By Jenny Yang Cropp
Impostor Syndrome may not be real, but my experience of it is.
You should know that sentence has lived several iterations as a question instead of a statement of fact.
As is often the case with research, I thought I knew something about impostor syndrome until I started reading. Opinions swing wildly in different directions, and a good number are critical of the whole concept. Stassa Edwards, a features editor for Jezebel, claims none of us have impostor syndrome and then goes on to criticize the proliferation of think-pieces on the subject:
The market for impostor syndrome essays tracks with a particular kind of essay writing that’s become synonymous with the female confessional tone in certain corners of the internet. It’s one in which a woman reveals a flaw, or what they perceive to be a flaw, which is a necessarily minor one (for example, apologizing; vocal fry; not loving their body). The revelation promises to banish these feelings: “If only you knew what lay behind your impostor feelings, these fears would melt away under the light of truth.”
Edwards’ larger point seems to be that everyone experiences self-doubt, and that’s probably true. What troubles me is the idea that speaking those doubts (confessing) has no power.
I don’t believe half the things I say, but I say them anyway. To speak is to name. To write is to name. And to name is to bring something into the light of consciousness, not necessarily truth. To name is to expose andto create. It is the making of truth.
I may not believe everything I say in the moment of saying, but I want what I say to be true, including this: So what if impostor syndrome isn’t real? So what if all the essays about impostor syndrome, this one included, are variations on the same confession?
There is no end to this making and remaking of the world we wish existed.
Maybe confession is the wrong name, and the act of speaking our doubts is more like group therapy, all those essays sitting together the way we did in that vast beige conference room warmed by each other’s presence, nodding along to stories of paralyzing self-doubt like so many mirrors. Even when we get the names wrong, is the power of speaking any less diminished?
Misnaming is a sticking point for some of the more critical articles on impostor syndrome. Pauline Rose Clance, the original researcher who identified it in the 1970s, called it impostor phenomenon. The implication is that using the wrong name voids the experience of it as well as the need to talk about impostorism. But even in this piece that warns against using the name impostor syndrome because so many people experience it, L.V. Anderson concedes:
Impostor phenomenon may be much more common than the psychologists who coined the term originally thought, but that doesn’t make it meaningless. The scale Clance developed to identify impostorism has been shown to distinguish feelings of being an impostor from other issues like depression, anxiety, and self-esteem, which makes it useful for identifying feelings of fraudulence that have gotten out of hand. And Clance and Imes have done the world a service by identifying and describing impostorism: Simply learning that impostor syndrome is a thing, and that lots of people experience it, can be helpful in lessening impostorism’s intensity (for most people). “Many people can live with it, and it changes as they get experience in a job,” says Clance. “Often knowing that a lot of other people experience it is helpful.”
Speaking our fears may not diminish them, but hearing someone else’s fears, seeing ourselves reflected in someone else’s story, is important work that can’t be dismissed.
- Sometimes I am afraid I will be discovered for who I really am.
On my first day of TA training at the Big State School, I sat down to eat breakfast with my TA mentor, a second- or third-year PhD student, and one of her friends. They were talking about teaching English in Korea. I had been to Korea twice to teach English at summer camps. I’m biracial. My mom is Korean. I waited for them to include me in the conversation, but they didn’t.
I’ve gotten good at pretending. That morning, I was pretending I wasn’t a wreck, that I belonged in this Big State School, that I deserved my fellowship and had as much right to speak as they did.
When a pause in their conversation happened, I said, “I loved teaching in Korea, but I don’t know that I could do it full-time because it would be a hard transition for my cat, and I wouldn’t want to leave my cat behind.”
“Oh yeah,” my mentor said to her friend. “You can’t bring a cat to Korea. They’d eat it!”
The two women giggled and smirked. I froze.
Later, by way of apology, my mentor said she wasn’t racist. She said I just didn’t understand her sense of humor: “It was just a joke. You don’t look Korean. If I had known, I wouldn’t have said it.”
Halfway through the second semester, I dropped out. On one of my last days there, another graduate student told me no one wanted me in the program and no one thought I deserved my fellowship, not even the poet I’d gone there to study with.
Impostorism has been described as an internal experience of thinking or feeling that others view you as an impostor, as if it’s all in our heads, but more often than not, what’s in our heads are the stories we’re told about ourselves, and it’s hard not to speak in the narratives we’re given.
- I tend to feel like a phony.
I sometimes wonder if there is no “real” me. Identity is flexible, contingent, messy. To borrow a term from social psychologists, I’ve never had an in group to which I felt I belonged. When we are told we do not belong but insist on showing up anyway, we operate without that in group solidarity that bolsters identity. Self-doubt intersects with systemic racism, classism, ableism, sexism.
For some of us, it’s all of the above. And we are told to rise above it, but too often “rise above” is another way of silencing and erasing the experiences that make us who we are.
“You can write about mental health in fiction and poetry,” my undergrad mentor told me, “but you have to keep that to yourself in real life if you want a job.”
She was trying to help me. She was well-intentioned. As an undergrad, I had been hospitalized four times in two years for depression, and she wanted me to know how intolerant academia is of neurodiversity. She was right about the intolerance, but to not speak is to suffer. To pretend only reinforces my feeling like a phony, making me too ashamed to ask for help when it’s needed.
During my MFA program, I told no one how deeply I spiraled from anxiety to depression in the months before comprehensive exams. I was convinced I would fail. Shame and self-doubt without release, without help, amplified until I stopped eating and sleeping. I couldn’t read or write. I didn’t begin to recover until the night before the exams.
