When you’re growing up, you progressively get more confident in your ability to do difficult things: read a harder book, play a tougher sport, or join the conversation at the grown-ups’ table.
But anyone who’s been a teenager knows that learning and confidence curves are not linear—nor do they always run in parallel. In fact, for many people, the more you progress, the more you start to question your achievements.
“Is it really because I’m talented? Or is it just luck, over-preparation, or even privilege?”
I remember feeling some of those early tinglings of self-doubt when I first got to The Lawrenceville School, an elite boarding school where it felt like everybody was somebody. I didn’t necessarily question whether I belonged, but I definitely felt intimidated by the atmosphere and the accomplishments of all of my classmates. It felt like everyone was always one step ahead of me, which led to a lot of self-questioning at night while living away from home at the age of 15.
When I went to Yale, I encountered a variation on this theme. I always had this thought that people perceived me as a basketball player first and a student second—which was not the way I had always thought of myself.
I soon started my first job at Goldman Sachs, where I again felt out of place, both as one of the few Black employees and because I had no finance background. While I majored in political science—which ended up being somewhat applicable to my job buying and selling currencies—I definitely didn’t possess the same skills as many of my colleagues. Most of them were Excel wizards who had been groomed for this job by their parents and schools for years.
I could keep going, but given how ubiquitous the concept of “imposter syndrome” is, I bet I don’t need to. I’m sure many people will recognize these perceptions of inadequacy and self-doubt. They are the classic symptoms of imposter syndrome—which we have all heard endlessly about in business and pop psychology.
Since the late 1970s, when two psychologists first coined the term, people have been talking about how to identify and overcome it. Originally, “imposter phenomenon” focused on a set of behaviors and beliefs in “high-achieving” women, though it has since come to be studied more broadly across people of all identities and backgrounds.
People who suffer from imposter syndrome constantly question their ability and self-worth, even when irrefutable proof points to their accomplishments, talents, and qualifications. This can lead to anxiety and depression, making it harder for people to perform at school, work, or in social situations. It operates silently, too—most people who experience imposter syndrome never speak about it, precisely because they’re worried about getting “caught out” as phony, fraudulent, or disingenuous.
In the short term, imposter syndrome kills creativity and innovation. In the long term, it can hamstring productivity and toxify culture. It keeps people silent when they have ideas to share. It cripples employees from getting work done. It alienates people who are forced to endure unconscious bias and systemic racism at work and school.
Imposter syndrome is not the same thing as what we might call “healthy nervousness,” which underlies performance in any field. Acknowledging that you don’t know how to solve a problem or approach an unfamiliar challenge is a crucial form of self-awareness necessary for success. However, believing you were only able to succeed because you “got lucky” or “fooled them” is a reflection of much deeper insecurity.
There is also a difference, as the organizational psychologist Adam Grant puts it, between self-doubt and idea doubt. Skepticism and constructive criticism are extremely valuable traits, especially in creative or innovative processes. But there’s a big difference between people who see an early idea and say, “It’s just the first pass, I can make it better” and people who think, “This idea is terrible, because I’m terrible.” The latter is a classic corollary of imposter syndrome.
To understand and address imposter syndrome, we’ve got to speak openly about it, understand its underlying causes, and share strategies for mitigating its negative effects.
IMPOSTER SYNDROME: CULTURAL VS. INDIVIDUAL FACTORS
The original coiners of “imposter phenomenon,” Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, drew a tight link between it and their subjects’ early family lives. They noticed that high-achieving women suffering from the phenomenon frequently came from families in which self-worth was equated with success and achievement (and in particular, “effortless” achievement). Once these bright women got out into the real world and discovered that achievement doesn’t always come easy, they would conclude something was wrong with them.
That first study conditioned how we’ve talked about imposter syndrome for the past five decades. First, by focusing on “high-achieving women,” the study helped pathologize women’s feelings of alienation and exclusion as an internal disorder. This led to the development of a mini industry that has thrived on telling women that they feel like frauds because of some fundamental crisis of identity or intellect. This little industry also guarantees that their condition is “fixable,” if only women commit to the programs, seminars, books, podcasts, and workshops designed to eradicate their supposedly innate deficiencies.
Perhaps because they’re both psychologists, these conclusions always tend to revolve around personal growth and development. But as two brilliant DEI thinkers have recently pointed out, this is only one way of looking at the issue. In one of the most read articles on HBR.com, Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi Ann Burey argue that the originators of the “imposter phenomenon” fail to incorporate the impact of historical legacies and cultural contexts. As a result, imposter syndrome is seen as the fault of the individual, rather than a symptom of the toxic, exclusionary environments in which women and people of color often find themselves succeeding.
But the people who study the inner workings of imposter syndrome don’t focus on gender or race. They focus on personality type. One author and researcher, Dr. Valerie Young, has boiled it down to five essential types of imposter: the perfectionist, the expert, the soloist, the natural genius, and the superhuman.
All of these types hold themselves to impossible standards in different ways and use different strategies to explain their high performance level. The perfectionist can’t accept anything but the best, and sees anything but as lesser than; the expert has to know everything before they do something, which is by definition impossible; the natural genius who’s always been told how bright they are can’t cope when achievements don’t come effortlessly. And so on and so forth.
