In a powerful argument for changing the discourse around impostor syndrome, Órla Meadhbh Murray focuses on what, when, and why these feelings arise.
Impostor syndrome has become common parlance in UK universities, providing a language for staff and students to name the experience of feeling like a fraud despite their achievements. However, the concept of impostor syndrome has been critiqued for pathologising understandable feelings of alienation based on class and encouraging individual solutions to systemic problems like racism and sexism. In this blogpost, I explain why and how we should move away from an individualising discourse around impostor syndrome and think more about what produces impostor feelings.
“I’m not as good as everyone else”
I began thinking about impostor syndrome while working at Imperial College London on the SIDUS project. I was interviewing undergraduate students from underrepresented groups in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, medicine) about their experiences of university and the topic kept coming up. In my first interview, David, a white gay man from a working-class background in England studying biology at Imperial, described persistently feeling “lesser than most other people” on his degree programme despite consistently achieving first-class marks throughout his degree. These impostor feelings would flare up around exam time when David would start thinking:
“‘what’s the point, I’m not as good as everyone else, I’m never going to do as well as everyone else’. And then as soon as exams are over, I realise, oh I did quite well actually, and I start working hard again for the next term.”
David did not call this experience impostor syndrome, but it fits the classic definition by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in their 1978 psychotherapy paper – feeling like a fraud and finding it difficult to believe in your own success. Clance and Imes initially named this ‘impostor phenomenon’ and focused on the experiences of mostly white middle- and upper-class women in a US college, drawing a connection to the impact of gender stereotypes; but the subsequent literature connects feeling like an impostor to inequalities beyond gender. For instance, the recently published Palgrave Handbook of Impostor Syndrome in Higher Education edited by Michelle Addison, Maddie Breeze, and Yvette Taylor provides a critical sociological intervention, highlighting the links between intersecting forms of marginality and impostor feelings specifically in higher education.
In the case of David, his impostor feelings were related to class as he explained in relation to his accent:
“I’ve sort of always felt like I’m a bit too thick to be here if that makes sense, I feel like I don’t sound or look the part to be at a world-class university … A lot of it is to do with my accent, I struggle to speak in a way that people can fully understand sometimes because my accent is a bit strong.”
He also discussed how many of his peers had gone to fee-paying or selective schools, whereas he had gone to his local comprehensive school, indicating the more privileged educational backgrounds of his peers which are not accessible to most working-class students. David compared how his university experience was affected by class and sexuality. He explained that being gay had not been particularly important to his experience as a student even though it affected his sense of not fitting into society in general, whereas his entire student and academic experience was steeped in a sense of being alienated from his elite university because of his class background. David’s experience highlights that impostor syndrome is an understandable response to exclusion rather than being an all-encompassing syndrome and is situated and relational, namely impostor feelings happen in relation to particular moments, particular spaces, and particular people. The connection between marginality and impostor feelings was clear throughout our interviews with students on the SIDUS project, with another biology student at Imperial, Selma, commenting:
“I never really thought about how . . . being working class and first generation might have compounded into that [impostor syndrome]. I thought it was more like a question of my intelligence and my IQ, but it is actually also a social thing.”
In the interview, Selma began connecting her class background to her impostor feelings and found relief as she reconceptualised impostor syndrome as a socially produced emotion rather than an individual deficit. This highlights the importance of adopting a critical sociological approach towards impostor syndrome and acknowledging feeling like an impostor is often in response to being marginalised in particular spaces.
A critical sociological approach to impostor syndrome
A critical sociological approach acknowledges the politics of emotions and aims to understand how and why people feel like impostors. Breeze and her collaborators posit that impostor syndrome is touted as a popular explanation as “it can be detached from well-evidenced forms of discrimination that structure educational access and experience.” Their handbook seeks to reconnect discussions around feeling like an impostor with the extensive and long-standing literature on inequalities in higher education, specifically focusing on feminist, Black, working class, and queer experiences of the academy.
feeling like an impostor is often in response to being marginalised in particular spaces.
In my work for the SIDUS Project at Imperial, I sought to contribute to this work of reconceptualising impostor syndrome using critical sociological understandings of emotions and inequalities in higher education. Drawing on the experiences of 27 student interviewees from the SIDUS project, including David’s and Selma’s, I developed the concept of impostor work, drawing on Sara Ahmed’s work on privilege, diversity work, and sociality of emotions. In our recently published article, I along with my SIDUS project colleagues, Tiffany Chiu, Jo Horsburgh, and Billy Wong, argue that impostor work is “a form of unevenly distributed emotional work.” This means that marginalised students spend disproportionate time and energy trying to survive university, including negotiating impostor feelings which are reinforced by the exclusionary atmosphere of elite university spaces. Impostor work is an attempt to acknowledge the extremely varied experiences of impostor feelings and connect this variation to the nuanced intersectional dynamics of marginality. For example, in the paper we describe the tendency for more privileged students, such as white middle-class women in more gender-balanced degree programmes, to narrate overcoming impostor syndrome as if it is an individual problem. Such narratives ignore the impact of intersecting inequalities on impostor feelings and imply it is possible to individually overcome structural barriers. Our concept of impostor work helps to acknowledge the differential burden put on students depending on their positionality in particular contexts and what Ahmed calls the energy-saving nature of privilege. For instance, students who were hyper-underrepresented on their courses often experienced a profound sense of alienation that was structurally reinforced, particularly for Black and/or working-class students who navigated racist and classist dynamics. It is not that they cannot overcome their impostor feelings, it is that they have to do much more impostor work to survive in exclusionary spaces such as elite universities.
Connecting inequality and emotions
Using the same term, impostor syndrome, to describe these extremely different experiences can fall into the trap described by Addison, Breeze, and Taylor – depoliticising, individualising, and simultaneously universalising. And yet, I still think impostor syndrome provides a useful entry point to talking about inequalities and emotions, particularly in STEMM environments. The popularity of the concept demonstrates how easily it evokes something familiar in people, naming something that seems deeply personal and internal, but making it legible to others. Rather than following the individualising, pseudo-therapeutic usage of impostor syndrome, I propose impostor work as a way to attempt to redirect our understanding away from an inward-looking gaze and back onto the cause: alienating working conditions, exclusionary organisational cultures, and unequal societal contexts which engender impostor feelings. We cannot self-care our way out of impostor syndrome. Instead, it must be a starting point, generating the questions: what produces these feelings? When, where, and in relation to whom do we experience impostor feelings? And how can we organise collectively to change things?
All student names are pseudonyms.
This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.