If you are a woman working to unlearn patterns of low self worth (or: every woman I have ever met), you have most likely experienced the phenomenon of imposter syndrome, defined in 1978 by American psychologists Drs Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes and first observed in high-achieving female college students who were “unable to internalize a sense of themselves as competent and talented” and reported feelings of “being an imposter or a fake.”
Though not exclusive to women, the imposter experience is statistically more common in women, though curiously a significant portion of the advice on how to overcome it comes from men.
The internet has plenty of ideas on what we should be doing about it — confiding in others that suffer from it, making lists of our accomplishments, and nonjudgmentally noticing and even attempting to befriend the voice in our heads that fixates on our fraudulence.
Imposter syndrome is a real experience accompanied by its also very real and often debilitating sister patterns of doubt, unworthiness and perfectionism.Yet what I’ve noticed in talking to hundreds of women about their experiences is that the mountains of resources on the topic and endless Instagram posts about “believing in yourself” are not actually reducing imposter syndrome’s prevalence.
For much of my adult life, I have felt an urge to look over my shoulder in anticipation of the person I’m convinced is about to break through the door, handcuff me, tell me that the jig is up and take me to the jail where they take the bad, bold women.
“I want to eradicate Imposter Syndrome,” I once wrote in a journal, only to be met immediately by the voice in my head’s favorite response to every brave idea I have ever had: “Who do you think you are?”
Like so many of the women I know, I recognize that this voice that wants to keep me small is unhelpful, and, ostensibly, a lie. Like so many of the women I know, I have read a plethora of books and spent countless hours (and dollars) in therapy and coaching seminars and meditations working to unblock my limiting beliefs and cultivate compassion for the voice that convinces me I will never, ever be worth it.
So why isn’t it working?
The Origin (maybe it’s not you).
A talk I once viewed on the topic identifies those of us who experience imposter syndrome as people who have “just gotten it into our heads” that we are unworthy of our success. If it’s true that we just got it into our heads, there must be a way to get it out of them — yes?
When women talk honestly about their imposter experience, they speak about it like a mysterious plague that somehow also happens to be their fault:
“It’s really killing me...if only I could figure out how to stop getting in my own way.”
“I want to go for that__________ (insert big opportunity that they are entirely ready and right for) but I just need to work on feeling like I deserve it first.”
“I know women are supposed to feel powerful right now, but I still feel so unworthy. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
I flash to my own mother reminding me that “we just have inner demons,” and “it’s who we’ll always be, I’m afraid.”
But is it actually who we are? Why does the voice in my head sound eerily similar to a misogynist perspective? Are we really people who are inherently wrong and undeserving of what we want, or do we feel that way because we live in a culture dependent upon our feelings of inadequacy?
Our women ancestors were violently persecuted for daring to use their voices. We’ve been taught for centuries that the brilliance and contributions of women are less valuable than the brilliance and contributions of men so of course we feel like frauds when we are trying to do anything big, bold, or visible.
What if the plague of woman’s unworthiness belongs not to the woman, but to the culture that produced her? We can no longer talk about imposter syndrome, self-doubt, and unworthiness in women and other marginalized identities without acknowledging the culture and context from which it was produced.
Though Clane and Imes’ original research highlight the origins of imposter syndrome — citing “societal” and “sex-role” stereotypes as causes — many of the present-day conversations omit this crucial piece of context.
Scientist, artist and advocate Christine Liu observes that “treating imposter syndrome as if it blossoms only in the recesses of the mind, we absolve ourselves of addressing the sexism, racism, and culture of overwork that may be causing the imposter experience. Imposter syndrome is not necessarily a disease of the mind, but perhaps a disease of the system.”
Let’s be clear that exploring imposter syndrome as a disease of the system is not the same as playing the victim or exonerating ourselves from personal responsibility. And, yes, of course, our fearful voices in our heads are not just the Patriarchy talking, but realizing that the mysterious demons we have battled for years might have something to do with internalized beliefs from our culture rather than something wrong with us could be the most effective cure yet. Context will not solve everything, but it can be the turning point in a healing process.
The Break Up (That’s Actually a Reunion).
Certain theories of transformation suggest we have to “break up” with who we’ve been to become who we want to be. However, the more I delve into the origins of our collective limiting beliefs around worth, deserving, and legitimacy, I realize the task is not to break up with myself, but to return to her. Instead, we must break up with the culture that kept us apart.
“Who would we be without our imposter syndrome?” I ask a group of women.
“Who I’ve always been.”
The Plan. (Seven Suggestions).
Here are seven new suggestions to deal with — or, dare I say, cancel — imposter syndrome.1. Reframe its presence as the sound of progress.
