Imposter Syndrome: Symptom of a broken system.

I was under the impression that Imposter Syndrome was a relatively new phenomenon. But a little research suggested otherwise. A brief overview of the literature shows that scholars have been researching Imposter Syndrome at least since the ’70s, if not earlier..meaning people have been struggling with it for just as long. If not longer. Today, at least in the circles I find myself in, it is something that pops up constantly, almost daily. It seems that my colleagues and I are plagued with the deep, haunting, ever-present feeling of being an imposter.

It turns out, we are not alone. This seems to reflect the literature, as articles, books, and posts related to Imposter Syndrome have spiked in the last decade. Which is good! Part of fixing a problem is first acknowledging it exists. But is Imposter Syndrome the problem? An interesting article I read by Dr. Samyukta Mullangi and Dr. Reshma Jagsi (2019) argues that Imposter Syndrome is not the problem, it is a symptom of the problem. So in order to treat it so to say, we need to get to the cause – inequity (Mullangi and Jagsi 2019). Other scholars have made similar links between Imposter Syndrome and minority groups, specifically women. Another interesting article I read by Langford and Clance (1993) made an interesting connection between the idea that intelligence is a trait that must be displayed at all times, which is instilled in some of us at a young age by either our parents, or our teachers, and Imposter Syndrome. I think there is quite a bit we can unpack in both of these arguments, so why don’t we take a look at some of their components, shall we?

I can’t help but follow the format that is ingrained in my mind when it comes to writing anything. So of course, I think we need to mention some sort of definition of the term before we can unpack it. A basic definition of the term outlines Imposter Syndrom as the feeling of being inadequate in your field, despite being successful (straight out of dictionary). People who struggle with imposter syndrome often feel like they don’t deserve their success, that they are not good enough, or simply that they are frauds. Well, I feel called out…

I’m going to just say outright what I think the problem is, and you can call me a hardcore processual if you want – I’ll roll with it. I think the problem is systemic. Yes, I blame the system.

Here is why.

I think the entire education system is broken, kindergarten to graduate school. Or maybe broken is not the right word. I think at a time, it did what it was supposed to do. But our school system hasn’t had an overhaul in ages… and the cracks are starting to show. We should be sending our children to school so that they can learn to be critical thinkers, not so they can learn how to do well on standardized tests and become preconditioned to a life of 9 to 5 doing some repetitive task over and over again with a lunch break at noon. Your average school-aged child will go to school for 8 hours a day, wake up at 7, get home at 4, do hours of homework, and then stare at screens for the remainder of the day. I can’t be the only one that finds this to be insane. I know what you’re thinking: “but didn’t you do the same?” Yes and no. Yes, I received a standard public school education, but I also grew up in that weird in-between period where kids still played outside. And I had an obsession with reading. My mom would have to take my books from me at night so I wouldn’t ruin my eyes (that failed – hello glasses).

So if Imposter Syndrome is linked to the notions that are instilled in us at a young age by our parents and teachers that we must be an acceptable level of “smart”, does this not suggest that partial blame for this symptom is how we educate young people? Surprise, surprise, the root of the problem comes from our childhood, how Freudian. Think about how we determine what “smart” is. Standardized tests? Speaking a certain way? Being able to recite a paragraph verbatim from memory?

I feel like I need to add a caveat here. I know that we live in a country where we have the luxury (yes, luxury) of having free and mandatory public education for every child. This is not something to scoff at and we need no reminding that there are some children in parts of the world that don’t have this right. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t improve on this. Kids are the future, and education is how we prepare them for this future – I just think we should be a bit more critical of the system that is supposedly preparing them. A system that was designed decades ago to prepare people for factory jobs. A system that until not too long ago also kept certain groups out based on notions of what gender, race or socio-economic status deserved an education.

Which ties over to the other cause mentioned above – inequity. Which, let’s face it, is also a systemic problem. I don’t think there is enough space for me (nor do I have the scholarly training) to do justice to the history of how things like colonialism, commercialism, consumerism, and racism (to name a few isms) have created a system where inequality is inherent and rooted so deeply that it is almost unchallenged. It is not surprising then that the people who are the most plagued by Imposter Syndrome are those who are pigeonholed by these isms. Women, who as Simone de Beauvoir put it, were considered the Second Sex for so long. And then minority groups, people of color, nonbinary individuals, people from lower socio-economic households, nontraditional families, the list goes on. Not to mention that these “categories” do not exist as standalone, but often intersect and overlap, and at the intersection of these categories you have even more disenfranchised identities. It is not hard to see how individuals who have been disenfranchised by a system that kept them out for so long struggle to feel like they belong, that they are making an impact, that they deserve to be where they are.

Ok, so how do we solve these problems. I wish I had an answer. I feel like most of my posts end with: “and I don’t really have an answer.” But what I was hoping to highlight in this post in particular, as many brilliant and talented people before me have done is that Imposter Syndrome is not new and it is not a disease so to say in itself. It is a symptom of a much deeper problem. And if we are going to overcome it, we need to address its cause. This is not something that will happen overnight. But at least the ball is rolling. We are talking about it are we not?

But I think there are some things that we can do as individuals, especially those of us in academia where Imposter Syndrome runs rampant, to help mitigate some of the sources of the feelings that lead to Imposter Syndrome. And I think a lot of that comes with a revamping of our education system so that it is more inclusive and less biased. By promoting a healthy environment where people are not measured solely by “how they appear on paper.” Moreover, we can all strive to be GOOD people to our colleagues and to ourselves. A system is the sum of its parts. We can’t overhaul a broken system in one night. But we can steadily work on being better ourselves. We can have conversations about Imposter Syndrome and the things that often go along with it like mental health issues. We can speak up against things that are wrong – like workplace and sexual harassment. We can start unpacking the stigma that follows these discussions. Even on a smaller scale, we can foster an environment of collegiality, positivity, and support.

I also think anthropology can be really useful in helping make some progress. I mean, if you think about it, at the root of a lot of these issues is the unchallenged acceptance of social constructs and categories like race for example, which have systematically kept individuals not only out of academia but out of multiple spaces…. but I digress. A little anthropology may go a long way in this sense, especially if we teach young people how these social constructs are created (or what social constructs are).

To anyone reading this that struggles with Imposter Syndrome, you, my friend are not alone. More importantly, remember to be kind to yourself. The way that we speak to ourselves matters. I think most of us would never speak to others the way we speak to ourselves – why is that? Be your own number one fan. Remind yourself that you are brilliant in your own way. You are doing the best you can with what you have. And that no matter what we are all constantly learning and growing.

Peace, love, and positivity (with a dash of rock n roll).


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