If you don’t take the test, you can’t fail the test. If you don’t send your writing out, you can’t be rejected. It’s more than just a fear of failure, more than the productive anxiety that drives people to work harder. At best, my impostorism reduces all my accomplishments to luck. At worst, it pushes me toward self-sabotage.
- I’m afraid people important to me may find out that I’m not as capable as they think I am.
I am lucky. I’ve had the extraordinarily good fortune to land a tenure-track job in the hyper-competitive field of creative writing. In academia, we’ve been taught to think that if we don’t get the full-time job or the tenure track job, we just aren’t good enough, didn’t work hard enough, don’t have talent. But that’s not true. Jobs are scarce. Brilliant writers, scholars, and teachers are plentiful.
It’s unethical to pretend otherwise while watching the system save money by trapping people in a contingent-financial-wheel-of-doom while simultaneously diminishing the work they do. To ignore the disparity is to mistake contingent positions for contingent people. To recognize the disparity is to know your accomplishments in academia really are as much the result of luck as merit.
Scarcity, real or perceived, also drives insecure people to undermine other people’s successes. I know, logically, that’s why one anonymous troll would feel compelled to delete my name from the “Who Got Jobs” section of Academic Jobs Wiki and a second anonymous troll accused academia of tokenism when several Asian American poets got jobs that year: “Wow, creative writing is dominated by white men. Just look at the poetry jobs! It’s a cult of privileged elitists who only care about aesthetics. … Poetry meet Social Justice. Two things academia doesn’t care about, now paired for maximum ignorability [sic].”
But feelings don’t abide by logic. The accusation of tokenism magnifies my own self-doubt, and long after the trolls have lumbered back under their bridges, I’m left panicking each time my chairperson calls or stops by my office, wondering if she’s discovered I’m not the right person for this job and this is the day she’ll fire me. Tenure is a long way off, and I pray my doubts diminish before then, but I’m not hopeful.
4. In some situations I feel like an impostor.
Yes. Even when sitting on a panel about impostor syndrome at AWP 2019 in Portland, Oregon, this March, I felt like an impostor. It was a relief to hear that fellow panelists Jeremy Griffin, Brian Druckenmiller, Jude Marr, and Lanessa Salvatore, all accomplished students or faculty, shared my anxiety about being there and speaking to an audience.
- Sometimes I’m afraid others will discover how much knowledge or ability I really lack.
To speak is to open yourself to critique, so I avoid it when I can. In the realm of academia, especially, I abide by these guidelines:
If it seems too easy, I must be missing something.
If it doesn’t make sense, I must be missing something.
If I haven’t spent years studying it, thinking about it, writing but most certainly not publishing on the topic because who am I, then I’m probably missing something and will just sit here quietly scribbling my notes and watch from outside the circle, thanks.
I got a B on my first assignment as a PhD student—so, an F, really—because the professor asked me a follow-up question about the ontological nature of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I didn’t know the word ontological, but I couldn’t bring myself to say so. He made a note about it on my paper and accused me of not being prepared for class. I’m not sure which was more humiliating, not knowing the word or having a professor think I didn’t do my homework.
I’m supposed to tell you that I learned a valuable lesson about being honest and that from then on I was brave enough to ask for an explanation or definition when I needed it.
Scribble, scribble. Moving on.
- In some situations I feel like a “great pretender”; that is, I’m not as genuine as others think I am.
You or Me: How are you?
Me or You: Great! You?
- In some situations I act like an impostor.
Isn’t that what we’re expected to do? The pithy title of our panel was “Fake It Til You Make It?” which is a mantra I have used but loathed ever since a therapist said I just needed to dress up and put on some makeup and that would make me feel better. On a lot of days, more than I’d like to admit, that therapist is right in that it’s what we’re supposed to do to function in this system, and I’ve gotten good at it. Sometimes I blow-dry my hair and everything.
When I walk into a classroom or hit submit or stand on stage or lead a workshop, I’m faking every bit of the confidence you might see, and that’s how I keep moving.
Other days, though.
I’m afraid of publishing this essay, so I’ve been avoiding finishing it, as in entire days spent in my bathrobe, chain-smoking and forgetting to eat while writing and then deleting thousands of words. I’m past my deadline and probably trying my editor’s patience.
Why bother if impostor syndrome isn’t real? What does it matter if we all experience the same misgivings about our successes.
When I was a kid, I wondered when I’d ever get to look through a magazine or watch TV and see someone who looked like me. I’m going to tell myself that my confession here matters in the same way that all writing matters. I won’t feel any better, may even feel worse, but maybe another person will have that spark of recognition. Impostor syndrome, impostor phenomenon, impostorism—call it whatever you need to call it, but the effect is the same. It isolates us.
The best part of the panel was hearing other people’s stories and feeling that spark myself. More than the catharsis of admitting I have felt like a fraud was the sight of so many hands rising in defiance of those same fears. In that room, for a few minutes, I didn’t feel like an outsider. If we can speak our experiences to others, for others, enough times, maybe we can all feel that way.
*Leary, M. R., Patton, K., Orlando, A., & Funk, W. W. (2000). The impostor phenomenon: Self-perceptions, reflected appraisals, and interpersonal strategies. Journal of Personality, 68, 725-756. The impostorism scale was developed by Pauline Rose Clance and later revised and adapted as a clinical tool. It asks people to “read each of the following statements carefully and indicate how characteristic it is of you.”
Jenny Yang Cropp is the author of the poetry collection String Theory, a 2016 Oklahoma Book Award finalist, and two chapbooks, Not a Bird or a Flowerand Hanging the Moon. She is an assistant professor of English at Southeast Missouri State where she also serves as poetry editor for the literary journal Big Muddy.