Why Everyone Feels Like They’re Faking It

For Landry, this was only the first of many instances of what she calls “the misdiagnosis of impostor syndrome.” Landry understands now that what her classmate characterized as a crisis of self-doubt was simply an observation of an external truth—the concrete impact of connections and privilege. Eventually, Landry looked up Clance and Imes’s 1978 paper;

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For Landry, this was only the first of many instances of what she calls “the misdiagnosis of impostor syndrome.” Landry understands now that what her classmate characterized as a crisis of self-doubt was simply an observation of an external truth—the concrete impact of connections and privilege. Eventually, Landry looked up Clance and Imes’s 1978 paper; she didn’t identify with the people described in it. “They interviewed a set of primarily white women lacking confidence, despite being surrounded by an educational system and workforce that seemed to recognize their excellence,” she told me. “As a Black woman, I was unable to find myself in that paper.”

Since then, Landry has had countless conversations with students who feel they are struggling with impostor syndrome, and she usually senses a palpable relief when she suggests that they are feeling like this not because there is something wrong with them but because they are “enveloped in a system that fails to support them.” Ironically, her students’ relief at being liberated from the label of impostor syndrome reminds me of the relief that Clance and Imes witnessed when they first offered the concept to their clients. In both cases, women were being told, “You are not an impostor. You are enough.” In one case, an experience was diagnosed; in the other, the diagnosis was removed.

In 2src2src, almost fifty years after Clance and Imes collaborated on their article, another pair of women collaborated on an article about impostor syndrome—this one pushing back fiercely against the idea. In “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome,” published in the Harvard Business Review, in February, 2src21, Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey argue that the label implies that women are suffering from a crisis of self-confidence and fails to recognize the real obstacles facing professional women, especially women of color—essentially, that it reframes systemic inequality as an individual pathology. As they put it, “Imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.”

Tulshyan started hearing the term a decade ago, when she left a job in journalism to work in the Seattle tech industry. She was attending women’s leadership conferences where it seemed that everyone was talking about impostor syndrome and “the confidence gap,” but no one was talking about gender bias and systemic racism. She got tired of hearing women, especially white women—her own heritage is Indian Singaporean—comparing notes on who had the most severe impostor syndrome. It seemed like another version of women sharing worries about their weight, a kind of communal self-deprecation that reiterated oppressive metrics rather than disrupting them.

During the early pandemic, she met up with Burey—another woman of color working in Seattle tech—for an outdoor lunch, and they compared notes on their shared frustration with the idea of impostor syndrome. There was a tremendous feeling of relief and resonance. As Tulshyan put it, “It was like everybody is telling you the sky is green, and suddenly you tell your friend, I think the sky is blue, and she sees it this way as well.”

Burey, who was born in Jamaica, didn’t feel like an impostor; she felt enraged by the systems that had been built to disenfranchise her. She also didn’t experience any yearning to belong, to inhabit certain spaces of power. “White women want to access power, they want to sit at the table,” she told me. “Black women say, This table is rotten, this table is hurting everyone.” She resisted knee-jerk empowerment rhetoric that seemed to encourage a damaging bravado: “I didn’t want to beef up myself to inflict more harm.”

At their lunch, Tulshyan mentioned that she was writing a piece about impostor syndrome, and Burey immediately asked her, “Did you read the original article?” Like Adaira Landry, Burey had felt impelled to look it up and had been struck by its limitations. It wasn’t a clinical study but a set of anecdotal observations, she told Tulshyan, largely gleaned from “high-achieving” white women who had received much affirmation from the world. “I must have spoken for twenty minutes uninterrupted,” Burey recalled. After that, Tulshyan said, “It’s done. We’re collaborating.”

Like Clance and Imes, Tulshyan and Burey recognized in each other versions of the feelings that they themselves had been harboring—only these were feelings about the world, rather than about their psyches. They were sick of people talking about women having impostor syndrome rather than talking about biases in hiring, promotion, leadership, and compensation. They came to believe that a concept designed to liberate women from their shame—to help them confront the delusion of their own insufficiency—had become yet another way to keep them disempowered.

When I asked Clance and Imes about Tulshyan and Burey’s critiques, they agreed with many of them, conceding that their original sample and parameters were limited. Although their model had actually acknowledged (rather than obscured) the role that external factors played in creating impostor feelings, it focussed on things such as family dynamics and gender socialization rather than on systemic racism and other legacies of inequality. But they also pointed out that the popularization of their idea as a “syndrome” had distorted it. Every time Imes hears the phrase “impostor syndrome,” she told me, it lodges in her gut. It’s technically incorrect, and conceptually misleading. As Clance explained, the phenomenon is “an experience rather than a pathology,” and their aim was always to normalize this experience rather than to pathologize it. Their concept was never meant to be a solution for inequality and prejudice in the workplace—a task for which it would necessarily prove insufficient. Indeed, Clance’s own therapeutic practice was anything but oblivious of the external structural forces highlighted by Tulshyan and Burey. When mothers came to Clance describing their impostor feelings around parenting, her advice was not “Work on your feelings.” It was “Get more child care.”

