NEW INSIGHTS ON IMPOSTER SYNDROME

BY HANNAH CRAVEN

In this post, Logia is honoured to have our very own co-Director and Australian-born scholar, Hannah Craven, speak into the commonly discussed, but often misunderstood concept of Imposter Syndrome.

One of the things that we think a lot about here at Logia is how we can support women in Divinity to overcome some of the challenges and barriers that threaten to hold them back.  We can identify such challenges at the personal, the institutional and the societal levels, and Executive Director Christa McKirland has spoken about some of these at Logia events in the past.

One of the challenges that is often identified at the personal level is “Imposter Syndrome.”[1] Hugh Kearns describes Imposter Syndrome as “that nagging feeling you have, that somehow you don’t belong, you haven’t earned your success and that at any moment you will be uncovered.”[2]

“I’m in over my head”

“I was lucky this time”

“The next time will be harder”

“They’re going to find out I can’t do this”

It’s not just “low confidence” but is a certain kind of low confidence brought on by (ostensibly) objective success in the past and the expectation of continued success in the future. That is, it’s not the kind of low confidence one might feel when trying something new for the first time. It’s low confidence for tasks that you have been given based on evidence that you can do them (e.g. a job which you got because you were qualified for it).  The heart of imposter syndrome is negative attitudes (thoughts or feelings) toward our talents or success, despite evidence to the contrary, and anxiety about future success.

Imposter Syndrome (IS) is now a regular feature of the self-help and advice world – commonly acknowledged to be particularly a problem for women, minorities, academics and PhD students (Bingo!). Interestingly though, the concept’s popularity seems to have raced ahead of its rigour.  Clarity around what exactly Imposter Syndrome is (or should be), who has it (maybe everyone), what kind of problem it is (psychological, social, or systemic), and what we should do about it (though you can pay a coach to tell you) is still emerging, whilst a number of issues with its current and popular framing have been identified.

In this post I want to draw attention to some recent discussion of Imposter Syndrome in the field of philosophy, along with an insight gleaned from adjacent work in psychoanalysis. I am, perhaps understandably, particularly interested in the concept as a gendered phenomenon (including the question of whether, indeed, it is one), so will continue to turn to the implications of these discussions for women in academia.

Is it a syndrome?

Perhaps the first thing that is important to point out here is that even the name Imposter Syndrome – the term under which the concept has been popularised – can be unhelpful and misleading.  The patterns of thinking and set of feelings and/or behaviours associated with IS are not, in any technical sense, a “syndrome.” They have not been classified as such by any medical or psychological body, nor are they likely to be.  And in fact, when the concept emerged in the work of psychologists Clance and Imes in the late 1970’s, it was referred to as the Imposter Phenomenon.[3] Naming a phenomenon that they observed in a study of successful women, Clance and Imes were alert to the dangers of pathologising language. Pathologising an apparently highly prevalent experience (some suggest over 70% of people experience imposter syndrome!) is unhelpful for anyone, but perhaps particularly so if we tend to associate the ‘condition’ with women.  Slank writes:

“In an interview, Clance reports that from the outset she and Imes were concerned not to have IP be taken as another ‘defect’ in women or a pathologizing of women…  [this] is why they were deliberate in calling this experience a phenomenon rather than a syndrome since the latter can connote defect or disease.”[4]

In addition, thinking of imposter-type thoughts or feelings as a syndrome locates the problem squarely in the individual – there is something wrong with her. But as many before me have pointed out, “by focusing on the individual and their feelings, the structural inequalities and narrow social norms that produced the feelings in the first place [are] obscured. The label [becomes] a version of “blame the victim” talk.”[5]  Speaking specifically about academic life, Inger Mewburn (of The Thesis Whisperer) writes: “by calling this behaviour a ‘syndrome,’ we pathologise a rational reaction to being in a hierarchical, competitive place like a university, surrounded by high achievers.”[6]  As we shall see, the worries expressed by these writers are supported by the reflections of the philosophers we examine below.

Are women more prone to it?

