I want to present an alternative framing of “Imposter Syndrome” that I have found to be far more empowering in my own life than what I generally see floating around in my broader professional circles. In fact, the predominant discussions I hear about Imposter Syndrome at the “Women in Tech / Data Science / Statistics / etc.” events sort of break my heart, because even though I know they come from a genuinely kind, empathetic place, I also find them to be unempowering.
To start I want to define “Imposter Syndrome”. This “syndrome” — as I understand it — describes the feeling that we all have experienced where we feel like we are a fraud, that the world has yet to discover we are a fraud, and that when they do figure out that we’re a fraud then all of the things we currently have will be taken away. It happens in a new job, or when you are in a lab meeting and someone says something you absolutely 0% understand, or when a bunch of your coworkers (who may not look or act like you) are joking around and you feel like you don’t fit in at all. It’s that moment when you are overwhelmed with the feeling that you absolutely cannot perform at the level you are expected to perform at, and you’ll eventually be found out and fired and you’ll lose everything you’ve worked for and end up dying alone on the streets.
The degree to which someone else plays a role in eliciting this feeling can factor into how people respond to it. In my life, I end up seeing on a fairly regular cadence someone describing a scenario — either work or personal — where someone did something that understandably would elicit that feeling. Thinking back in my own life, I can remember in my high school AP Physics class where I was the only girl in a 25–30 person class. The teacher literally told everyone on the first day to treat me nicely because he hasn’t had a woman finish this class in a while. Needless to say, it elicited this “Imposter Syndrome” feeling.
The reason I am writing this essay is because I worry that the party line of how to respond to a situation like this is to package the narrative up and send it into the universe one way or another, whether it’s through social media or blog post or group meeting or public panel. “Imposter Syndrome” has happened to a “Woman in X”, it’s due to behavior in the biased system we are in, and this is part of the body of evidence that we continually need to build in order to communicate this trend with others.
Depending on the size and composition of the audience you send it out to, you’ll hear two general reactions: empathy/sympathy, and the “thick skin” reaction. I’ve always hated the “grow a thicker skin” advice because it’s so utterly unactionable. It tells you some end state you are supposed to be in, and gives absolutely no hints on how to get there. And almost always this “advice” is hurled at you when you are seeking solace and camaraderie, and instead someone is telling you that your suffering shouldn’t be happening right now.
The theory I’ve been coalescing in my mind is that the social media era has blurred the line between these two things — political action vs. the end of personal suffering. The scenario where someone brings light to biased behavior is an effective political action tool — it makes others aware of what is happening and the human impact of that action. But political action is a strategic set of actions meant to change the world over a long period of time. It doesn’t “cure” the person of what happened to them aside from giving them the comfort of empathy and sympathy. This struck me when watching a documentary, “Dolores”, about Dolores Huerta who co-founded the National Farmworkers Association along with Cesar Chavez (talk about erasure of women). There’s a scene where she’s describing effective political action, and she says something along the lines of: “Now this part is really important and feels a little out there, but you really need to hear and feel the suffering that these farmworkers have before you start talking about it.” She was leveraging the suffering for a very tangible next step in her fight for unionization. The suffering of those farmworkers was being used as a tool for making the case for the long-term goal that would end the conditions they were in. These days we wrap up our suffering and throw it into the social sphere with the hope that someone will pick it up and do something with it, and it’s totally possible that they will. Certainly I’ve leveraged my AP Physics anecdote in that way multiple times.
I’d argue that even when we talk about “Imposter Syndrome” that isn’t directly tied to someone else’s actions, it still eventually boils down to these political action nuggets. “Imposter Syndrome” happens more to women, there are microaggressions, there are all sorts of conditions and socialization that women exist in that makes it harder for them to navigate some sort of technical or scientific world. All true, but now what? Deep down humans are still on the savannah scanning for lions, and the world we’re describing is one where we’ve gotten very good at identifying lions — even those that are hiding — and describing these hiding places to everyone around us.
The political action part is important, but my concern is that it’s the only remedy that’s ever discussed or offered to people. And when the “thick skin” argument surfaces, it’s usually done in a cruel way meant more to silence someone than to help them. Having lived through a good chunk of my life where I did constantly feel threatened and only acted on it in the “political action” way, I know all-too-well that it didn’t relieve any of my suffering.
Like many of you, I felt like an imposter the farther I got into my academic path and was surrounded my smarter and smarter people. This continued when I entered the “real” professional world after my PhD. I spent much of my time in this job the same way I did as a student — trying to establish to everyone around me that I really was as smart as I was supposed to be. My (amazing, brilliant, compassionate) first boss — Nell Thomas — gave me some early feedback that I was actually intimidating the hell out of people around me. Sometimes, she explained, it was more effective to make other people feel comfortable and smart instead of trying to spend all my energy trying to make myself seem smart (which made them, in turn, feel insecure and stupid). Typing it out, it feels almost laughable, but this was such a profound change in how I had operated for my entire life, as an overachieving, straight-A academic, that it made me realize I needed to do an enormous amount of personal work to navigate this world in the way she was suggesting.
Over the course of the next several years I invested an enormous amount of time into personal emotional work, mostly via therapy, starting in New York. I joke that when I moved to San Francisco I was also contractually obliged to take up meditation. In reality moving to San Francisco was highly stressful for a number of reasons, and so I took a “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” class as an emergency measure. That class had such a profound impact on me that I ended up getting involved with the San Francisco Zen Center afterwards, which is a Soto Zen practice center. Therapy had helped me learn theory and accept things about my life, but meditation was helping put that theory into action. And the Soto Zen teachings articulates this struggle in beautiful, poetic ways that I want to use to explain here.
