A February 2023 New Yorker article by Leslie Jamison about the Imposter Complex has been circulating widely. It’s called Not Fooling Anyone: The dubious rise of imposter syndrome (that’s the print version title…the on-line version is called Why Everyone Feels Like They’re Faking It) and it is, in my world, ubiquitous to say the least.
And given I’ve been sent it by just about every person who has ever come across my work, I figured it was time to address it.
After all, the article kind of suggests the Imposter Complex experience is a thing and also NOT a thing.
So, yeah. I have some thoughts.
Overall, I thought it was brilliantly written. It will be super eye-opening for many, and it gave me lots to consider in my own analysis.
In particular, I appreciated:
- the naming of family patterns (not something I’ve spent much time exploring, though birth order has been on my list of things to research);
- the value of Gestalt therapy (and the reclamation of all of our parts);
- the assertion that “the eminent are not immune”;
- the naming of the solipsism that can be part of the experience; and,
- the rampant misdiagnosis/misnaming.
On that last point, here’s a great example:
“Adaira Landry, an emergency-medicine physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, told me about her first day at the U.C.L.A. med school. Landry, a first-generation college student from an African American family, met a fellow first-year student, a man, who was already wearing a white coat, although they hadn’t yet had their white-coat ceremony. His mother was in health care and his sister was in med school, and they’d informed him that if he wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon, which he did, it would be beneficial to start shadowing someone immediately. Landry went home that night feeling dispirited, as if she were already falling behind, and a classmate told her, “Don’t worry, you just have impostor syndrome.”
That’s not it.
“Imposter Phenomenon”, the concept named in 1978 by Clinical Psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, means that we attribute failures to internal flaws and success to external factors that have precious little to do with us (e.g. luck, fluke, timing).
It’s not just about feeling behind. It’s about feeling like we don’t belong IN SPITE of the proof that we do. IN SPITE of the proof of our success.
Landry went on to explain,
“[Clance and Imes] interviewed a set of primarily white women lacking confidence, despite being surrounded by an educational system and workforce that seemed to recognize their excellence,” she told me. “As a Black woman, I was unable to find myself in that paper.”
Being in spaces where one’s competence is underestimated is NOT the same as feeling like your competence has been OVERestimated.
And that is a big BIG distinction.
What I seriously L O V E D about this article was the acknowledgment that whether we appreciate the naming of the experience or the removal of the naming, what sits at the epicentre of the relief is this:
“You are not an impostor. You are enough.”
It’s a fantastic article with lots of food for thought.
But before you head off to read it, I’m going to take this opportunity to clarify what I mean when I talk about navigating the Imposter Complex so we can feel unencumbered to create the kind of impact we’ve been called to create.
Like with everything else written by me (or anyone else, for that matter), my invitation is to remember that:
- Much of this may be #simplenoteasy.
- Context matters.
- And I trust us to hold both/and.
Now, if you are new here, I suspect you will wonder why I say “Imposter Complex” over “Imposter Syndrome”. More in this reel here and in this cornerstone article I wrote here, but bottom-line is this: “syndrome” suggests a clinical diagnosis (this isn’t that), pathologizes this pretty typical human experience, and co-opts a medical term. (This is reinforced several times in the New Yorker article.)
So I say “Complex”.
I want to start by noting that the global self-development industry is worth $41B as of 2021. That is a lot of money invested in making people feel like shit about themselves…and like they need to be fixed. (Think diet industry but for confidence.)
I also want to acknowledge that I work and operate INSIDE of this industry.
And I see how it’s deeply problematic.
I see the gaslighting, the reductiveness, the toxic positivity and the manipulative and often even predatory practices that can run rampant throughout in the race for a slice of that $41B pie.
And of course, I can also see how self-development is deeply transformative, potently wonderful and life-affirming. I wouldn’t be here otherwise. (You’ll have to trust me on that one. Being in this business is not for the faint of heart.)
It’s also worth noting that Imposter Complex is good for business.
The article names this too, through the words of Australian scholar and critic Rebecca Harkins-Cross: “Capitalism needs us all to feel like impostors, because feeling like an impostor ensures we’ll strive for endless progress: work harder, make more money, try to be better than our former selves and the people around us.”
Ding. Ding. Ding.
And given all that, I think it is unhelpful to assign Imposter Syndrome/Imposter Complex to every experience of self–doubt like an Oprah-styled giveaway.
PARTICULARLY to folks who have been overlooked, underestimated and systemically excluded.
ANDDDDDD…when I first started the exploration back in 2012, I confess, I saw it everywhere. I had a bit that I would do about being like the father in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” who could tie every English word back to Greek origins.
But instead of Greek to English, I could tie certain behaviours to the Imposter Complex. The behaviours being people-pleasing, diminishment, perfectionism, procrastination, comparison and leaky boundaries.
All along, I was open and committed to exploring WHAT ELSE was contributing to these behaviours, but I still saw the inextricable link to the Imposter Complex. How they were tactics to avoid feeling like an imposter.