The initial study by Clance and Imes suggested that the Imposter Phenomenon (IP) might be especially prevalent amongst women. They theorised that women were uniquely predisposed “since success for women is contraindicated by societal expectations and their own internalized self-evaluations.”[7] Subsequent studies, however, show mixed results.[8] Some report men experiencing IP at equal rates to women.[9]  But recent work by Lige, Peteet and Brown (2017) suggests that “working in a field which does not match the stereotype for your gender, race, social class, or other identity may be a significant factor.”[10]  This suggests that while there may not be any inherent tendency toward IP in women, if women are more likely than men to work under such conditions (and we have reason to believe they are, as are ethnic minorities), then, they may in fact be more likely to experience IS.  Put another way, so long as academia in general, and fields like philosophy and systematic theology in particular, remain dominated by men (not to mention seen by some as rightfully the preserve of men), then women in those fields will be more likely than men in those fields to experience IS.  As above, this observation alerts us to the external factors at play in IS.

Are imposter beliefs irrational?

Our brief discussion above already reveals something of what philosophers Katherine Hawley and Sarah K. Paul (University of St. Andrews) and Shanna Slank (University of Wisconsin) explore directly in recent articles. These writers address, in slightly different ways, the assumption inherent in popular understandings of IS that the thoughts and feelings of the one who suffers from IS are irrational and epistemically unjustified. As Kearns writes, they experience these feelings “despite objective evidence to the contrary.”[11] The one who suffers from IS, unlike a real imposter, in fact is qualified, has succeeded, has been recognised, and so on. On such a model, the only thing wrong here is the person’s judgements about themselves, and thus the solution is to change her thinking.

“Lean in.”

“Own your success.”

“Fake it until you make it.”[12]

Imposter beliefs are, by definition, false, but are they really irrational? Are sufferers from IS really less rational than their non IS counterparts?

Hawley and Paul argue that in many situations, an individual’s imposter thoughts or feelings are epistemically justified, even if factually mistaken.[13] The reason being that “hostile social environments can create epistemic obstacles to self-knowledge.”[14]  Formal markers alone are likely to be insufficient for most of us for confidence in our abilities and expectation of future success.  Ongoing and broader forms of positive feedback and recognition are important.  But here, we certainly do have evidence that such feedback is impacted by gender, race, and even physical appearance.  Hawley cites multiple examples:

  • Student evaluations of online teachers were more positive when the teachers were given a male name rather than a female name (MacNell, Driscoll and Hunt, 2015)
  • Enquiries to professors about potential doctoral study received more positive responses when apparently written by white men as opposed to men of minority background or women (Milkman, Akinola and Chugh, 2015)
  • Male biology students rated other males as more knowledgeable than females, even when in fact the female students were performing better on class assessments (Grunspan et al. 2016)

She concludes: “women and minorities face systematically less positive feedback on their performance, explicitly and implicitly, even when they achieve well in terms of formal markers such as grades. Such evidence provides a rebutting defeater for the evidence of capability which is provided by formal markers.”[15]

Additionally, if institutions have begun to make attempts to address systemic disadvantage, beneficiaries of such programs or policies will always be aware (and repeatedly made aware) of the “unfair boost” they have received.[16] Certainly, within the last twelve months I have personally heard two well-meaning Professors warn young white men that it’s impossible for them to get jobs these days (a claim which is certainly not borne out by the evidence), and warn women and minorities of the prospect of becoming a ‘token’ hire. So, despite the fact that men are three times more likely to end up a Professor than their female colleagues,[17] women are encouraged to believe that – in the unlikely event that they do get there – they get there just because they are women. Hawley concludes: “Such comments provide an undercutting defeater. For example, they can break the evidential link between being admitted to a prestigious graduate programme and being highly capable, by proposing an alternative explanation for the admissions decision.”[18]

Lastly, Hawley and Paul consider thoughts or feelings of the type “people like me don’t succeed here.” As a statement of fact, this may be perfectly accurate. And, if based on observations about structural factors rather than internalised sexism or racism, then it may be perfectly rational to suppose that the same factors will impact one’s own likelihood of success.  For example:

“A black student in an overwhelmingly white field might have an accurate view of her own high intelligence and capabilities, combined with a justified concern that these qualities will not be enough to ensure her continuing success.  A student who attended a struggling high school may be justified in worrying that this has not prepared her to flourish at university.”[19]

