Impostor syndrome interests me, in large part because I don’t have it and I have a hard time wrapping my head around it. The doubting one’s abilities part I can definitely understand; it’s the fraudulence aspect that’s harder for me to grasp, so let’s chat about it.
What impostor syndrome is
Let’s start off by looking at what impostor syndrome is. It was first described by psychologist Pauline R. Clance. She identified an impostor cycle with the following steps:
- Achievement-related tasks trigger anxiety, self-doubt, and worry.
- This is managed in one of two ways—procrastination or over-preparation.
- After the task is completed, any positive feedback is discounted, and any success is attributed to luck (if the individual procrastinated) or hard work (if they over-prepared) rather than ability.
- The individual perceives themselves as fraudulent and fears this will be exposed, which feeds into more anxiety, self-doubt, and worry.
Impostor syndrome can also involve are fear of failure, fear or guilt around success, and feeling a need to be the best. Impostor syndrome has been linked to depression, anxiety, perfectionism, low self-esteem, and family expectations (source: Wikipedia).
If you’re curious how impostor-y you are, you can fill out the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale.
Labels and social constructs
I may be barking up the wrong tree with this, but in my mind, what separates impostor syndrome from pure self-doubt about ability is an element of identity. Specifically, I’m thinking identity in terms of labels that are attached to socially constructed roles.
Let’s take the question of whether someone who is a blogger is an impostor as a writer. If you publish written content on a blog, you’re engaging in the act of writing. Even if you’re a shitty writer, you’re still doing writing. For the fraudulent element to come into play, I would think the identity of writer would need to come into play. I’m not sure that you can be an impostor at an action you’re doing, but you can be an impostor if you don’t think you’re the genuine article of the construct writer.
A writer is not simply someone who writes, although in a concrete sense, that’s exactly what a writer is. Writer is a construct that has meaning attached to it, and through social learning, we’ve developed ideas about what a writer is and what it means to be a writer. To call oneself a writer isn’t just about producing written content; applying that label is also about taking on the identity of a writer. The greater the discrepancy between one’s view of the self and the identity they perceive as being consistent with the relevant label (like writer), the more likely it seems that impostor syndrome would result.
Actions vs. labels
I wonder if shifting the focus from identity labels to performance of action could help to disrupt the impostor element. Performing actions is objectively happening or not happening, whereas evaluating the fit of an identity label is very subjective.
I don’t think of myself as an author. I am an author in a concrete sense, in that I have written and published four books. However, my learned concept of what it means to be an author involves agents, traditional publishing, writers festivals, book signings, yada yada yada. I do not do, nor do I actually want to do, any of those things. But I don’t feel like an impostor, because I don’t feel like I’m trying to be an author.
I’m not an impostor because I’m not pretending to be an author; I’m someone who engages in the action of writing books. Whether or not my books are any good or not doesn’t change that; writing books is still a thing that I do. Occasionally, I decide that everything I ever have written or ever will write is lousy, but even then, there isn’t a sense of fraudulence, because I’m not trying to be an author; I’m writing books, and it is objectively true that I perform that action.
Our attributional style is the way we tend to explain things that happen in relation to ourselves. Attributions may be internal or external (characteristics of ourselves or the situation), stable or unstable (long-term/permanent or temporary), and global or specific (in all/most instances or only in specific instances).
With impostor syndrome, it seems like succeeding at a task would be associated with more external rather than internal attribution (like luck or hard work rather than ability) that’s also unstable (this was a one-off success).
Self-handicapping involves behaving in certain ways that make succeeding at a task less likely so that you make an external attribution if you do end up failing. Going the procrastination route seems like it would go along with this quite nicely.
My own ego-defending attributional style involves tending to attribute my successes to internal factors and look for external factors to account for failures. That’s not always a good thing, but perhaps it’s part of why impostor syndrome isn’t an issue for me.
So, those are my thoughts on impostor syndrome. They’re just my thoughts, so take them with a grain of salt. And on a side note, my brain thinks impostor should be spelled with an -er rather than -or, but apparently, impostor is the preferred spelling. On another side note, I would stress the second syllable of the word concrete when using it in the sense of non-abstract, but I’d stress the first syllable when talking about the concrete that’s related to cement.
Anyway, getting back to the topic at hand, now it’s your turn. Is impostor syndrome something that you struggle with? Does the distinction between performing an action and assuming an identity label seem at all relevant?