AND that these behaviours in and of themselves were not just avoidance tactics, but potentially ways of staying safe. If anyone reading has been told they don’t belong, committed the sin of outshining or was hypervigilant as a stress response, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Over time, I continued to see that only talking about the experience of imposterhood and NOT talking about what the WHAT ELSE was going on kept the focus on the toxic positivity I abhorred and wasn’t acknowledging the effects of systemic oppression.
The “WHAT ELSE”, of course, being patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy culture.
Y’know…no big deal.
(I was yesterday years old when I learned that “/s” meant “sarcasm” given how written text doesn’t always translate…but I digress.)
My podcast series, Ready Enough with Tanya Geisler aimed to address some of this.
In the intro, I said:
“To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
I’m Tanya Geisler…a pretty seasoned expert at hammering back at the Impostor Complex. For myself, with my clients and with my readers.
But sometimes it’s not a nail. Sometimes it’s microaggressions. Or racism. Or homophobia. Or fat-phobia. Or alcohol. Or anxiety. Or discrimination. Or systemic obstacles by patriarchal structures designed to keep women, women-identified people, women of colour, LGBTQI folks and other marginalized people from climbing to the top.
This is The Ready Enough Podcast with Tanya Geisler. And with my guests, we’ll be discerning when it’s a nail, and when it’s something else. These conversations about the Imposter Complex won’t be perfect, but we’re Ready Enough to have them.”
(FWIW — I don’t talk about marginalized folks any more…I talk about folks being systemically excluded. More accurate.)
Every day, as the idea of the Imposter Complex gains more and more traction in general, the misinformation and misdiagnosis named in the New Yorker article becomes more and more absurd.
The other day, I listened to a podcast that said that Imposter Syndrome makes you lie and swing out with more audacity. Nope. That’s the exact OPPOSITE experience and that’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect (where folks have high confidence and low ability/skill).
Now, at times, the Imposter Complex MAY insist that you “fake it ’til you make it” but as my pod guest Janelle Allen pointed out, that is some super privilege nonsense right there. Like, who GETS to the opportunity to “fake it ’til you make it”?
In our conversation, Allen said:
There’s something that we say in the Black community: of you have to try twice as hard for half the reward. And that’s absolutely real. There’s not always that opportunity to just be good enough. That a lot of people who are not POC particularly, you know, white cisgendered men have this [experience where are just brought on] without having a portfolio or showing any results and it’s just on [their] word that [they’ll] figure this thing out.
“That is why it, it grates at me because it’s just not the reality for many of us. Many of us have the expertise, we have the experience and yet we are constantly questioned at every turn.”
In the same vein, Jamison cites ANOTHER important article I’ve shared in the past:
In “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome,” published in the Harvard Business Review, in February, 2021, Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey argue that the label implies that women are suffering from a crisis of self-confidence and fails to recognize the real obstacles facing professional women, especially women of color — essentially, that it reframes systemic inequality as an individual pathology. As they put it, “Imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.”
Dr. Kevin Cokley, an African-American counseling psychologist whose research and work focuses on folks in the global majority who are navigating predominantly white spaces said this in this important piece:
“Can we say discrimination causes impostorism? No, but we know there’s definitely a link between the two,” he said. “Feeling like an impostor can exacerbate the impact of discrimination. This is what we found with African-American students in our study. I suspect that discrimination can also exacerbate the impact of impostorism.”
And where you have been overlooked, you are more susceptible to the experience.
Did the aforementioned systems create the Imposter Complex?
I’m pretty sure they did.
Do these systems exacerbate the Imposter Complex experience?
Do we need to find ways to navigate the experience so we can speak up enough to dismantle the very systems that created and uphold said experience?
“What if imposter syndrome is a precursor to realizing you are here to disrupt and revolutionize the status quo? What if being an imposter to an oppressive system means you are here to tear it down?” Bunny Michael
Jamison closes the article with this:
“The phenomenon names an unspoken, ongoing crisis arising from the gaps between these various versions of the self, and designates not a syndrome but an inescapable part of being alive.”
And in this crisis, if unattended, we may find ourselves hedging on calling out injustices; stopping from using the privilege we have to stand in the gaps of those who have been systemically excluded; and NOT working to build better, more inclusive tables that serve everyone, not just whiteness.
Listen…I am the very first person to admit that I do not have the silver bullet.
And my explorations and recommendations may be indeed be simple, not easy and MOST definitely not for everyone.
But I do know that narratives need to be rewritten.
If you are clear that you are experiencing the effects of Imposter Complex and you want to — really and truly want to — take the (metaphorical) stage with your message, your vocation, your calling, I’m certain it will be worth every moment of tension.
It will involve you being brave and decisive enough to confront (ALL) the reasons you have stayed out of action (both internal and external factors) and address the resistance that is keeping you from what you say you want and what matters to the collective.
It will require you to look at all you have done, without the red pen of editorializing and discounting the efforts you’ve made and the outcomes you’ve created.
It will demand that you not go this alone. It will mean you will need to divest from the rugged individualism that has been deeply conditioned, that you gather your people, assemble your cast, bring your fans in close and trust in them.
But above all, it will demand that YOU trust in YOU.
Again, simple, not easy.
If you’re ready to get to work on this and want some support, we should talk.