In 2012 I received my doctorate in Sociology. In the 10 years since, when people discover the Dr. part of my name, I quickly establish that “I’m not a real Doctor mind you, I can’t help you or anything”. Even though no one accused me of being a fake one.
Although I’ve been working in academia for over 15 years now; as a tutor, lecturer, researcher, director and program coordinator, despite being employed consistently over that time, despite being published, presenting, and finding success in my work, I’m still find myself terrified of the fact that ‘they’re going to find me out’ – that I’m an imposter.
Sound familiar? “Fake it till you make it?” While you flounder in self doubt, the other people around you are the winners, the successful ones, the more sure, the more established, the clearer voice, the sharper image. These, my friends, are the hallmarks of imposter syndrome. You may have met this beast on your travels.
I have read many articles and participated in many PD sessions in my time on how to counteract imposter syndrome. It’s a disease that we definitely need to rid ourselves of. We don’t need people not backing themselves, wondering when the facade will crumble. Indeed, I’ve pondered [and dreamed of] that day when I’ll feel like a ‘real boy’ instead of someone pretending to be an Academic:
But here’s the thing we should also be critical of. Even as we know it today, imposter syndrome usually puts the blame on individuals – and labels those with imposter syndrome as sufferers – without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that are foundational to how it manifests in particular populations.
The answer is not – and cannot – be merely to tell people to “BE MORE CONFIDENT!”
It doesn’t work that way.
If we are to apply a sociological lens on this space, we aim to make private troubles into public issues. At first glance, we are tempted to pathologise ourselves into ‘low self esteem’ and inferiority complexes – but why is it that so many people feel like we’re going to be discovered at any second to be a fake? Indeed, research studies have found that up to 82% of individuals experience this phenomenon (Bravata et al, 2020). This reminds us that we’re not the only ones – most everyone feels it at some point in their lives. But more importantly, It is useful to ask ourselves, what is it about the system of work across so many labour markets and fields, that creates contexts in which it is common, usual, and expected for people to feel this way? We need to move from fixing people into fixing places and contexts that people occupy.
In other words,
If we’re all feeling it, it can’t all just be us who are the problem.
There are insights – and things of importance – in the fact that people of colour, of diverse ability, of an (often non-male) gender are far more likely to experience imposter syndrome than people who reflect characteristics and identities of a normative, hegemonic, successful person (Yue, 2021).
Discrimination and systematic bias towards women, towards race, towards [dis]abilities are responsible for implicitly championing one way of ‘being’ in a professional, public space over others. The further you are from that normative understanding of what it means to be a professional, a ‘grown’ up in your field of practice, the greater is your chance of feeling like a fraud. And this is despite your intelligence, despite your capability, despite your often proven track record of achievement. Indeed, even if you are successful, wins are often interpreted as further signs that you need to keep up the pretence and persona of [insert successful person here], working even harder to sure-up your reputation. As Breeze (2018) writes, “imposter syndrome implies underlying feelings of inadequacy and deficiency, but also conveys a particular felt-as inauthentic or fraudulent relationship to indicators of belonging and achievement”.
Even when you’re good, you don’t let yourself believe it.
So we must ask, we must challenge, we must unpack harmful, normative narratives that dictate what a ‘successful’ employee, professional, creator or worker – heck, even human, looks in particular contexts.
Here’s Breeze again:
A sociological response to imposter syndrome involves a collective and cultural shift away from stories and discourse that create fear in response to difference. Many people have begun the work here – I encourage you to engage in Maddie Breeze’s excellent work as one example. Breeze points not only to the sociological forces that shape contexts – and create environments that necessitate the need to ‘fake it till you make it’, but goes further to suggest that these points of friction can act as a resource for response, for collective change – that success might look like:
“Failing to meet (some of the) established – and patriarchal, colonial, classed – definitions of [academic – but insert your own vocational pursuit here] excellence. Failing (inevitability) to live up to standards that are impossible to meet and doing so strategically, collectively, and publicly, offers one way of critiquing, and rejecting, institutional conditions of competitive audit cultures and compulsory self-promotion.Breeze, 2018
There is an alternative to keeping up with the Jones’, or the Kardashians, or [insert the person in your field that you
are envious of look up to]*. The social context we operate in has a significant impact on the story of success – that you weave.
But again – perhaps there is an additional help or framing we can add to the mix.
Howard Sercombe’s article “Ethical foundations of youth work as an international profession” (2018), spends time exploring what the definition of a professional actually is. In doing so, he offers an incredible tool to help free those of us ‘sufferers’ of the imposter syndrome – without a single hint of “being more confident” as a solution.
