Imposter syndrome: Is it real or sign of failing schools? | Opinion


Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

What if the impostors really are faking it? That’s the question I was thinking about after reading the recent New Yorker article about the ubiquity of so-called “impostor syndrome.”

The author, Leslie Jamison, offers a fascinating history of how a personal reflection made by an assistant professor of psychology at Oberlin College in the 1970s has become a ubiquitous self-diagnosis among middle- and upper-class American women. 

Pauline Clance excelled in school, was the first in her family to go to college and eventually earned a doctoral degree at the University of Kentucky, but “everywhere she went, Clance felt the same nagging sense of self-doubt, the suspicion that she’d somehow tricked everyone else into thinking she belonged,” Jamison wrote.

Clance later collaborated with a colleague, Suzanne Imes, to write a paper on what they called “The Imposter Phenomenon in High-Achieving Women.”

Since then, the idea that you’re faking it even when you’re qualified to be in your position has become widespread. Like joking about needing a glass of wine to deal with toddlers, it’s become a universal trope among certain women.

Writer and comedian Viv Groskop told Jamison about standing in front of 500 women and saying, “Raise your hand if you have experienced impostor syndrome.” She reported that almost every woman raised her hand. When Groskop asked, “Who here has never experienced impostor syndrome?,” only one woman volunteered. But later that woman apologized — ”worried that it was somehow arrogant not to have impostor syndrome.”

The occasional feeling that you don’t belong, though, is universal among both women and men. Sometimes we assume those around us are smarter and more qualified, and sometimes we assume they are less so. Maybe we think that those with a degree from a more prestigious college are more qualified and we are intimidated by that. Maybe it’s someone with more expensive clothes or someone who happens to know more people in power.

But feeling as if we don’t belong can have a salutary effect, making us work harder to ensure we are overly prepared for tasks or jobs. We are all “faking it” sometimes, whether it’s in social situations or at work. But we put in extra effort to ensure that other people won’t know, or to progress to the point where we feel more like we do belong.

Jamison notes that “impostor syndrome” mostly seems to be experienced by millennial and Gen X women. Older women often say that they were underestimated by others in their careers but didn’t feel they were underqualified. Maybe this is a difference in the education that different generations of women (and men) receive.

The boomer generation received an education that required them to memorize and master a significant body of knowledge about math, science, history and English. They are more likely to be able to answer questions about historic events without checking Google first. Feeling as though you know real and important things can help in situations where you might feel insecure, especially when there is a shared body of knowledge that everyone is expected to know.

Confidence is not something that can be separated from actual knowledge. Education experts have long joked that American children have tended to have lower scores on standardized tests than their peers in other countries, but higher levels of confidence that they got the answers right. The truth, though, is that self-esteem is built through competence. 

If you put people in a room and take away their smartphones, what can they do on their own? Can they write an essay? Do a math problem? Change a tire? Cook a meal? Truly mastering a skill makes kids and adults feel better about themselves.

So why do women seem to report feeling differently from men? First, there are plenty of men who feel out of place and sense they are “faking it” in their workplaces. It’s probably less socially acceptable for them to admit it.

But I wonder if part of the problem is that women are also more likely to go into professions where the mastery of knowledge is not valued, even when it should be. Take a profession like teaching elementary school. Women like my grandmother, who were teachers 70 years ago, not only had to have mastered history and math and English themselves, they were given a set curriculum to teach every year. The longer they taught, the more solid their qualifications became.

Today, as Daniel Buck writes in his recent book “What is Wrong With Our Schools?,” many teachers spend their training years learning about how education is oppressive, but they don’t learn important things like how to teach students to read. According to Buck, many of these teachers are flying blind, looking up stuff on the internet to teach kids every morning. 

Take instead a male-dominated profession like engineering, where students are required to understand a clear body of knowledge. There may be innovations, but a competent engineer is less likely to feel that he or she is an impostor in a room full of other trained engineers.

Instead of advising those with impostor syndrome to “fake it until you make it,” maybe we should tell them to adopt another famous motto: Be prepared. 

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives,” among other books.