Updated: Oct 20, 2021
I’ve been mulling this piece over for several months but for one reason or another I haven’t been able to quite find the right words. A combination of taking an unplanned hiatus from writing over the summer and then finishing my MA has pushed it down my list of priorities. However, hearing yet another woman indifferently saying she suffers from imposter syndrome, as though it’s an accepted, normal part of the everyday female psyche has finally spurred me into action. Whilst it apparently affects men and women equally, I've never heard a man self-diagnose himself with it. I have, however, heard more women than I care to count talk about it as though it's part and parcel of everyday life.
Everyone experiences self-doubt and insecurity at least part of the time and it’s only natural to occasionally worry that our work isn’t good enough. However, to question or denigrate the validity of our success and to consider ourselves imposters in a space is a concept I absolutely reject. It is nothing but the patriarchy undermining me.
The good thing about imposter syndrome is that, essentially, it means some form of success has been achieved in the first place. It’s worth stating for the record here that I don’t equate success to the salary I earn, the number of Instagram followers I have, the wardrobe I wear, the restaurants I go to or the holidays I go on because guess what - success doesn’t look the same for all people. Success is an unspecified number of shapeshifting, mercurial personal milestones which change and develop along the way.
Condemning or belittling our achievements by feeling like an imposter seems to me to be an offshoot of respectability politics, which is perfectly summed up by Mikki Kendall in Hood Feminism as a way of “controlling group behaviour with designations of appropriate or inappropriate behaviour rooted in structural inequality”. Although Kendall describes it in the context of the Black female experience, it’s applicable in talking about imposter syndrome too. For hundreds of years, success and achievements have been modelled to us predominantly by men and more often than not, from a Western, capitalist mindset. Women’s achievements have traditionally been harder won and unequally recognised or rewarded. Therefore, when we allow ourselves to feel like an imposter, as though we’re impersonating someone else, that imagined other is more than likely someone rooted in a white, male foundation. Even if we’re consciously or unconsciously comparing ourselves to other women, it’s probable that that woman’s success is based on white, capitalist notions of achievement.
Whilst the landscape is slowly changing, it’s still very easy to measure our accomplishments against what society dictates they ‘should’ look like and imposter syndrome seems not to allow for a diversity of success. It prescribes a one-size-fits-all vision of achievement, one that doesn’t allow for success beyond the confines of an acceptable norm. But here’s the question – who’s to say what your success should look like and who decides if you’re successful or not? If you’ve accomplished something or you’ve done good work, why should that be diminished because it doesn’t fit within an idealised picture of what it ought to be? Should an entrepreneur wear a business suit and look like Deborah Meaden or Peter Jones? Or can an entrepreneur be a working mum who juggles another job whilst creating something that has true meaning and value? I can think of a bunch of women who are doing exactly that and who I wouldn’t hesitate to call an entrepreneur in a heartbeat. To hear them casually admit they feel like imposters is both depressing and frustrating.
Imposter syndrome may be triggered by issues of confidence and societal expectation and it’s a narrative that’s particularly easy for women to swallow. It feels as though we’ve been prepped for it from birth. Girls are not encouraged to assert themselves, for fear of being seen as bossy; they should not be rowdy or unruly and obedience and good behaviour are rewarded. Girls should not be disruptors or break the rules. It additionally heaps on considerable doses of Victorian modesty and propriety, making women feel some kind of achievement-guilt that should be apologised for or downplayed. Imposter syndrome also feels related to that aggressive, corporate brand of feminism which is littered with ideas along the lines of needing to ‘fight for your place at the table’ and that pitches women against each other, as if only a certain number of women are allowed to succeed at one time (do you smell the unmistakeable whiff of the patriarchy here again?).
All this isn’t to say there’s no room for doubt and self-interrogation. Questions such as “Why am I making this decision? What do I hope to achieve? Have I prepared for this? What does success look like for me?” will all help to serve our agenda and move us forward. However, questions that are founded on ideas of what success should look like, rather than how it actually feels to the individual concerned (e.g, “Does my success look impressive / valid enough for other people?”) are where the problems begin. We need to stop apologising for our achievements and instead have the confidence to step up and own them. We need to model a diversity of success that inspires, supports and creates change for those around us.
The good news is that imposter syndrome can be turned on its head. If you’re feeling uncomfortable with your accomplishments, it’s a sign that you’re a change maker and you’re treading a new path and that in itself is a cause for celebration. We need to unite as women to amplify our achievements and work together to re-define outdated notions of success.
The achievement of personal goals and milestones are things to strive for, to be acknowledged and applauded. Nobody should take our success away from us or make us feel guilty about it. Especially not ourselves.