Why Do We Continue to Normalize 'Imposter Syndrome'?
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
Originally published on my former blog on April 18, 2017
"If you do not feel like an imposter in graduate school, you probably are one."
When I first got to graduate school I heard this adage used to assuage myself and other beginning graduate students on a regular basis. Why is it that so many of us enter graduate school and immediately feel inadequate, unprofessional, and laughable as a scholar? Here are several sentiments that I have heard over the years that all point back to feeling like an "imposter":
How did they let me into this graduate program?
I will write a seminar paper that will have gaping holes which demonstrates my serious lack of research and and the professor will kick me out of graduate school forever
I will give a paper on a topic of my interest at a conference and everyone will know I am a fraud
I will submit an article and receive feedback that determines the limits of my knowledge on a topic of my interest
I will teach courses on composition, language, or a survey in my field and I will be metaphorically failing my students because I do not know the material of my interest
If I have a conversation with my advisor they will know that I am ignorant, lazy, and treading water
My colleagues seem like they have everything on lockdown. When I compare myself to my colleagues I realize I must be behind and doing things wrong
I have felt and thought all of these things on many occasions and continue to feel and think them regularly. And these ugly feelings toward myself do not necessarily come during a "dark time" but are rather routine. Our graduate communities and academia writ large normalize the process of feeling like an imposter - if we do not feel this way, we probably are one. What a subtle and traumatizing threat.
Why Do We Continue to Normalize 'Imposter Syndrome'?
The problem here is that in this measurement not feeling like an imposter means being confident in one's work, being open to conversation, being ready to hear feedback and critique, being willing to push back and defend one's ideas, taking risks, seeing opportunities to learn and explore the limits and lack that we all feel propel us into new territories. If you are confident in your work, you "are the imposter" ... how does this work? So in order to not be an imposter, one has to feign ignorance, self-hate, and under-confidence. I am constantly horrified by the gross pressure of performing "imposter" as a scholar. There is so much lost when young scholars walk the halls and pass each other, firmly holding onto the idea that they will be exposed to their many intersecting communities as a fraud.
The very fact that the concept of "imposter" is tied to medicalized language of "syndrome" is troubling. This suggests that being an imposter is something that is broken and needs fixing, or is so beyond repair that being an imposter means having no worth. In many ways, feelings of being an imposter are linked to feeling valueless, and without permission to think and write the ideas that one has. In order to achieve, one has to perform imposter while holding onto the possibility that one is not an imposter at all.
Conversely, we might consider that some of our peers have all their shit together because they are not having a visible, public breakdown. There is, of course, a wide range of methods by which we all manage the stress of our schedules. The issue here is that there is no space to have these conversations in our academic communities because of the implicit suggestion that we are all imposters and not showing it or that we are the only imposter among academic gods and need to play it cool. Both models fail to address the labor of performing the sliding scale between imposter ("We all feel like imposters") and non-imposter ("If you do not feel like an imposter...you probably are one"). The added suggestion is that if things are going well, you are probably playing an Icarian trick.
Apparently the etymology of imposter is a bit trying. It is closely linked to and often confused with the word imposture meaning to deceive or give off feigned appearances (OED). These words look back to the Latin participle stem of imponere variously meaning to impose, put upon, establish, inflict - this is where we get the word impose. To be an imposter then is to be an imposition in the seminar space, on one's colleagues, to one's advisor, in one's field, in the academy. It is no wonder that imposter syndrome is overwhelmingly experienced by women, people of color, disabled, queer and gender nonconforming folks in the academy; voices and bodies already suggested to be an imposition to society writ large.
As imposters are we failing ourselves or our field?
Failure is, of course, a means to success, and colleagues in my field have addressed this very issue. One of my advisors recently sent along an article by Viet Thanh Nguyen, "In Praise of Doubt and Uselessness," which addresses the benefits of ignorance over knowledge, or perhaps we might say moments of unknowing. Nguyen writes,
Ignorance is beneficial when we are aware of it. In my case, to paraphrase a former secretary of Defense, I knew what I did not know, and I knew that I wanted to know it, but I did not know how to know it. I knew that I wanted to write fiction, and I knew that I wanted to produce innovative scholarship, but I did not know how to do either of those things. I also knew that universities did not reward ignorance, or the confession of ignorance, and so I kept my ignorance to myself and pretended that I knew what I was doing.
That our institutions do not reward unknowing or the admission of such, young scholars must work to over-perform knowledge, the value of that knowledge, and that the accretion of one's knowledge only ever benefits oneself. This is what makes imposter syndrome so ghastly. The spirit of the imposter believes that the entire world is a series of encounters with unknowable things. And yet, isn't this what we look for in our colleagues? People who desire to learn from the world and concede to its total unknowingness?
So how are we to toss those feelings of inadequacy and fraud without seeming like arrogant, elitist assholes? It is disheartening that having confidence in one's work is equated with conceit, or that taking intellectual risks shows artless naiveté. In my experience, moments of radical vulnerability between myself and my colleagues has offered space to address this very issue. It is at once affirming and tragic to hear esteemed colleagues and professors confirm their own sense of imposter syndrome, and yet I do not think the bottom line should ever be "we all experience this in some way." Why should we feel like imposters in our chosen careers? Might we instead try out being a total imposition? Let's impose ourselves onto our fields of study, foist our DIY ideas into articles and blogs, and be a troubling, loud burden to a system that reaps its reward in our silent, self-loathing misery.