Like burnout, imposter syndrome is both a mental health diagnosis and a cultural lodestone, a concept that has been metabolized into our culture, and which has evolved through both direct experience and discussion. When they introduced the “imposter phenomena” in their 1978 paper, Drs. Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes noted that many women who suffered from it kept their suspicions to themselves—that is, the fact that they thought of themselves as imposters was a closely guarded secret. But in the decades since, the concept has been mainstreamed, and it’s now common to remark upon one’s own struggles with imposter syndrome, or even to note it (sometimes problematically) in others. That acceptance has, I think, changed some of the ways we think about and navigate the syndrome, and opens up opportunities for us to change our range of responses to it as well.
In particular, I think it might be useful to adapt our language about imposter syndrome, in order to expand the scope of interventions we have to address it. Relatedly, the linguistic shift from talking about “minorities” to talking about people who have been minoritized moves the focal point of the conversation from a description of a disadvantaged people to an assessment of the systems and structures that work to reduce their freedom and wealth. Put another way, the shift from the noun (“minority”) to the verb (“minoritize”) opens up awareness of the actions that create those conditions, rather than merely highlighting the conditions themselves. Likewise, I’ve started to think less about imposter syndrome (a description of a person’s experience with it) and more about being impostered (a framing that draws attention to the systems and structures that lead people to believe they are imposters). While the former framing remains useful in many contexts, the latter creates space to consider not only the symptoms but the root cause of the phenomena.
As I look back at my own experiences with imposter syndrome using this lens, I can see some patterns: I felt impostered most acutely in environments where I had little support or validation, where I was the only woman (or nearly the only one), and where my own natural inclinations towards confidence and self-assurance were seen as illegitimate, given my gender. There was—and still are—ways for me to interpret those situations in ways that don’t trigger imposter syndrome, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed quite a bit of skill and facility in doing so. But asking people who suffer from imposter syndrome to bear the brunt of defeating it is like asking immunocompromised people to bear the burden of protecting themselves while everyone around them refuses to wear masks or get vaccinated. It’s not right, and it’s not sustainable.
For me, the shift from imposter syndrome to being impostered helps me ask more useful questions—questions like: which structures, behaviors, or cultural attributes trigger the sense of being an imposter, whether in myself or others? What other effects might be a consequence of those structures? And how might we interrupt them, or replace them with something else? For example, a culture where women and nonbinary folk are routinely assumed to have less technical ability than their male peers is both one in which imposter syndrome is likely and one in which the organization may be losing out on critical perspectives. An interruption to that system may involve creating more regular and robust feedback loops to identify and address that behavior when it happens, or setting some intentional practices about including a variety of perspectives in meetings or decision-making processes.
In their paper, Drs. Clance and Imes noted several effective treatments, chief among them group therapy settings where women talked openly about their experiences with feeling like an imposter. Hearing other women—themselves obviously highly accomplished—speak to those feelings helped many women release their hold on the same unreasonable stories. Decades later, I’ve still heard coaching and supportive management prescribed as antidotes to imposter syndrome—a stance that I unequivocally support. But neither coaching nor good management need limit themselves to crafting individual responses to individual problems; they can and should take a more holistic stance, one that considers how to build systems and structures that refrain from perpetuating imposter syndrome in the first place. The root of imposter syndrome is a culture that devalues women (and Black people, and trans people, and disabled people, among others), that discounts their expertise, that makes unsupported and often unreflected-upon claims about what smart, successful people look like. Let’s not lose sight of that part of the fight.