Sercombe asks the reader what are the identifying characteristics of a profession: Is it training, a professional association, or recognition in law? He proposes that this question is problematic because we are defining it by an attribute or external factor, rather than the central core or internal logic of a profession. Sercombe then argues the answer is in the name:
In other words, professionals are those who profess a vow, a pledge, a commitment to serve some sort of constituency, typically people in some state of vulnerability. Professionals have a particular focus on service. Thus a profession is essentially a moral position, with an ethical commitment to serve.
What is the ramification of this vow?
A profession is defined not be a set of practices, but by a relationship.
“A professional is not a state or a status. It is a relational term, like a parent or partner. As a parent must have a child, so there must also be, for a professional, a client” (Sercombe 2018).
So. An alternative is to define success as a professional – success in our chosen vocation – as the healthy relationship between us and those that we serve; our students, our clients, our patients, our children.
If we continue to view success – or our own status – as a static, fixed entity – this is where we feel like inadequate imposters. We can idolise and pedastolise – not a word but i’m going with it – our job – and ourselves in that job/status/role- when we’re missing the whole point.
Let me draw upon Matthew Jacoby’s work here on the integral aspect of relationships to help make sense of this.
I have said that desire was made for relationship. It is therefore of such a nature as to never be satisfied with any static goal…If, however, we detach ourselves from our relationships, if we disconnect from God and begin to objectify other people, we will lack this sense of renewal and will inevitably try to create this sense of newness by renewing the externals of our lives.Jacoby, 2013
Jacoby here is referring to the superstition of materialism, how we look to external factors and objects to fulfil what is in essence, a relational lack in our lives. His point about the failing of a relationship remains relevant here; the dangers of detaching ourselves from relationships, and here is the kicker, the danger of objectifying other people [and ourselves], has significant consequences.
So my question is, when we feel like imposters, perhaps what we’re actually doing is objectifying ourselves in the roles that we occupy.
Perhaps most of our problems lie in the way that we objectify – that is, make into an object – or in other words,
Box in, stagnate, sign off, fix into place,
things that are ONLY life giving in a relational, living, breathing framework.
One that contains growth, nuance, grace, joy, pain and hospitably.
for example –
our “place in the world”.
In our need to feel like a ‘real boy’, amongst the pain and fear of imposter syndrome, perhaps what we are doing is assuming that success is a fixed entity, separate from the actual reality – which is that we all work in (and can’t escape from) a relationship to those that we serve.
So. What would it look like to recognise – and champion
a relationship with and in these things rather than reduce them to outcomes achieved – or perhaps more importantly, not achieved?
A relational framework takes the focus off whether i’m measuring up to a ‘real’ [insert role here], but then asks better questions about the quality of relationship that you have with those you foster while in that context. Is there meaning? Is there appreciation? Is there shared ideas? Creativity? Generosity? Grace? Peace? Time? Forgiveness? Growth? Joy?
A relational framework of my work/contribution reminds me that a relationship [with my own role/self] is dynamic and imperfect- allowing space for doubt, hesitation and vulnerability, residing alongside all the shiny parts of our identity.
A relational framework also gives us freedom to ask – and change – the sociological forces and contexts where those relationship qualities are lacking or indeed, squashed.
You’re not weak if you feel like an imposter.
It’s a cry for authenticity and relationship.
Lean in. Question. Be curious. Let me know what you find out.
*or in my case, Roger Federer. I’m the farthest thing away from a tennis player, but I’ve always been intimidated by the fact that someone my age is so successful, so seemingly nice, and somehow has two sets of girl and boy twins? I mean, come on. But I digress.
- Bravata, D. M., Watts, S. A., Keefer, A. L., Madhusudhan, D. K., Taylor, K. T., Clark, D. M., Nelson, R. S., Cokley, K. O., & Hagg, H. K. (2020). Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. Journal of general internal medicine, 35(4), 1252–1275. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-019-05364-1
- Breeze, E. (2018). Imposter Syndrome as a Public Feeling. In Yvette Taylor & Kinneret Lahad (eds) Feeling Academic in the Neoliberal University: Feminist Flights, Fights and Failures (pp.191-219). Palgrave, Switzerland.
- Jacoby, M. (2013). Deeper Places: Experiencing God in the Psalms. Grand Rapids, Baker Books.
- Sercombe, H. (2018). The Ethical Foundations of Youth Work as an International Profession. In Pam Alldred, Fin Cullen, Kathy Edwards, Dana Fusco (eds) The SAGE Handbook of Youth Work Practice (pp. 470-483). SAGE Publications Ltd. https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781526416438
- Yue, Zhang (2021). A Sociological Take on Imposter Syndrome. NUS Sociology Society. Retrieved November 8 from https://www.nussocisoc.org/post/a-sociological-take-on-imposter-syndrome