thing as “self-doubt” and being interchangeable, the use of the phrase “Imposter Syndrome” has become short form for dealing with self-doubt in a specific, harmful, unhealthy way.

Why I Think It Matters To Distinguish “Imposter Syndrome” from Self-Doubt

“Overcoming Imposter Syndrome” makes for a really beautiful personal story. Starting off believing a narrative with the premise that you’re not good enough to “not be an imposter,” and eventually mustering the courage and nerve to push forward and remove the mask of “Imposter” is almost a parallel to the American dream.

But when I perceive that Imposter Syndrome is the beginnings for all of my fears, I somehow weirdly begin to believe that my inability to shed Imposter Syndrome is the source for my discomfort in the workplace. The kind of Imposter Syndrome I’ve seen still places the blame on me. When I think about “suffering” from Imposter Syndrome as my ailment, I am usually taught that there are only two ways to get rid of my Imposter Syndrome: the passing of time, and gaining more confidence. However, speaking more loudly than my peers is not always the answer to my problems, and confidence is only a feel-good answer. To most people, “confidence” only has one appearance, a masculine yet bland brashness and boldness, and this kind of confidence isn’t always possible in every situation.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is: You can’t just give someone the name “Imposter Syndrome” and tell them to “be more confident” in order to overcome any feelings of being an imposter, and yet give them no other tools to enable them to do so.

Not only are these two presented solutions irrelevant to me, but claiming that self-doubt and “Imposter Syndrome” can only be solved by time and my own will completely absolves my workplace and the people around me from any responsibility for the environment they create for me. The way that most people teach Imposter Syndrome actively removes self-doubt from the context of work, or school, or the office, or wherever the perceived lack of competency is, and makes “being an imposter” suddenly something very, very personal. The problem with this form of Imposter Syndrome is that it very much relies on internal justification and labeling, and usually is a substitute for any discussion around external factors.

Having self-doubt about your own ability at work or school isn’t a problem. It’s an unpleasant situation, and yes, it’s inconvenient to yourself and how you perceive yourself. It’s frustrating, and can absorb you and its consequences can be paralyzing. But it’s not a problem, it’s a symptom of a journey of learning.

Having self-doubt about your own ability at work or school isn’t a problem; it’s a symptom of a journey of learning.

The one and only situation in which having self-doubt is a problem is if your workplace thinks of your own journey of learning as a hindrance and mode of unproductivity. Again, I repeat: being in the middle of a learning phase and being unsure and unsatisfied with your state of incompetency is only a problem to those who are unsupportive and unsympathetic. For most people, these kinds of people surround them at work, surround them at the office, are their bosses, are their management who provides no form of mentorship, and their communities who have never been instilled with sympathy when it comes to learning.

So, You Have Self-Doubt

Place yourself in a community who isn’t satisfied with replying to self-doubt with just good intentions. Demand mentorship from your community. Demand mentorship and say, “My problem right now is that I’m not learning effectively enough and it makes me restless. Bring me people who know how to teach me.” Don’t bring let your community bring you people who stop after they say, “It gets better with time. It’s natural.”

Don’t forget about your basic techniques for gaining competency. When the idea of “self-doubt” gets placed outside the context of learning (as is done with Imposter Syndrome), people tend to forget to work on skills in small steps and continuously reflect.

And above all, care about the scales in which you and those around you define your success. If your employer responds to your own concerns about working confidently and happily by sending you to a conference that teaches that you just have Imposter Syndrome, reflect on whether that reaction truly supports what you need to get through your learning funk.

Illustrations by Dee Dannielle

What Kinds of Conversations To Have About Self-Doubt

What kinds of conversations about self-doubt should we have, then? And how should we talk about Imposter Syndrome? There are still a lot of questions about Imposter Syndrome to ask. Imposter Syndrome is named after its effect of leaving the individual “feeling like an imposter.” What are other ways to question why that person feels like an imposter? What are the cultural and historical reasons for why a person doubts their success in a certain position of work?

There are so many ways to dissect self-doubt. It’s unfortunate that there are only canned responses that come out of conversations around Imposter Syndrome at this point. Using Imposter Syndrome is no longer a meaningful conversation these days; it no longer asks any critical questions or gives any real answers.

Instead, I believe that all Imposter Syndrome does is glorify a horrible feeling of self-defeat mixed with dissatisfaction. When taught to the wrong audience, Imposter Syndrome just gives a proper name and an avenue for young people to amplify their terror with justification. Subsequently, Imposter Syndrome is rarely taught by empowering the individual with how to deal with such crippling “realities.”

Imposter Syndrome is rarely taught by empowering the individual with how to deal with such crippling “realities.”

Let’s not glorify Imposter Syndrome and make it a relatable, light-hearted thing that naturally occurs at the workplace. Let’s not enable a quiz that assesses Imposter Syndrome become somebody’s comforting placebo.

Maybe this is just my way of saying, please stop making conference talks about how you overcame Imposter Syndrome early in your career. Or if you do, let the content not be as simple as “courage” and “motivation,” but may it be deep and rich and full of resources and methods.

And when in doubt (haha), peep the Wikipedia article on Stereotype Threat. You should propose a talk to a conference about that. I’ll go and fly to it to watch it. You’ll kill it. Trust me.