Most of us are aware of the professional and strategic value of becoming better advocates of our work, taking a stand for our accomplishments, and accepting compliments, but it can be helpful to remember that many of us are the first generation in the history of our families and cultures to do so (just think how regularly you heard your Grandmother or a female relative deflect compliments or downplay her magnificence).
We experience imposter syndrome at moments when we are approaching something bold or growth-inducing. We can learn to label our fear of being a fraud as a sign of progress — a confirmation of our boldness and an indication that we are willing to endure the discomfort that comes with prioritizing our own expansion over society’s limited idea of who we should be.
When we “feel the fraud, and do it anyway,” we can take solace in knowing that we are rewriting history in real time, and that somewhere there is a young woman who is listening, watching, and taking notes.2. Acknowledge that the imposter syndrome is not you.
It has helped many of the women I work with to identify the in-the-moment experience of imposter syndrome as not actually her, but a cultural phenomenon. I challenge us to stop labeling ourselves as having imposter syndrome and reinforcing an identity that belongs not to us, but to the system engineered to keep us small.
We must continue to talk productively about the truth of our experience. However, to eradicate imposter syndrome and its sister symptoms, we will have to stop talking about them like they are our most special and defining attributes, and, instead, shift the narrative to those actually unique and wildly interesting parts of who we are.
What if we reclaimed the time we spend talking in circles about our imposter syndrome, perfectionism, or low self worth and instead asked each other about our most exciting projects, creative contributions, and what brings us alive?
3. Remind yourself of who you were before the world told you who you weren’t.
Babies and young children do not report feeling like imposters. One of the most effective ways to release this disease of the system is by reconnecting with the original spark of our early passions, courage, and presence.
Put a photo of yourself as a young person somewhere visible so you can remember who you were before the world told you who you were supposed to be.
4. Fall back in love with your creativity.
The opposite of imposter syndrome is not bragging, requiring excessive praise or celebrating oneself at all hours of the day. It’s important to practice talking about our work and receiving recognition, but a more effective antidote to imposter syndrome is consistent creativity and deep, focused work.
This, for many women, is a reclamation of its own, as so many of us were taught that what we have to say, make, or do with our time is less important than responding to the needs of others.
Try turning off your devices and integrating fifteen minutes of non-results oriented creative practice into your daily routine, and notice the effects on your inner dialogue.
When we are in uninterrupted creativity, our worries about being an imposter significantly diminish; it’s nearly impossible to be in flow and in judgment simultaneously.5. Listen for a new voice
There is another voice in our head. I one day stumbled upon a supportive inner voice who I learned was my ultimate champion, apparently waiting for me to find her. I named her the Creator Goddess Warrior Queen, but I encourage you to find yours, (she is in there, I promise), and call her whatever you want.
You can access her guidance with a journaling technique based on Jungian Active Imagination. Write at the top of a piece of paper: “(Name of powerful inner guidance), What do you need me to know?” Then do a free write sourcing her perspective.
She will let you know when your imposter experience is actually a sign that you need to sharpen your skill or engage in deeper preparation, and when it is the lie of the system contaminating your thoughts. Without fail, what she says is true, encouraging, and galvanizing. And, usually, all the advice we need.6. Create your personal board of directors
Make a list of women whose radical support and guidance you would love to receive, and whose guidance you can call on when the imposter experience feels intense and debilitating.
You can take a look at my list here — but I encourage you to be imaginative, calling on anyone living or dead, whom you know or have yet to know to sit at your own highly curated and wildly supportive internal leadership table.7. Feel free to fake it!
We role-play regularly as children, never feeling like a fraud but fully comfortable taking on new and different energies that inspire us. If you are approaching a new area of work or visibility — launching into more of a public role, or sharing your creation with the world — and are feeling the resurgence of the fraud narrative, reframe the experience as an invitation to role-play. New leaps and risks require new energy, so choose or imagine an altar ego that makes you feel potent and powerful, and, like a kid playing pretend or an actor playing a role, channel her energy and notice how free it can feel to play someone other than yourself.
I use Wonder Woman, and my unabashedly confident alter ego from childhood—a savvy lady boss named Sally Kimball.
It’s possible that if you are reading this, at some point, you have avoided making vital contributions to your community because you worry that you are too much, not enough or feel like a fraud. This is the biggest tragedy of all, and why I believe we need to proactively move beyond imposter syndrome instead of putting inspirational bandaids over it. Reclaiming our collective worth is an individual and cultural revolution that requires us to march inside of our hearts as valiantly as we are marching on the streets.
But imagine what’s possible when we do…
Imagine a culture where we no longer feel the need to hide, take a shower, or apologize after talking about our accomplishments.
Imagine a world where sharing our creative contributions is as culturally appropriate as sharing our shortcomings.
Imagine the works we will create, the speeches we will give, the solutions we will birth, and the nations we will lead when we reclaim the energy we have spent battling the imposter experience.
I am determined to build this future. Are you in?