The central practice in Soto Zen is meditation, and students will participate in 3–4 month practice periods in secluded monasteries. During these practice periods you sit and stare at a wall for hours a day, and almost every action you take is prescribed. You have a choreographed way of waking up, of putting on your robes, of walking into the meditation hall, of eating (down to the way you pick up your utensils and when you take bites), even of taking off your robe to go to the bathroom. Your life becomes very small and very quiet. What I’ve heard over and over is that you build up the exact same world you had on the outside in this tiny constrained setting. You won’t have to worry about the big deadline at work anymore, but then getting a chant just right will become the most important thing in the world. You’ll mess up the chant, and then afterwards someone will walk past you, but you’ll decide that they walked past you slightly faster than they were supposed to, and maybe he hates me and just couldn’t wait to get by me, and that snob probably hates me because he didn’t like the way I messed up in that last chant, and I HATE him and he breathes too loudly next to me and he is an inconsiderate jerk who reminds me of my father who stomped on all my toys when I was a kid if I didn’t clean up my room, and oh my god I AM a horrible student who messed up that chant and I deserve to be hated and lose my toys because I am so, so worthless. You have these huge narratives in your head about what is going on, and then you sit and stare at a wall and have this narrative playing on repeat. But in reality, all of this spun up because someone walked slightly fast past you; you looked out to a calm savannah and saw the tiniest blade of grass move and decided there was a lion there.
The monastery is designed to elicit these moments, because then you have an opportunity to study them like a scientist. Non-judgmental curiosity is the name of the game in meditation. How can you let these things happen and hold it gently and not punish yourself for being so awful at chants that the person just HAD to walk quickly past you? You practice over and over again, letting the thoughts arise, not pushing them away and not following them either. You just let them be and watch yourself react and treat that with compassion. You can narrate to yourself “Oh isn’t that interesting Hilary that I’m so upset right now and my heart is pounding and I can feel my chest tightening up.” And then slowly that becomes “Isn’t that interesting that I just had that reaction that I shouldn’t be loved because I messed up that chant.” And eventually you have enough distance that feel that reaction comes up but it doesn’t consume you.
If you continue this chain long enough, slowly you start to absorb the fact it doesn’t have to matter if you messed up the chant, and even if someone did think you were dumb for messing up the chant it doesn’t shake you as much, and eventually you realize that you aren’t defined by how well you chanted the chant. Then you start to feel the weight of this huge thing that has defined your entire ego for years and years — the ability to perform well — lift off your shoulders. This is why you hear so much about ego and emptiness in Buddhism, because it’s a practice that aims to help you completely dissolve your ego. The Heart Sutra goes: “No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind.” Many of the various Zen koans go on to describe scenarios where Zen masters accept death at the hands of an oppressor because there is no self to protect.
The whole “no self, no ego” thing is important because it means you’ve gotten to a place where you’ve let go of something that you thought defined you. You’ve gotten familiar and gentle with the voice in your head that told you you needed to perform in order to be loved, and then you can stop scanning the savannah for the lions who will attack you and tell you that you messed up performing and therefore don’t deserve love. Instead you’ll look at the savannah and you’ll start to see the beautiful trees and sunsets and non-predatory animals that you used to mistake for lions. You’ll even start to see that one lion only tried to attack you because you got near her cubs. Or you see lions but realize that their teeth aren’t so sharp and they won’t kill you. And in the extreme Zen-master cases you can see a lion and just accept that the lion might kill you and that would be OK too.
Translating this simplistically to the Imposter Syndrome world, what I am saying is this: If you are constantly picking up on other people thinking you don’t belong, it’s likely because you have it blaring on repeat in your head that you don’t belong. You will never eliminate all the ways you’re told you don’t belong no matter how hard you try — Zen monasteries exist to show monks empirically that they will rebuild every conflict in their life out of almost nothing. You can’t eliminate these threats, but it is possible to lower the volume on the voice in your head that’s screaming that you don’t belong, and this is what will lead to less suffering. And in the process you’ll start to feel deep down like you’re not defined by your academic or intellectual success, which oddly enough empowers you to become more successful. You’ll be able to confidently exist without spending all your time scanning for threats, because there’s nothing to be threatened.
I presented before the “political action” vs. “thick skin” responses as the two opposites. But the complex reality is that they both exist at the same time. If someone does something that makes you feel like an imposter, two things can be true at once: the person can really have said something crummy, which is an example of some trend in the world that needs to be fixed. But that moment can also be a “practice opportunity” to see why you are so shaken by the thought of being a fraud, and what the voice in your head has been telling on this subject on repeat for years.
I had a milestone a couple years ago that showed me the progress I had made on this “imposter” front. I had just finished giving a talk in front of a large audience. Mind you, I have given a huge number of talks now, and this was by no means the largest audience I’d seen. Afterwards, someone came up to me and said something along the lines of “Wow good for you, I can’t imagine you’ve given a talk to an audience this large!” The gut reaction I had in that moment, dear reader, was one of softness and happiness. I could tell he was trying to compliment me, and I had the specific thought bubble up in my head of “oh isn’t that nice that he’s trying to give me an awkward compliment.” People assuming I have less experience than I have is not that weird of a thing, it does happen to men too, and because I don’t feel threatened I can take the time and distance I need to decide if it should ever be a cause I want to champion. (And, truth be told, it’s not.)
As much as I want this essay to help you “cure” your Imposter Syndrome, I guarantee that it won’t. This state of being that we’ve pathologized and simplified down to the header of an optional luncheon at a conference is actually a profound existential angst that is core to the human experience — an angst so profound that monks have been sitting and staring at walls for centuries in order to get glimpses of what it is like to live without it.
My advice to you is: invest in therapy, in meditation, go to *-Anonymous meetings, do anything you can to pursue emotional development for the sake of yourself and your career. It won’t be easy to stare this one down, but it will be worth it.