Imposter Syndrome Haunts Individuals at All Levels
I was sitting at a conference table with fifteen other interns—most of us women—when it struck me how odd it was that only three male interns had spoken aloud in the last forty-five minutes. A corporate high-up, stopping by for an intern meet-and-greet, was asking us questions. I didn’t dare to speak up; I didn’t know the answers to his questions. But as I listened to my male colleagues raise their hands and answer time and time again, it began to dawn on me that they didn’t know the answers, either.
Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes introduced the idea of the “imposter syndrome” in their 1978 study. It explains how even the most high-achieving women feel career anxiety around being outed as “frauds.” The idea that success is a factor of luck, not talent, seems to haunt women at all levels.
The imposter syndrome makes you feel that you shouldn’t speak up about politics—even if you read the paper, you don’t read it often enough to hold your own in the conversation. Or that you shouldn’t join that book club—you’re not literary-minded enough to pull out deeper themes.
Through global programs, the World Literacy Foundation uses the power of literacy and education to help individuals recognize their potential and seize their opportunities for success. Yet Clance and Imes raise a frightening point: what happens when women do not believe that they’ve learned or read enough to rightfully take their spot at the table?
Of course, it is not only women who experience imposter syndrome. A 2013 study took an intersectional approach to study the imposter syndrome—discovering the ways in which minority status plays a significant part in that “I’m not really supposed to be here” feeling. It goes beyond insecurities or self-consciousness—or even justified frustration over discriminatory practices or workplace prejudice. It’s the fully internalized belief that you might not be good enough for the position you’ve found yourself in.
So, where does that leave us? How can we convince ourselves that we’ve read enough, we’ve learned enough, and we know enough to speak up and take ownership of our
successes? When I first really listened to my male colleagues answering our CFO’s questions, however, I began to think there might be another way.
What if we’re all imposters? You might not know everything about a given subject, but what if the person across from you doesn’t either? You might feel that a conversation is going way over your head, while the person speaking is worried that their communication skills are subpar.
No one has read every book or studied every subject. I’m trying every day to recognize that the people around me, even the CFOs of the world, are as imperfect as I am. And when I find myself with a true subject matter expert, I remind myself that it is okay to be wrong in front of them—all I’m doing is giving myself an opportunity to be corrected and learn. Perhaps one day they’ll ask me about one of my interests and we’ll find our roles reversed. If an imposter is someone who still has more to learn, then this is a world of imposters I’m happy to be in.