Impostor Syndrome

A theme that echoes through much of my writing is the impostor syndrome.  In many ways it is an eye-roll inducing concept.  I mean, come on people, get over yourselves and just own your accomplishments.  And yet, I suffer from it (or have suffered from it) in both work and motherhood, and I know so many other women who do too.

I was recently re-reading an old Meghan Daum essay (“According to the Women I’m Fairly Pretty”).  It is a profile piece on a polyamorous community in California.  In it she describes the feeling of being an outsider as one of the characteristics of all members of the group.  These are people who throughout their life have felt fringe or not generally accepted–geeks who sat alone at lunch and on the playground during school days.  What Daum points out though, is that at one time or another we all feel like the one who doesn’t fit in–particularly through our elementary and secondary years of schooling.  We all feel like frauds at one point or another, making the boundary of “outside” almost nonexistent or one that exists only in our own minds.  I am a huge fan of Daum’s, and I recognize her analysis to be accurate to an extent.  Let’s be realistic:  some people fit in better than others.  Some people are more comfortable with their role in a community.  And some people just more easily accept and project their achievements (perhaps even with a sense of pride).

In order to feel truly alienated one must keep a safe distance from the fact that, as self-concepts go, ‘not like the others’ is fairly standard….  The need to be different means we must constantly promote our unusualness.  Meghan Daum, “According to the Women I’m Fairly Pretty”

I recently received a big award at work.  Upon receiving the news that I am the awardee, my very first reaction (before excitement or pride) was, Oh, I must have been the only applicant.  My next reaction was, Wow – they must have had some really crappy applicants.  I wonder who applied?  This reaction despite knowing that any of the applicants had to be my own colleagues (it was an internal award), and I know for certain that my colleagues are super accomplished and amazingly talented.  In fact, it is this same group of colleagues amongst whom I’ve felt like a fraud for the past six years, convinced that they are real teacher-scholars and I am merely an impostor, faking it ’til I make it, as they say.

The line between humility and a constant feeling of having pulled the wool over someone’s eyes is very thin.

The fear of waiting to be found out is exhausting.  And I’ve spent much of my adult life in this state.  Since my early days of graduate school (which I only got into–twice–because they were desperate for students, of course…) I have set goals.  I told myself that when I would hit a certain accomplishment, then I would know I was the “real deal” and stop feeling like a “fake.”  So once I got the Ph.D. in hand, then I would be legit.  Not so.  Once I got tenure, then I would be legit.  Not so.  Once I get this one project published, I will be legit.  Not so.  With every accomplishment my reaction is sincere amazement that I have somehow “tricked” another committee, another group of experts in my field.  I’ve won awards for my scholarship.  I was awarded the most coveted graduate fellowship in my program.  My reaction every time is, Well, the competition must not have been very strong.

In other words, as someone trained to look at evidence and carefully analyze it and assess it, I haven’t proved very good at it when it comes to my own life.

I don’t write this post as laundry-list of all my achievements.  I write it as a call for all of us to own with pride and deep acceptance who we are in life, along with the amazing things we accomplish.  Remembering Daum’s statement, “as self-concepts go, ‘not like the others’ is fairly standard.” We all feel like we don’t belong at times, and as my former therapist always said, “feelings don’t necessarily reflect reality.”  Let’s not stand in the face of evidence and ignore it (we already have way too much of that going on in the world these days…).

I know too many people (women, in particular it seems–though I have no social data to support this) who suffer from this syndrome.  And much like addiction or a search for fulfillment through food or shopping, it doesn’t end when you get to the next stop.  I cannot sit here and tell myself that if I make it to full professor, then I’m the “real deal.”  I have to join with others around me, whom I trust and respect, and give myself the pat on the back that I deserve (even if I’m just faking it ’til I make it…).

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