Impostor syndrome: The feeling that you’re not really qualified for something, that you are pretending, that you will, at any moment, be caught out by someone who actually knows what she is doing. The constant nagging fear of humiliation as people realize that you were faking it all along, and that you’re really just a pathetic excuse for a human being who tried to weasel your way into a position of respect and authority. The knowledge that, at any moment, someone will expose you as what you really are.
It’s a phenomenon that’s most commonly seen among women, thanks to the the pernicious effects of sexism and social attitudes about women—women are taught that they cannot and will never succeed in life, and thus, they underestimate their own abilities. They work harder than men to achieve the same results, but more than that, they push themselves harder when they don’t actually need to, and consistently rate their achievements lower than men who have not worked as hard, and have not achieved the same goals.
Women are taught over and over that they are worthless, and for those who achieve social status, impostor syndrome can become an ugly and constant accompanier. Especially for young women, who often feel isolated and alone because no one wants to admit that adults essentially fake it until they make it, that we all actually learn by plunging in and hoping for the best. So they assume they’re the only ones, that they are not actually worthy of being in the environments they’re in, that they should make it up with longer hours, more aggressive work, trying to be the best.
Conversations about deconstructing impostor syndrome often focus on issues like empowering women, talking frankly about achievements and skill acquisition, fighting sexism, and more. And these are all fantastic things to be talking about, because it’s absolutely true that it’s impossible to fight impostor syndrome without addressing these things—for example, frank conversations about salary, about how we learn things, about how we navigate workplaces, about how we develop competencies (see “fake it ’til you make it” above) are critical.
But there’s something else that looms in the background, too, and that is the exploitation of impostor syndrome. Just as women tend to be gaslighted, men are also very aware of impostor syndrome and how it works—even though they may not know that it has a name and they exploit that knowledge to suppress the women around them. This is an example of how sexism snarls around people of all genders, with men taking advantage of a known phenomenon that affects women, and women thus becoming deeper ensnared in it because there’s reinforcement all around them.
Women struggling with something may find that the women around them try to build them up, support them, and create a framework that makes them feel stronger and more empowered—if they’re fortunate enough to be in an environment where women believe in supporting each other and think that making one woman stronger helps the group collectively. Those same women may find that the men in that environment, however, undermine them and their abilities. Use targeted comments to imply, or outright state, that they are not capable. They’re not qualified. They’re faking it. Everyone around them can see that they’re just pretending, and they should give up.
Those comments often come with a heavy load of sexism. You only got that job because so-and-so likes looking at your tits. Who’d you have to sleep with to get offered the keynote at that convention? He wouldn’t have given you credit for working on that project if he hadn’t enjoyed your ass so much. These comments reduce women to their bodies, imply that the accomplishments and the things they should feel proud of are actually nothing more than emptiness, handed out by men in a sexualized society where women get ahead not by being talented and smart and driven and wonderful, but by letting men objectify and sexualize them.
It’s hard not to internalize this messaging, to think that maybe people are right. Maybe you are just faking it, and maybe people around you tolerate you because you’re nice to look at. Not because you’re talented, not because you’re an authority on a subject, not because you’re good at what you do. Maybe you should try harder, to justify that unearned recognition. Maybe you should turn down acknowledgements and not put yourself in the limelight so much, since you don’t belong there. You’re nothing more than a pair of tits and an ass, and everyone knows it. So would you, if you weren’t living in some kind of fantasy land.
The women who tell you you’re great, and you should be proud of yourself? They’re delusional too, refusing to face facts. The men who support you and treat you like a human being instead of an object? Well, they’re just being nice—when you turn around and walk away from their desks, they look at your ass just like everyone else, because that’s all you’re good for.
Socially progressive men often ask how they can support women, what they can do about issues like impostor syndrome. One thing they might want to consider is the role of men in undermining women’s accomplishments, and, specifically, in taking advantage of and exploiting impostor syndrome. Men know that women have pervasive thoughts about not being good enough, about not being worthy of respect and consideration, and they use that against them. Be the kind of man who doesn’t, and be the kind of man who tells other men to stop doing it.
s.e. smith is a cofounder of FWD/Forward: Feminists with disabilities for a way forward. She contributes to feminist discussion at Tiger Beatdown and is a member of the Guardian Comment Network. Additionally, she maintains a personal website, this ain’t livin’, with regular posts on a spectrum of topics from Chinese-American history to environmental justice. She serves as the Deputy Opinion Editor at The Daily Dot, Social Justice Editor at xoJane, and am the Editor in Chief of Disability Intersections, an intersectional disability magazine. Find her on Twitter @sesmithwrites.