why does everyone suddenly seem to have impostor syndrome?
Unpacking a mysterious, very 2017 epidemic.
Tavi Gevinson. Photography Petra Collins.
This article was originally published by i-D US.
Despite founding teen bible Rookie and landing acting roles on Broadway, in 2014 Tavi Gevinson revealed that she was dealing with impostor syndrome. The writer-turned-actress went so far as to say that feeling like an impostor was "the bane of her existence," and she wasn't the only one. Successful women from Natalie Portman to Lady Gaga have admitted they experience the psychological phenomenon that makes them feel like they are going to be exposed as a fraud.
These days, the term "impostor syndrome" is thrown around pretty regularly and not just by celebrities. Young people are quick to use it when they are feeling less than confident in a role, whether it's in their job or their social circle. But what does it actually mean when people say they have impostor syndrome and why does it seem like suddenly everyone has it?
Impostor syndrome was first identified in 1978 by two psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. They studied a group of female academics only to find that many of them felt that they weren't deserving of their accomplishments. They used the original term "impostor phenomenon" to describe the "internal experience of intellectual phonies."
"People who feel like impostors have a really hard time internalising and really owning their accomplishments," Dr. Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, explained to me over the phone. "They minimise their success by saying things like 'I was just lucky' or 'I had help.' Because of these feelings they have a fear of being found out."
While the name sounds serious, impostor phenomenon doesn't actually qualify as a psychological syndrome or a medical disorder. It's an internalised dialogue that makes people feel like they aren't good enough and it is actually extremely common. It is estimated that 70 percent of people will experience it in their lifetime.
As Jezebel points out, the concept of impostor syndrome seems to have resurfaced in 2012 after social psychologist and Harvard professor Amy Cuddy gave a TED Talk about feeling like a fraud and ways to overcome it (based on her research that has since been debunked). The talk, which has been viewed over 43 million times, seemingly resonated with viewers. In the years that followed, women from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to actress Emma Watson have publicly opened up about their impostor feelings, not to mention hundreds of young people online.
"Many of my friends have shared that they often feel like impostors in their own spaces. I started feeling like I had impostor syndrome during my first year at UC Berkeley," Nisa Dang, a writer who has tweeted about her impostor experience, explained to me. "During this time, I began meeting people who were more well-traveled, well-read, and more eloquent than I was."
When Clance and Imes completed their research, they theorised that impostor syndrome was an experience unique to women, but it was later determined by Clance that it is not a gendered problem. Men are just as likely to harbour these feelings of inadequacy. But, according to Dr. Young, women are more likely to internalise their mistakes.
The problem with impostor syndrome is that it is often presented as some internal failing that people have to own up to and fix. There are self-help books like Beating the Impostor Syndrome that offer tips to "overcome" these feelings. But new situations and environments are bound to bring some anxiety and discomfort, it doesn't mean you are plagued by impostor syndrome. In fact, using this term so quickly can discount the underlying issues that cause those feelings.
In many cases, these impostor feelings are actually a result of environmental factors. If you aren't surrounded by people that look like you or there are perceived stereotypes about your race, age, or gender, you are bound to feel like you don't belong.
Dang felt the lack of diversity at her school helped contribute to her impostor feelings. "Berkeley is hardly racially diverse. In all my classes, I would be one of very few Black people and in my upper division classes, I was almost always the only Black woman," she said. "That type of atmosphere stifles feelings of comfort and belonging. I felt like an outsider."
While it has been common for women to write these feelings of self-doubt off as impostor syndrome it can be problematic because we are failing to recognise the patriarchal and often racist forces that are working against them.
"We situate these women as just needing to 'lean in' or 'pull themselves up by their bootstraps' whilst never acknowledging that when they do lean in, and when they do pull themselves up, they are still met with opposition from individual actors and institutions who are invested in their exclusion from many public spaces," Jenn M. Jackson explained for the website Watercooler.
Still, Dr. Young says that people can feel like impostors regardless of their environment. "If you are surrounded by people who look like you, but you are still operating from that warped impostor rulebook, nothing is going to change," she said. "I recommend that people normalise self-doubt. You have to give yourself permission to be in a learning curve."
Gevinson was able to rid herself of her impostor feelings pretty quickly. Months after she shared her impostor concerns, the 21-year-old said that she doesn't worry about being a fraud any longer. "I don't really get impostor syndrome anymore," she told Grantland. "I'm not gonna get myself into the crisis of 'Do I have a right?' I mean, I auditioned. I got it."
While it might take some work to feel comfortable as an "impostor," it's important to remember that it is perfectly normal, especially now when social media has made it easier than ever to compare yourself to others.
If you need a reminder that you're going to be okay, you could start by taking Kate Nash's advice for Gevinson and reciting this mantra: "I'm a badass bitch from hell and nobody can fuck with me," it seems to have worked for her.