There are some commonalities between these variations. They all hold themselves to impossibly difficult standards. They all have trouble recognizing their accomplishments as such. And because they believe they can only succeed by putting enormous pressure on themselves, they’re typically caught in vicious cycles of self-torture and high achievement.
But none of these observations or explanations accounts for the impact of the cultural factors mentioned above. Imposter syndrome is experienced individually, but that doesn’t mean it’s rooted in individual fault. When we look at groups typically associated with imposter syndrome, like women and people of color, we have to reckon with the fact that the environments we succeed in were not originally designed for us.
That historical and sociological reality doesn’t show up in much of the pop psychology surrounding imposter syndrome—probably because it’s not as lucrative. But understanding it and addressing it is the only way we can start building environments that don’t make people feel fundamentally alienated from their identities and their abilities.
IMPOSTER SYNDROME IS A COLLECTIVE BURDEN
Placing the blame on individuals has allowed workplace and school environments to ignore the influence of unconscious bias, systemic racism, and discrimination in enabling imposter syndrome. It distracts us from the difficulty of designing equitable solutions by turning imposter syndrome into pop psychology and a marketing ploy.
One environment where imposter syndrome plays out silently, and therefore most perniciously, is in schools. Students of color are at particular risk for feeling inadequate or unaccomplished because they’re often forced to leave parts of their identities at home. I’ve written about “culture-coding” and code-switching before, acknowledging that it can evolve into a strength. But at younger ages, many students from diverse backgrounds learn that bringing their whole, authentic selves to school is dangerous.
Dena Simmons, an educator and racial equity advocate, believes that this is in part the reason educational outcomes differ racially. It’s obviously not because of any fundamental difference in natural talent or ability, which means cultural and other external factors must play a role.
Simmons is, by her own admission, susceptible to imposter syndrome, even though she studied at the finest institutions in the country and worked at them in key roles as an educator. But as she explains in her TED talk, imposter syndrome is learned at a young age.
Originally from the Bronx, Simmons transferred to a prestigious boarding school in Connecticut as a young teenager. None of her teachers looked like her, and many of them corrected her publicly when she pronounced certain words in her Bronx accent. Marked out as different so obviously and painfully, her imposter syndrome easily took root.
But even when she went to Columbia and Yale, and proved the extent of her own abilities, she couldn’t stop questioning herself. She’d agonize over how to wear her hair or how to dress. She’d explain her success to herself as tokenism. Or even worse, she’d be forced by her teachers and colleagues into a new category that cut her off from her origins by identifying her as an “exceptional” woman of color. An anomaly.
According to Simmons, these feelings can’t simply be traced to her own insecurities (and when you hear her speak, insecurity is the last word you’d use to describe her). There are systemic explanations for them as well.
Students of color are expelled and suspended at 3 times the rate of white students, and they are punished more harshly for the same infractions. While 45% of our nation’s students come from diverse backgrounds, but only 17% of our pre-K through high school teachers are people of color. As Simmons concludes, the result is that students from non-white backgrounds are frequently not allowed to see themselves as successful from the start. They also don’t see themselves reflected in any given curriculum, or the instructors who guide them through it.
These are systemic issues that reflect our nation’s history of restricting equitable access to education, as well as the more macro-cultural narrative that decentralizes people of color—despite our growing majority.
I’ve dwelled on these examples in education because they show exactly what Tulshyan and Burey argue in the HBR article cited above. While their focus is on women in the workplace, and the bias and systemic racism that enable imposter syndrome in that setting, their conclusions hold true elsewhere.
As they and other inclusion practitioners note, “the answer to overcoming imposter syndrome is not to fix individuals.” The answer is to foster social, working, and educational environments in which a variety of leadership and achievement styles are accepted. If the dominant, white, American/Eurocentric, masculine, and heteronormative model of success is the only acceptable one, then we will continue to create throngs of employee- and student-imposters.
If, on the other hand, we accept that different racial, ethnic, gender, and cultural identities are not only valid and tolerable, but also acceptable, professional, and desirable, then we can start to weaken the biases, misogyny, racism, and homophobia that still permeate our society. It sounds simple, but it has taken us decades just to agree on these ideas, let alone put them into practice.
Imposter syndrome is an incredibly tough enemy to fight on our own. It operates stealthily, it targets us one by one, and it keeps us all in vicious cycles of self-punishment and delusion. It’s a kind of poison that we have learned to subsist on. But we cannot blame individuals for experiencing or perpetuating it.
Instead, we need to recognize that imposter syndrome is our collective responsibility to address. All children deserve a psychologically safe environment to learn in. And though it’s sometimes harder for us to accept, all adults deserve an equally safe environment to work and be themselves in.
Creating those kinds of inclusive environments starts with some very difficult self-examination at a collective, institutional level. But it’s the only way to ensure we make it harder and harder for anyone to feel like they’re constantly deluding themselves and the world around them.
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James Dyson believes his biggest successes were born from failures