The term imposter syndrome is everywhere. People “have it”, “suffer from it” or “ have a bad case of it.”
Imposter syndrome is a term that worries me. I’ve been concerned at how it’s used for quite some time. I’m hardly the only one. The original inventors of the term, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Innes, rejected it shortly after publication, saying that it wasn’t a clinical category. They weren’t really talking about a Syndrome, as in something like Down Syndrome or Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Or Long Covid. These medical syndromes are more than feelings, they are symptoms correlated with the occurrence of particular conditions or diseases.
Clance and Innes used both “syndrome” and “phenomenon” to describe what appeared to be a common set of feelings experienced by high achieving women. But Clance and Innes were concerned about hostile organisations. They didnt want to “fix” the women. Clance later said that the term “syndrome” was popular because most people experience these feelings at some time in their lives. However the more accurate term “phenomenon” was very vague and much harder to say and think about.
Clance in particular, and many others since, have been concerned about the ways in which the descriptive term “imposter” has been and is widely applied to a cluster of feelings as if they are a personal problem, rather than also – or perhaps almost entirely – the result of context, of social and cultural practices.
It’s worth thinking about this concern. It’s worth asking whether, if we talk about ourselves as “having” imposter syndrome or “suffering from it”, we might be putting on categorical blinkers. It’s worth asking, What else might be going on if I am feeling like a fraud at this moment? What do these feelings tell me?
Learning and not knowing
Many academic “imposter” feelings are the result of being a learner on the way to becoming a professional not-knower. The three year full time doctorate for instance consists of a year of not having much of a clue about what you are doing and knowing, a year of generating “stuff” that may or may not add up to something you can’t yet recognise, and nearly all of the next year making a version of sense out of everything that you’ve done. Well, I exaggerate here, but you get the point. You pull threads together at the end of the doctorate to make something which is defensible and which you can feel comfortable enough defending. But you are always aware of what else there is that you don’t know.
The doctorate is a really extended period of uncertainty, of not knowing, and of learning what you are doing. So standing up and speaking about the research while you are in the middle of it can be pretty terrifying. What if you have it all wrong? And what if some of those people who are reading your work or at your conference presentation are actually key people on your reading list? Aargh, Of course you feel vulnerable and worried and – yes like a bit of a fraud. That’s entirely understandable.
Now, that scary “I’ll be found out” feeling can come at any point when you are talking about something you don’t have quite a firm grip on. During and after the doctorate. But that doesn’t mean you have nothing of interest or importance to say. It just means that you are in the middle of something. Or this is the first time you have presented something. You’re learning. And you’re being brave in making it public.
It seems to me that there is absolutely nothing wrong or sick or problematic about feeling worried about putting your work out there whether it’s for the first, second or twentieth time. Or feeling worried about not knowing. You may really be talking to people who do know more than you do about some of your chosen topic. For example I’m always terrified talking to linguists about writing, even though what I talk about is usually pedagogy, about which I do actually know a fair bit. But you know, I’m human too, and I worry about what I don’t know, as opposed to what I do. I now know enough about handling my nerves to generally get by, even though it’s always a bit of a “front stage” performance. I’ve also been known to say at the outset of a presentation what I do know about and what I don’t.
There are ways to focus on what it is you can say with some confidence. The problem is the way that learning and not knowing are sometimes dealt with.
Academic cultures and practices
Most important. Those nervous sick feelings aren’t necessarily something wrong with you/me. They are actually pretty rational in a competitive academic environment, where not everyone behaves well. You/I don’t want to be seen as foolish. Who does?
But not everyone is understanding about emerging work and work in progress. Who knows, there may well be a Reviewer 2 in your audience or reading your paper. There may well be someone who wants to tell you all about their work, or be very patronising about the things you haven’t read and/or haven’t done. There may well be someone who’s into gaslighting. Who wants to tell you your work has gone off lately or they’ve never heard of you or it’s a pity you don’t do anything original or new or you’re just behind the times. (Yes I’ve been told all of these things.) But this very bad behaviour is on them, not you. If you are in an educational context, and all universities are about education, then it’s very off behaviour to be overtly or covertly rude and nasty, just for the sake of it, to people who are learning and/or sharing their learning.
And those out of place, I shouldn’t be here, scary feelings are usually the result of long-standing structural and cultural practices. Universities aren’t yet institutions which are inclusive of everyone. That feeling of being out of place and that you don’t belong? Well yes. Universities are elite institutions and even if they have policies and aspirations to promote equity, they still have a myriad of ways to create “outsiders”. That feeling that is called “imposter” is usually how we register, at a haptic level, these old and often undocumented inequitable organisational cultural practices.
Do I feel this? Well yes, but a lot less than I used to. Like many first-gen students, when I first went to university I had no idea of what a university actually was. Women were up to almost a third of the student population in my undergrad university, and only 10% of the total student population had gone to a state school, let alone one that creamed the most academically successful working class kids into higher education (the Australian equivalent of the UK grammar school). I spent most of my first year at university clinging to a small huddle of other young people like me. Until I learnt that we were way more cool than the posh kids.
I’m hardly the only one to experience this. Feeling out of place at university is a well known social phenomenon. Educators and social scientists study it. There’s lots written now about how this institutionally produced “otherness” feels, and how it happens. But simply knowing the literature may not stop the feelings called imposter-ness. But is this feeling something to feel crap about? Not in my book. It’s more something to either note or perhaps to feel angry about. Perhaps even to act on those feelings in ways that create change, even if only in little ways.
I do think it is worth thinking more about “imposter syndrome”. It trips off the tongue but may do more harm than good. It is worth asking either at the time or after what was actually going on, Why am I feeling like an imposter? If this is not just about me, what other explanation is there? What else might be causing this response? How much is about you/me and how much is about the situation, the context, the institution?
You/I might also want to ask how you can deal with these kinds of feelings if they arise again (likely) but you/I also might want to look at the external issues and see if it is they, and not you/me, that really needs to change.
Author: Pat Thomson