Do you feel this phrase describes you as you go through your professional life? Do you feel as if you’re a fraud and whereas everyone else knows what they are doing or deserve the position they have attained, you don’t? And, on top of this, do you worry that you are about to be found out? If you answered yes to one or both these questions you are probably suffering from Impostor Syndrome. An awful lot of us do, men and women.
Although these two aspects are frequently linked in the literature, personally I don’t feel that ‘getting away with it’ is quite the same thing as Impostor Syndrome. In part I think this is a temporal argument. Getting away with it implies you have done something with which to get away, whereas impostor syndrome creeps up on you beforehand, as you are about to undertake something new. So Impostor Syndrome comes first, the getting away with it bit may (or may not) be the consequence afterwards. However, the two clearly have the potential to go hand in hand.
I wrote about Impostor Syndrome a couple of years ago and provoked a great stream of fascinating comments on my blog. I also found myself being interviewed for Radio 4’s Something Understood by Felicity Finch, who wanted to focus entirely on the getting away with it aspect. (You can hear a snippet of that interview here). I found it harder to put my own sense of being an impostor into the ‘getting away with it’ scenario, because of the distinction I feel between the two strands. Gaby Hinsliff also interviewed me as part of an article she wrote for the Daily Mail, a piece which I think came much closer to a portrayal of how I perceive Impostor Syndrome, citing many individual’s reaction to their success as being constantly accompanied by a feeling that they were merely frauds. Much more recently the Times Higher Education has got in on the act with a feature article in which an Australian academic, Ruth Barcan, wrote about what she termed ‘feelings of fraudulence’, although as far as I can see this is exactly the same as Impostor Syndrome. I’m not sure why she needed to coin a new phrase for the condition.
Her take on the problem was that Impostor Syndrome is particularly common in academia because of its competitiveness and the constant emphasis on critical thought which can turn inward, but the syndrome is neither new nor confined to academics. Nor, it appears, is it confined to women (see fellow OT blogger Stephen Curry recently facing up to his own worries here); it may be the case that women are more prepared to admit to the feeling, but it is clear that many men feel just the same. So, it would seem, for a substantial proportion of us we spend a lot of our time feeling inadequate, fraudulent and uncertain why we have ended up where we are.
However, most of us muddle through, just hoping that that moment of unmasking when someone says ‘oh it’s only you, I was expecting someone competent‘ never actually transpires. (Although, if you read The Onion, you may realise it is just about to happen after all!) What matters, I suppose, is how we learn to cope with the feeling. If we don’t, we may end up so paralysed with fear of the unknown and the humiliation that might conceivably come with trying and failing that we never spread our wings at all. So it is well worth recognizing the mindset as a normal state for many people, however successful they may look from the outside, not something that’s unique to you indicating that you should just give up and walk away.
This is all very much on my mind because, next week, I am participating in a ‘conversation‘ with someone who is an expert on Impostor Syndrome, who indeed travels around giving seminars on the subject. This is Hugh Kearns, a self-declared public speaker, educator and researcher with expertise in self-management, positive psychology, work-life balance, learning and creativity. Based at Flinders University in Australia, he is currently spending some months in the UK and has already held workshops and seminars at other universities over here (see one write-up here).
Here is a nice irony. I, a complete non-expert on the topic, am to hold a public conversation with him thereby giving me a wonderful chance to demonstrate Impostor Syndrome in action. In fact, I am pleased to say, that is not how I feel about this particular situation. No one is going to expect me to be an ‘expert’ in a scholastic sense, merely by experience – hence, remarkably, I feel less prone to fears than usual. Let it not be thought that I have mastered Impostor Syndrome. It still rises up and bites me with monotonous regularity. If, as I believe, it is a sensation most likely to hit you the first time you do something – although it may well continue in a dull, thudding kind of way as a background to one’s entire life if you’re unlucky – then I still have plenty of new challenges to trip me up and to remind me that I don’t know what I’m doing or why I’ve been asked to do it.
For instance, although I didn’t spell it out in my post on the subject, I found hosting the lunch for MP and Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna one such opportunity to feel ‘why me, what do I know, I’ll be found out as wanting in knowledge about industrial policy‘. In this case the feeling of being an impostor on that front was well-founded, but I was really wanted simply as a neutral chair in case views got heated, the person who could represent the University as a senior individual (specifically as a Deputy Vice Chancellor) not an expert. I could rationalise that and relax a little, although I remained somewhat apprehensive. And that I think is the advantage of being more experienced or, to be blunt, old. I am much more able to rationalise my fears because I have had to do so many bizarre things and on the whole I haven’t made a complete fool of myself. Much. Very often. I think. And if I do, I am better able to laugh it off. As a youngster one is so much more prone to blush to the roots of one’s hair – with my colouring there is no hiding it – visibly shake or develop a tremor in one’s voice. Impostor Syndrome may not go away, but the ability to push it swiftly back in its place grows with time, if you allow yourself the chance.
As for ‘getting away with it’, perhaps that too becomes less scary with time. Like a petty criminal who has got away with pilfering regularly, the next attempt will seem more matter of fact, less daunting. So if you’ve stood in front of 400 first year students one year and survived without more than the customary amount of critical comment about one’s style of delivery/lecture notes and/or dress in the end of term questionnaires, the next year is less terrifying. If you’ve had to converse with a Minister of State for 20 minutes in a tense professional situation, it gives one confidence that you can hold your own in the future when confronted by politicians more generally.
So, if your knees are quaking at some new challenge, if you feel that you have achieved something by mere luck and not your innate cleverness, try to see things as others see it. I may be no academic expert on Impostor Syndrome but I do think realising that it is a common sensation even amongst those – regardless of gender and way beyond academia – that you admire as confident and successful individuals may in itself be helpful. So read this and take heart.
Endnote Between drafting this post and posting it I came across another recent post which echoes much of what I write here, reinforcing my message that a good strategy to adopt in the face of one’s own feelings of inadequacy is to recognize how widespread this phenomenon is.