For a variety of reasons, academe can be a particularly difficult place for racial and ethnic minorities, for those from the LGBTQ community, for the economically disadvantaged, for women and for members of other groups that have been oppressed or have not typically enjoyed enhanced privilege in Western society.
Imagine being the only one in a faculty meeting with dark skin or apparently Asian features -- or being the only woman or only non-cisgender person. In such a circumstance, it might be especially difficult not only to feel comfortable and accepted but even to anticipate ever feeling that way in the future.
In fact, you might very easily feel like you simply don’t belong there at all. You might feel like the dubious beneficiary of tokenism -- like someone who has been selected for inclusion not because of their true abilities but to allow the institution to fill in a diversity check box and get the Office of Equal Opportunity off its back. And, consequently, you might feel a more or less constant anxiety about being found out and exposed as someone who isn’t actually fully qualified and doesn’t belong.
We call this feeling impostor syndrome, and in recent years it has emerged as a particular problem among those from underrepresented or oppressed groups. The fact that there is more understanding and discussion of this problem today than in the past is a good thing.
But after attending a recent meeting in which a job candidate from an underrepresented group invoked several times his own experience of impostor syndrome, I would like to offer an additional perspective. I have a small piece of advice that might be particularly helpful to those who find themselves struggling with these feelings.
The advice is: get used to it.
I’m speaking as a cisgender, straight, white male and (not incidentally) as a tenured full professor with 29 years of experience working in academe. In order to get to where I am today, I’ve had to publish books and peer-reviewed journal articles and to serve in positions of leadership in my department, college and professional associations. Notably, at every step of my career, I’ve been required to convince colleagues -- most of whom I admire and consider much smarter and more impressive than I -- to vote in favor of my advancement.
Two main facts about my story would seem to militate against my feeling like an impostor: first, that I’m part of a privileged majority in just about every demographic way, and second, that I can look at my CV and see all kinds of concrete and unfakeable evidence of genuine academic achievement.
And yet I don’t think a single day goes by that I don’t feel a slight frisson of fear that I’m going to be found out -- that my colleagues will discover that I’m essentially lazy, have made few meaningful contributions to my academic discipline and really have no idea what the hell I’m doing, and they will expose me for the pretender I am. Whenever I go up for some form of faculty review, I genuinely half expect the chair of the committee to sit me down, close the door and ask, “How much longer do you think you’re going to be able to get away with this charade?”
In sharing this, I don’t mean to suggest that I’m somehow alone in this feeling. In fact, my point is exactly the opposite. What I hope readers will understand are two things.
- Impostor syndrome is not something that will necessarily go away after a certain amount of time in academe or a certain amount of concrete and documented achievement. While I’m sure it’s not a universal affliction, for at least some of us in academe -- and my guess would be that we are legion -- it’s a more or less permanent condition.
- Impostor syndrome is normal for many, if not most, of us. And just as it never goes away for some of us who are more socially, economically and professionally privileged, it also may never go away for members of historically marginalized or oppressed populations. Here I want to be careful not to give the impression that I don’t have sympathy for those who are less socially and economically privileged than I or that I’m asking for such sympathy from them. My point is only that, while a lack of privilege certainly may contribute to impostor syndrome and might make it harder to shake, the syndrome is not something that you can expect to see disappear even if society’s injustice and oppression are eradicated. I strongly suspect that the roots of impostor syndrome lie as much in general human psychology as in societal oppression.
This is not a message of hopelessness, however. You can manage and deal with impostor syndrome, no matter who you are and whatever your individual circumstances. If you find yourself struggling with it, consider these possible coping strategies.
- Bear in mind that, no matter how much you feel like a fraud, chances are good that someone else in your department feels like an even bigger fraud than you do -- and that person may even be the one you most admire. Think about this from time to time, particularly when you’re feeling down.
- Give yourself permission to fake it. Don’t pretend to have credentials you don’t have, and don’t lie about knowing things you don’t. But don’t let your overall feelings of inadequacy stop you from taking on projects and challenges. Concrete achievement may not eradicate your impostor syndrome completely, but it will help over time.
- Find a trusted confidant or mentor. With that person, in private, share your feelings of “fraudulence.” Do not, however, share those feelings with anyone you do not trust implicitly. Even more important, never share such feelings in an open meeting. If, for some bizarre reason, you choose to publish an essay about your feelings, withhold your name (as I have).
- Compare yourself to others. I realize that this runs counter to most of the self-help advice we are given, but when it comes to impostor syndrome, comparing yourself to your peers can be useful. If you do so honestly and carefully, you will probably discover one of two things: either 1) you genuinely do fall below the standard they set (which is very useful to know, particularly in academe, where your peers hold significant power over your professional future), or 2) you meet or exceed those standards. While discovering the latter may not magically make your feelings of insufficiency and fraudulence go away, regular and self-administered doses of reality do help when one is suffering from problems of irrational thinking.
And when all is said and done, for most of us that’s exactly what impostor syndrome is: a problem of irrational and self-defeating thinking. If forced to reckon with reality in a strictly rational way, most of us would probably acknowledge that few genuine impostors succeed in academe. The fact that we are here may not prove conclusively that we are as good and accomplished as people seem (inexplicably) to think we are, but it does suggest that they’re more right than wrong.
For most of us, I suspect, the ultimate cure for impostor syndrome does not lie in social reform, institutional honors or the development of an impressive CV. It lies in the habits of mind we develop between our own ears.