Tulshyan and Burey never anticipated how much attention their article would receive. It has been translated and published all over the world, and is one of the most widely shared articles in the history of the Harvard Business Review. They heard from people who had been given negative performance evaluations that featured euphemisms for impostor syndrome (“lacks confidence” or “lacks executive presence”) and even refused promotions on these grounds. The diagnosis has become a cultural force fortifying the very phenomenon it was supposed to cure.

As the backlash against the concept of impostor syndrome spreads, other critiques have emerged. If everyone has it, does it exist at all? Or are we simply experiencing a kind of humility inflation? Perhaps the widespread practice of confessing self-doubt has begun to encourage—to demand, even—repeated confessions of the very experience that the original concept was trying to dissolve. The writer and comedian Viv Groskop believes that impostor syndrome has become a blanket term obscuring countless other problems, everything from long Covid to the patriarchy. She told me a story about standing in front of five hundred women and telling them, “Raise your hand if you have experienced impostor syndrome.” Almost every woman raised her hand. When Groskop asked, “Who here has never experienced impostor syndrome?,” only one (brave) woman did. But, at the end of the talk, this outlier came up to apologize—worried that it was somehow arrogant not to have impostor syndrome.

Cartoon by Seth Fleishman

Hearing this story, I began to wonder if I’d confessed my own feelings of impostor syndrome to Dr. Imes as a kind of admission fee, to claim my seat—like putting my ante into the pot at a poker game. Who had made it possible for me to play this game? When I asked my mother, who is seventy-eight, if the concept resonated, she said it didn’t; she’d struggled more with proving herself than with feeling like a fraud. She told me she suspected that most women in her generation (and even more in her mother’s) were likelier to feel the opposite—“that we were being underestimated.”

For many younger women, there’s a horoscope effect at play: certain aspects of the experience, if defined capaciously enough, are so common as to be essentially universal. The Australian scholar and critic Rebecca Harkins-Cross—who often felt like an impostor during her university days, struggling with insecurities she now connects to her working-class background—has become suspicious of the ways impostor syndrome serves a capitalist culture of striving. She told me, “Capitalism needs us all to feel like impostors, because feeling like an impostor ensures we’ll strive for endless progress: work harder, make more money, try to be better than our former selves and the people around us.”

On the flip side, this relentless pressure deepens the exhilarating allure of people—specifically, women—who truly are impostors but refuse to see themselves as such. Think of the mass fascination with the antiheroine Anna Delvey (a.k.a. Anna Sorokin), who masqueraded as an heiress in order to infiltrate a wealthy world of New York socialites, and the hypnotic train wreck of Elizabeth Holmes, who built a nine-billion-dollar company based on fraudulent claims about her ability to diagnose a variety of diseases from a single drop of blood. Why do these women enthrall us? In the television adaptations that turned their lives into soap operas—“Inventing Anna” and “The Dropout”—their hubris offers a thrilling counterpoint to beleaguered self-doubt: Anna’s extravagant cash tips and gossamer caftans, her willingness to overstay her welcome on a yacht in Ibiza, her utter conviction—even once she was in jail—that it was the world that had been wrong, rather than her.

These stories gleaned much of their narrative momentum from the constant threat of revelation: when would these impostors be discovered? Paying for things on credit without being able to afford them literalizes a crucial facet of impostor syndrome: the anxiety that you are getting what you have not paid for and do not deserve; that you will eventually be found out, and your bill will come due. (Capitalism always wants you to believe you have a bill to pay.) Part of the lure of these stories is the looming satisfaction of seeing the impostors revealed and exposed. For some of us, it’s akin to the pleasure of pushing on a bruise, watching the community punish the impostor we believe exists inside ourselves.

Ruchika Tulshyan told me, “If it was up to me, we would do away with the idea of impostor syndrome entirely.” Jodi-Ann Burey allows that the concept has been useful in corporate contexts, offering a shared language for talking about self-doubt and a “soft entry” into conversations about toxic workplaces, but she, too, feels it is time to bid it farewell. She wants to say, “Thank you for your fifty years of service,” and to start looking directly at systems of bias, rather than falsely pathologizing individuals.

Is there some version of impostor syndrome that can be salvaged? Pulling back from the corporate world to look at the concept more broadly, it seems clear that the #girlboss branding of impostor syndrome has done a disservice to the concept as well as to the workplaces it has failed to improve. The tale of these two pairs of women—Clance and Imes formulating their idea in the seventies, and Tulshyan and Burey pushing back in 2src2src—belongs to the larger intellectual story of second-wave feminism receiving necessary correctives from the third wave. Much of this corrective work results from women of color asking white feminism to acknowledge a complicated matrix of external forces—including structural racism and income inequality—at play in every internal experience. Identifying impostor feelings does not necessitate denying the forces that produced them. It can, in fact, demand the opposite: understanding that the damage from these external forces often becomes part of the internal weave of the self. Although many of the most fervent critics of impostor syndrome are women of color, it’s also the case that many people of color do identify with the experience. In fact, research studies have repeatedly shown that impostor syndrome disproportionately affects them. This finding contradicts what I was told years ago—that impostor syndrome is a “white lady” problem—and suggests instead that the people most vulnerable to the syndrome are not the ones it first described.

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