At this point we need not be able to diagnose exactly why this is true, to acknowledge that it is true. But here we have a situation where a person is justified in believing that they ‘don’t belong’ and are unlikely to succeed, despite their being as talented as those who will. Their talent will not be enough.[20]

Shanna Slank writes with similar aims to Hawley and Paul, setting out to demonstrate why, in certain situations, imposter feelings and beliefs might not be irrational.[21] She convincingly describes the ways that non-talent causes (sometimes luck, many times structural or environmental) play a huge role in most people’s successes.  It is true however, that we each have better access to the non-talent causes in our own lives than in those of others. This has the result that just as we over-attribute the success of others to their talent alone, so they do for us. And thus it is also rational to suspect that others over-estimate our talents.

Second, Slank notes the ways that a ‘culture of genius’ (as described by psychologists Carol Dweck and Mary Murphy, and often used to describe academic philosophy departments) incline us to see our own effort as evidence against our talent. Additionally, if the culture’s “entity theory” of intelligence results in a practice of hiding effort, “[t]his may lead to a situation where agents’ own efforts are highly salient to themselves, but where agents are blind to others’ efforts. And when effort counts as non-talent evidence, this means that one gets a particular kind of evidence against her talents that she rarely gets against others.”[22]

Personally, Slank’s first thesis appeals to my Australian-ness.  Australians don’t get Imposter Syndrome, because we’re all too busy with Tall Poppy Syndrome![23] We don’t sit around feeling bad about ourselves, instead we cut other people down.  (Or perhaps we cut other people down because we’re all feeling bad about ourselves…  oh dear.) In any case, for those of us for whom the road to success has been reasonably smooth, we would do well to consider the non-talent causes of our successes.  Our family background, wealth, schooling, opportunities, ethnicity, relationships and so on. This of course doesn’t have to mean that we’re not talented enough to be here. More likely, what it means is that plenty of people who are, will never even get close.  Many who are talented and capable will simply never get the opportunity to be recognised as such.  This of course, is part of what drives initiatives like Logia, and others, which seek to support individuals who don’t reside in systems full of non-talent causes of success.

Rational and Justified

So, in the work of philosophers Hawley & Paul, and Slank, we have seen reason to believe that individuals’ imposter attitudes or beliefs may not be irrational or epistemically unjustified, as the common model often assumes. Instead, at least in some circumstances, they appear to be a rational response to certain kinds of environments and cultures. Some of the cultural phenomena described above will affect everybody equally, others will particularly impact women and minorities. Thus certain individuals may be perfectly justified having a low level of confidence in their own talent (though that judgement may in fact be false), or in the prospect that their talent will lead to future success (and this judgement may be accurate), despite having succeeded so far.

The implications of this for how we treat those in our midst suffering from something like IS are significant. If the failure is an institutional rather than a personal one, coaching to improve our confidence or change our thinking simply won’t help.[24] Well, it might help the sufferer psychologically to some extent, but its effectiveness will necessarily be limited because it works at the level of symptoms not causes. Further, this way of dealing with the problem runs the risk of asking the individual to make up for the failures of the institution/system, thus assigning them a ‘double burden:’ those most negatively impacted by the problems also bear the responsibility for dealing with them. Meanwhile, others carry on unaffected. All of us have to manage in imperfect systems, of course. The point is that we must be careful that problem-solving at the individual level does not become a way of avoiding larger, more complex, and more difficult strategies.

Stereotype Transgression

Lastly, an insight from a slightly unlikely source – Contemporary Psychoanalysis.[25] In her article “Show Me the Money” psychoanalyst Kachina Myers explores the challenging dynamics of therapist fee-setting. Citing several studies about the successes of women of colour, Myers notes the problem of conflicting cultural value systems, and interprets imposter feelings within this framework:

