Let’s Stop Talking About Impostor Syndrome
At the beginning of the year, I had one of those thunderclap moments in which multiple threads of my life were telling me the same thing. My daughter turned 1; I had an article accepted by a top journal; and I had been pondering Ezra Klein's interview with political science professor Jennifer Lawless, in which she pointed out that women are elected at the same rate as men when they run for office. Here was a big bundle of evidence and information about women (even me) doing great things in the world. And here’s the thing: I found it all pretty scary.
After reflecting on these three strands, I decided that in my teaching, in my home life and here in print, I wanted to issue a call for people to stop using the phrase “impostor syndrome.” It’s become ever-present and often attaches to women or underrepresented people who have struggled to succeed academically or professionally in an arena in which they might be “the only.” But it’s more broadly used, too. I declare it’s time to de-pathologize being a little scared about new endeavors.
The so-called impostor syndrome has a lot of weight, though. Lawless notes that women don't run, in part, because they are afraid of sexism. When I preemptively worry about criticism my article might receive, I tell myself it’s that old weakness, my impostor syndrome, acting up again.
As I move along in my field and begin mentoring those coming up—while raising a little girl—I’ve begun questioning the value of passing this term along. For one thing, research is starting to tell us that “impostor syndrome” is less real than we think it is. Or rather, that it’s so pervasive that everyone who isn’t a bragging jerk has it. After all, there’s a word for not being nervous to try something new at which you might fail: arrogance. Not only is feeling like an impostor from time to time totally normal, as L.V. Anderson wrote recently, it’s actually a sign of success. That is, if a person is feeling nervous about undertaking something difficult and new, it’s because this sweaty-palmed, nervous person is embarking on something difficult and new. In other words, this is a lot like what growth looks like. From interviews with impostor syndrome researchers, Anderson notes that we might be better off thinking of anxiety related to career shifts as part of an “impostor experience” that many people will move through at various points in their lives.
All this isn’t to say we live in a world without sexism or various other -isms. We do. But faced with a sexist world, it can be helpful for women to realize that nearly everyone is afraid of looking foolish or being “found out” as inexperienced.
In my own life, I’m trying to reframe new experiences as part of what I’m calling my “bravery practice.”
My bravery practice has its basis in a gut sense that courage is a muscle that can be developed through regular encounters with the just-a-little-scary. I was pleased to discover that research backs up my theory. For example, a study in the Journal of Experiential Education that looks at adventure-based programs for girls found that throughout the course of a camp that includes “scary” activities, such as rock climbing and public speaking, the young women developed a sense of bravery that could be applied to a wide array of contexts.
Although I haven’t attended adventure camp, I’ve tried a few concrete strategies to normalize the feelings of unease that come with stepping into realms that test my skill set.
1. I actively pursue something that I’m bad at in a low-stakes arena.
This way, I can enter back into that feeling of being stretched without worrying about negative consequences. For me, that involves taking tennis lessons for the first time as an adult. I am bad, I mean really bad, at this new thing, but it doesn’t matter, which gives me great joy. It’s a place to perform a new skill without performance pressure.
2. I run my no impulse by my cheer squad (my husband and mom).
A cheer squad is the people who support you, but also push you to achieve. When I was asked to appear on a podcast this spring, my no reflex kicked in: I’ve never been on a podcast; I’ll sound dumb; what if the host asks me a question and I can’t answer it? On and on it went. When I told my cheer squad I was thinking of saying no, they quickly pointed out my foolishness, and on to the scary (but fine) new podcast experience I went.
3. I consciously cultivate bravery in my short- and long-term planning.
For me, this looks like creating an entry in my monthly to-do list that says “brave thing: ________.” Often, that brave thing involves reaching out to a more senior person in my profession or applying for an opportunity that seems just out of reach. For other people, it could be applied to physical fitness or making new social connections.
Bravery practice can look like lots of things, depending on whether you’re very little (let's try this weird food) or grown (I will try a handstand in yoga; I will send my writing out into the world). At the end of the day, it’s about leaving behind impostor syndrome and being OK with getting a little scared.
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