How to Reinforce Impostor Syndrome
I originally posted this on September 27, 2012. As part of my migration to Medium, I’m reposting it here, unedited, and using Notes to add commentary from where I stand now, in July 2013.
“You only got that internship because you’re a woman,” P. said. I was floored.
Now, I’ve taken my fair share of shit from people. I’ve had people call me a bitch. I’ve had people call me whiny and ignorant. A stranger once aggressively diagnosed me with a mental condition. One of my peers used to keep a blog about how much she hated me.
But this? This really stung. P. was a good friend of mine, and I really trusted him. I tried to laugh it off.
“Good one,” I said. After all, we were talking about my Microsoft internship. Microsoft has a program for women and underrepresented minorities, but I wasn’t in it. I was a regular old SDE intern.
But P. wasn’t joking. “I know it sounds bad,” he said. And then he went on to explain exactly how I would not have gotten that same offer had I been a man.
I chewed on it for a while. In a logical place in my head, I knew he was probably only saying it because he, too, had applied for that same position–before being rejected. But in my heart I worried that he was right.
I often feel like a fluke. In fact, I was worried that, with this particular internship offer, I was a really big fluke. When I walked into my interview in Redmond, my interviewer looked slightly askance at me and explained that, for that position, he hadn’t interviewed anyone so young before. (I was a freshman.) I struggled a bit in the interview, but I pulled through in the end.
I had my doubts: What the hell was I doing as an SDE? It seemed like all of the other SDE interns were going to be vastly more qualified than I. Maybe I was a mistake. Maybe P. was right.
But I also knew that these feelings weren’t uncommon: Plenty of people deal with “impostor syndrome.”
Impostor syndrome is the feeling that everyone else is more qualified than you are. It’s the feeling that you’re a phony, a fake, and at any moment you’re going to be exposed. But somehow, amazingly, you keep fooling everyone.
Of course, it’s not really that amazing. You’re not a phony, and you’re not fooling anyone because you’re not faking anything. You’re totally qualified to have that job, or that position in that prestigious school, or to have won that award.
But impostor syndrome takes those accomplishments and replaces them with a sense of doubt. Impostor syndrome often leads to people applying for fewer scholarships and internships and reaching for fewer promotions. If you don’t deserve what you already have, how could you possibly ask for more?
Imposter syndrome flourishes on its own. But, sadly, I see people reinforcing it in one another.
Impostor syndrome is reinforced whenever someone suggests that someone else’s achievements are a not a result of their ability, but instead have happened thanks to other, unrelated qualities.
Let me put that in simpler terms: You can reinforce imposter syndrome by suggesting that someone doesn’t deserve their accomplishments.
To cite an example, from, of all places, The Onion*: “You’re only giving this speech because you’re Latino.” Or, a more personal one, ”You only got into this school because you’re a girl.” Or, like P. said: “You only got that internship because you’re a woman.”
So, instead, how do you fight impostor syndrome?
Tell other people about it. Praise your friends for their successes. Say, “You so deserve that promotion/scholarship/interview offer.” (Someone said this to me recently, and it was one of the most gratifying things I had heard all year.) Gently correct your friends if they underrepresent themselves. Offer to help read resumes and make sure people are self-promoting. If you’re interviewing, don’t ask questions which make people “rate” their skills.**
*I know people are going to give me shit for using the Onion as an example here. “Don’t you recognize satire!” they’ll say. I do recognize satire. I also recognize that the Onion shows that this is a common perception in our society.
**Thanks to the Geek Feminism Wiki for many of these excellent suggestions.