“[W]omen of color who achieve professional success and status frequently feel a great deal of guilt and anxiety about that success. Often these women experience themselves as “impostors”… so as to deny their own desire and the ambition that got them where they are. After all, if their success was only luck and they are “faking it,” then they do not have to reconcile the fact that they have internalized the dominant value system’s emphasis on external and independent achievement. Impostor feelings in successful white women also abound… for many women there is still a felt conflict between femininity and ambition, as if professional accomplishment were a masculine virtue. In this case, the anxiety of feeling like an impostor can be a defence against the shame of failing to achieve an ideal femininity.”[26]

This observation is perhaps more uncomfortable than those we have discussed so far because it returns us to the level of the individual. Myers suggests that, in some cases, imposter feelings become our solution to the cognitive dissonance of living outwith stereotypes. Feeling like an ‘imposter’ in our professional settings allows us to exist and succeed within those settings without transgressing the boundaries of ‘femininity’ too far. We might be succeeding but ‘we don’t fit the mould.’ Thus to be who they are and get what they want, women, in some sense, deny who they are and what they want, in order to remain acceptable to others. This cuts close to the bone.

This explanation goes further, I think, than Clance and Imes’ initial suggestion, something akin to stereotype threat. It is not just that women are inclined to think that they can’t or won’t succeed and so feel like imposters. Myers suggests that women’s knowledge that they can and could succeed provokes feelings of guilt or shame in their failure to be the proper sort of woman. In other words, it is not “I can’t do this” but “I shouldn’t want this.”

This claim requires interrogation of course, but if true, it provides an additional explanation as to why certain kinds of imposter attitudes might be more prevalent amongst women than amongst men. Or perhaps suggests that women and men might experience different kinds of imposter feelings, and for different reasons.  If imposter syndrome is displaced guilt over failure to meet stereotypes, it might arise for women and men in different ways – for missing a different mark, so to speak.

This threatens to locate the problem once again with the individual – in his or her deceitful coping mechanism. But this is to take a narrow view. Because of course, expectations and stereotypes about who we are, what we want, and what we can and should do, do not arise in a vacuum, but come to us from outside ourselves. Again, these are the province of families, cultures, and systems. And thus, while recognition of these psychological manoeuvres is important, it cannot eradicate imposter syndrome.  We must also dismantle and unpick feminine (and masculine) ideals which unfairly limit us all. The strength of these cultural influences is revealed by Myers’ analysis – the fear or shame of failure to be properly feminine is so strong that it will lead us to sabotage our own professional lives.

Going Forward

While areas of underlying uncertainty remain, the extent to which Imposter Syndrome has taken hold in the popular consciousness reveals its resonance. Certainly, the feelings, beliefs, and behaviours that the concept captures are felt by many students and early career professionals. And ultimately the problem with IS is not just the experience of negative feelings, but that it is destructive. It can be self-fulfilling.

The above reflections help us by shifting the focus of the ‘problem’ from the individual to the environment or culture. This is perhaps no less discouraging – at least initially – but it should lessen the accompanying feelings of shame, self-blame, guilt and anxiety. It also highlights the important work that organisations like Logia can do, in concert with institutions. This year at St. Andrews, given the limitations of life under COVID, we have scaled back our activities and focused on one-on-one and small group relational forms of support. Happily, it seems to me that while these kinds of activities attract little acclaim, they do much to address a number of the issues identified in the discussion above, not through problematising (‘helping’) the individual, but by removing the environmental barriers to women’s flourishing. We aim to provide a positive and encouraging environment (though not dishonest about difficulties and challenges) in which women can see, feel, and know that they do belong and can succeed: non-competitive relationships, collaboration, networking, constructive feedback mechanisms, role-modelling, problem-solving, etc. And so we come full circle: though it can be useful to identify issues at the personal, institutional and societal levels, in the case of Imposter Syndrome further interrogation suggests that the three are often closely intertwined.

[1] Here I use the Australian spelling (imposter) though have retained the variant (impostor) in quotations when it occurs.

[2] An Australian academic from Flinders University in Adelaide, Kearns is the author of The Imposter Syndrome: Why Successful People Often Feel Like Frauds, and writes at www.impostersyndrome.com.au.

[3] Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, “The Impostor Phenomenon in High-Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention,” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 15(3) (1978): 241–7.

[4] Shanna Slank, “Rethinking the Imposter Phenomenon,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 22 (2019):205-218, 208.

