Anyone who knows of my work knows that I have some considerable experience researching and educating on the imposter phenomenon. People often ask me why I call it that and put simply, it’s because that’s what it is called.
It’s not a syndrome, despite the fact that most people will know the experience of ‘feeling like a phoney’ as ‘imposter syndrome’ thanks to social and popular media, but it’s just not the case. And so, this brings me to an article which appeared in The Guardian today which backs up much of what I’ve been saying for years but is also not entirely correct on some matters. So, let’s unpack some of the myths surrounding what has commonly, but erroneously, been termed ‘imposter syndrome’.
Myth number one – It’s a syndrome.
It’s not a syndrome. Get that?? Stop calling it a syndrome. It’s not a syndrome. Did I make my point? It’s not a bloody syndrome!! So STOP CALLING IT A SYNDROME!!!
The original work by Clance and Imes in the 1970s called it a phenomenon for a reason. It’s a set of experiences that can be highly contextual. It is not a mental health condition, it is not necessarily a constant experience and it is not a personality trait.
Myth number two – Only women will experience this.
Wrong. The jury is still out as to how much of the research is inconclusive on the relative gender split, but this is probably because it’s contextual. Having said that, men and women are subject to different social structures, expectations and they will face different barriers or advantages and so the response to success, achievement, praise and failure will be different. This is subject is extremely complex, but the fact remains that both men and women can experience the imposter phenomenon.
Myth number three – It’s personal and exists only within the heads of those experiencing it.
No. No. No. No and no. The antecedents and consequences of the imposter phenomenon are far-reaching beyond the individual. As Nathaly Olah suggests, much of what underpins the experience is social learning and that’s firmly fixed within class, notions of gender, perceptions of race and other intersectionalities of ‘otherness’. It can be connected to social concerns such as the under-representation of certain groups in boardrooms, in our governments and other institutions such as universities.
Myth number four – everyone gets it.
Not they don’t. What most people will experience is self-doubt and that’s a different thing altogether. Self- doubt is normal and probably quite useful. Imposter Phenomenon is neither of those things.
Myth number five – it’s a mental health condition.
No, it’s not. It is associated with anxiety, depression, burnout and persistent low mood – but it’s not a mental health condition in and of itself.
Myth number six – You have it or you don’t.
Nope. Wrong again. Imposter Phenomenon exists on a continuum. Some people will only experience it in certain circumstances and others will experience it every day. t can be shrugged off by some and can be debilitating for others.
So, The Guardian article is correct on some points, it can be associated with social learning and structures that are related to class, but that’s not the whole story and to suggest that it is, is diminishing the impact that this very real phenomenon has on multiple people.
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