My gut has always pushed me away from labelling myself with ‘imposter syndrome’. And as I’ve read more on this subject recently, it’s all starting to make sense why.
The WebMD defines Imposter Syndrome as follows:
If you tend to doubt your own skills and accomplishments, despite what others think, you may have imposter syndrome.
It’s not an actual mental health condition. But this term (also known as imposter phenomenon, fraud syndrome, or imposter experience) describes someone who feels they aren’t as capable as others think and fears they’ll be exposed as a fraud.
I wonder if it was ever helpful to create a label, quite often used for women, to describe something that is quite normal and human.
After reading a recent article in the Harvard Business review titled ‘Stop Telling Women they have Impost Syndrome’, my gut feelings were confirmed: imposter syndrome is just another way of pathologizing universal feelings of doubt and uncertainty that can actually be quite helpful for our own personal development.
The article pulled me back to Glennon Doyle’s New York Times Best Seller ‘Untamed’ which I picked up in 2020 and could not put down.
The prologue is a great lesson for women in trusting their gut.
In the prologue Doyle describes Tabitha the Cheetah, caged in a zoo, who spends her days chasing pink bunnies, taped to a Jeep, settling for measly pieces of meat when deep down Tabitha knows she could be having the real deal in the wild, where she belongs. It was a glimpse of Tabitha on her own, stalking the perimeter of the park walls with her head raised majestically tall and proud when Doyle saw the realisation in Tabitha, the realisation of her inner wild; she was a God Damn Cheetah! This moment incited Doyle to liken Tabitha to women.
We often forget who we are because we are too busy chasing pink bunnies.
As Doyle extends the cheetah metaphor, we start to realise that pink bunnies have colonized the female psyche for centuries. We end up chasing them every day, like a caged wild animal in a zoo, because we think that we need them to survive, to live, to be – but they disenfranchise us, taking us away from the core of who we are not just as women, but as humans.
Pink bunnies are like old fashioned dogmas that keep us stuck and confused. They can relate to the way we are expected to look, talk, walk, lead, work, feel and be: ‘don’t be bossy’, ‘talk/walk like a lady’, ‘don’t ask for more’, ‘it’s not nice being angry’, ‘you feel unsure, you have imposter syndrome.’
My gut, like Tabitha, has been telling me something is not right for a long time now; when I kept hearing women being labeled with Imposter Syndrome, I knew it didn’t sit comfortably but I couldn’t put my finger on why.
Now I know.
As a woman, I know I am naturally sometimes uncertain or doubtful but that doesn’t make me an imposter – it makes me a God damn human.
This is why I refuse to accept a label which merely pathologises a natural human experience – doubt and uncertainty.
So, when I am feeling doubtful because I am in a new situation or come across new knowledge that is unfamiliar to me, and I don’t quite know how to process it, rather than pathologizing these feelings with undiagnosed ‘imposter syndrome’, I embrace and accept them for exactly what they are – universal feelings that all humans experience.
Of course, I am not naïve enough to think it is as easy as that. There are all sorts of politics at play here, especially for women who, on admitting such truths such as ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I haven’t come across that before…tell me more’, will be at risk of perpetuating the classic stereotype of women being the ‘weaker’ sex that still pervades society today albeit more subtly than in previous centuries. Internally, we may know what we don’t know inside but sharing this with others seems quite risky, even scary.
We know uncertainty or doubt are perceived markers of weakness in society.
Why would we share our doubts openly if society is implicitly telling us, it is not safe to do so?
For every woman brave enough to share her truth of uncertainty or doubt, there’s probably 1000 other men and women making it through faking it, maybe a little too attached to the little they do know and blindsided to the raft of things they don’t know. Amongst all the other barriers to career advancement, the woman who admits she doesn’t know risks being sidelined for promotion and her professional competency being questioned.
Maybe it’s easier to pathologize doubt and uncertainty than to embrace it because embracing it means big change and a lot of uncomfortable self-exploration for everyone, especially when our identity is firmly attached to what we know and what we can do.
But I am hopeful there is a way forward here.
Here are some more empowering reframes for everyone to work with, if we are to shift dogmas of the quiet past that keep us tamed:
‘Sorry the job went to someone else. You lacked conviction in your answers; you didn’t really explain X very clearly..’
‘Congratulations – the job is yours. Although you didn’t really explain X…., you clearly demonstrated what you did not know and what you would do to develop this knowledge. You demonstrated great problem solving which is more important to us than you knowing everything right here, right now.’
‘…you need to have more confidence…’
‘…your humility is a breath of fresh air and with it comes a quiet confidence…’
‘How is she Director? – she didn’t even know what X is?’
‘I am so grateful to have her as Director. I feel less pressured to pretend to know everything because she happily admits when she doesn’t which gives me permission to be human.’
It’s not an overnight job shifting mindsets especially ones that have been entrenched in the human psyche for centuries. However, be bold, take the lead and tap into your intuition. Embrace you doubts and uncertainties and don’t let people use them to diminish you. After all, you’re a God Damn Cheetah!