[5] Pat Thomson, https://patthomson.net/2017/09/07/two-things-that-made-me-think-this-week/

[6] https://thesiswhisperer.com/2020/10/07/beryl/

[7] Clance and Imes, 1978, 242.

[8] S. Kumar, and C. Jagacinski, “Imposters Have Goals Too: The Imposter Phenomenon and Its Relationship to Achievement Goal Theory,” Personality and Individual Differences 40 (2006): 147-157; Craddock et al., “Doctoral Students and the Imposter Phenomenon: Am I Smart Enough to Be Here?” Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice 48(4) (2011): 429-442; Badawy et al., “Are all Imposters Created Equal? Exploring Gender Differences in the Impostor Phenomenon-Performance Link,” Personality and Individual Differences 131 (2018): 156-163.

[9] See Norma Lawler, The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Persons and Jungian Personality Variables (Atlanta: Georgia State University, 1984); A. I. Flewelling, The Impostor Phenomenon in Individuals Succeeding in Selfperceived Atypical Professions: The effects of Mentoring and Longevity, (Unpublished master’s thesis, Atlanta: Georgia State University, 1985); J. Beard, Personality Correlates of the Imposter Phenomenon: An exploration of Gender Differences in Critical Needs (Unpublished masters’ thesis, Atlanta: Georgia State University, 1990); C. Cozzarelli and B. Major, “Exploring the validity of the impostor phenomenon,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology  9(4) (1990): 401–4.

[10] Quiera M. Lige, Bridgette J. Peteet, and Carrie M. Brown, “Racial Identity, Self-Esteem and the Impostor Phenomenon Among African American College Students,” Journal of Black Psychology 43(4) (2017): 345-357.

[11] https://impostersyndrome.com.au/index.php/what-is-it/

[12] Chapter 7 of Kearns’ book is entitled “Feelings are not facts,” which strangely reminds me of an old gospel tract….

[13] Katherine Hawley and Sarah K. Paul, “Impostor Syndrome,” Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume xciii (2019): 203-226.

[14] Hawley and Paul, 203.

[15] Hawley and Paul, 213.

[16] I can’t resist including Hawley’s comment here: “Perhaps this is the modern-day replacement for telling women that they have slept their way to the top or traded on their feminine charms; perhaps this is an addition rather than a replacement.” (213).

[17] Carmel Diezmann and Susan Grieshaber, Women Professors: Who Makes it and How? (Singapore: Springer, 2019), 3.

[18] Hawley and Paul, 213.

[19] Hawley and Paul, 216.

[20] This does of course raise the question as to whether this condition can properly be called imposter syndrome. The person in question may not rate their own abilities any lower than objective evidence allows, and yet they may feel (and may be right) that they are not ‘good enough.’ For discussion on this point, and the value of narrow vs broad definitions, see Hawley and Paul, p. 215 ff.

[21] Shanna Slank, “Rethinking the Imposter Phenomenon,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 22 (2019): 205-218.

[22] Slank, 215.

[23] Please note that this claim has absolutely no evidentiary backing (it’s a joke!). Tall Poppy Syndrome (again, not technically a syndrome) describes a tendency (particularly associated with Australia and New Zealand) to discredit or disparage high achievers, to ‘cut them down’ to size. Positively, it might be seen to promote modesty and egalitarianism.

[24] Unless perhaps it promotes patterns of thought and behaviours specifically designed to cope with hostile environments, rather than focusing simply on raising an individual’s confidence, or lowering their anxiety.

[25] I am grateful to my sister, Naomi Schofield, for alerting me to this work.

[26] Kachina Myers, “Show Me The Money: (The “Problem of”) the Therapist’s Desire, Subjectivity and the Relationship to the Fee,” Contemporary Psychoanalysis 44(1): 118-140, 121.

Hannah is co-director of Logia St. Andrews, whilst working towards her PhD looking at feminist hermeneutics for women victims of violence.  Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Hannah trained at Ridley College and was ordained in the Anglican Diocese. Before moving to St. Andrews with her family for further study she worked in ministry roles in the Anglican church in Melbourne.

Photo by Jacqueline O’Gara on Unsplash

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