I think, you become an adult the moment you realize that most of the time NOBODY knows what they’re doing. Practically no one is an expert in anything except for pretending to be an expert at something and making it seem like they’ve got it all together. Keeping up appearances and “faking it” could be a full-time job. I guess there’s a turning point, it’s a paradox really, where once you realize how much you know (about your field, life, “the real world”) you realize how much you actually don’t know. The objective then becomes, “how can I convince as many people as possible I belong here and I’m as knowledgeable as they expect me to be?”
When that objective impedes the functioning of your life and begins to dictate your decisions that’s called Impostor Syndrome. It’s defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence (Caltech Counseling Center, 2015).
Impostor Syndrome is common among, although not exclusive to, academics and high achieving women. It’s been discussed in academic literature since 1978 when Clance and Imes coined the “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women”. They explain that “Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persists in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample object evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief. ” Alrighty, enough literature…
Impostor Syndrome is real and by reducing it to “humility” and ignoring its consequences we’re perpetuating the silence around mental health and the pressure and culture of perfectionism.
For me, Impostor Syndrome started invading my thoughts when I decided to apply to Brown. Then more persistently, when I struggled through my personal statement for my graduate school applications. And, most viciously when I got accepted to Brown and decided to come. In many regards, I’m “over it”. I know, and I’m confident that, I’m “intellectual enough” to be in graduate school but still, sometimes, it creeps up on me unexpectedly. On a bad day, if I let it win, Impostor Syndrome prescribes me to stay in bed. It convinces me I shouldn’t even try because I’m simply not good enough. In my work Impostor Syndrome sounds like me telling myself “I can’t believe they’re letting/trusting me to do this task” – regardless of the rigor or importance. Then I spend hours scrutinizing over the smallest details to be sure to impress or meet their “delusional” expectations.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Impostor Syndrome as it relates to social media and the necessity to present as perfect and simultaneously have every accomplishment appear effortless. I’m sure many of us can relate to abruptly halting our lived experiences to snap the perfect photo (and another and another) and then later stressing about crafting the pithy caption to capture the moment that was already ruined once we decided to take a photo. Right? The anxiety social media perpetuates in terms of what/how/why we share about our successes and good news (and how we perceive others will respond) makes this compelling to explore.
Why is it that when someone posts about their successes on social media it’s always accompanied by a slight, yet extremely important, attribution to luck or “the amazing opportunity”? Yes, humility is important and often we aren’t doing it all on our own but, can you recall the last time you shared an accomplishment without being concerned someone would think you’re being conceited or think you’re only sharing it to boost your self-esteem and receive their praise? Why should you be nervous to call a friend or post online and share something exciting?
There’s this pervasive notion that you can’t actually be proud of what you’ve done. You have to be #blessed or #lucky to parade positivity online (listen to #blessed – Stuff Mom Never Told You for more on this – it’s spot on) because calling attention to your successes outright is, apparently, social media taboo. WHY? Why do women feel the need to downplay their success or appear effortlessly perfect?
There’s even an app now that helps women stop saying “just” and “sorry” in emails so they stop “inadvertently discredit[ing] their own opinions”. It’s troubling though because nobody is talking about the societal and institutional parameters that perpetuate these minimizing behaviors and render them acceptable. Why do women feel more comfortable making themselves small? In some ways, I think, it’s an attempt to build themselves up. We’re not talking about the protective features those asides provide to make women feel like it’s okay to share about their exciting news or even simply their opinion. These small, but important, choices we make assure we’re not experienced as “bossy” or “boasting”. We do it even when we know we’re right!
The New York Times, discusses this culture of appearing perfect and saving face well in one of their most popular articles from 2015: Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection. They detail a phenomenon where students talked about how “They could say what they’d accomplished, but they couldn’t necessarily say who they were”. Such mind games! But it’s true and, it’s practically unbelievable that intelligent people can stare at their resumes and acceptance letters to Ivy League institutions (which if you “look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment…what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation”) and see right past all the evidence that indicates they are deserving. They can easily convince themselves otherwise and may not even recognize themselves beyond the list of “things they’ve done”. Suddenly, their accomplishments stand in as the default measure that indicates who they are, their worth, and beyond the impressive list they’ve compiled they feel lost and misguided. It happens without consent and it’s positively crippling once it captures your mind.
The NY Times article also explains that “female students felt pressure to be “effortlessly perfect”: smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, all without visible effort.” These internal narratives are consistently challenged by loved ones’ encouragements, “you belong with those people”and “you’re meant to do this”. Where the words, “those people” throb like a pounding headache because they feels so separate, so elite, so much more than they could achieve; they hear “you’re meant to do this” as “you tricked them yet again” rather than the support these phrases are intended to provide. So their foundation must be rebuilt often due to the wrath – expressions of support and encouragement – of what seems like never ending wrecking balls whose only obligation is to create cracks in their concrete with their terms of endearment. They go through the motions working themselves into fits of sleeplessness and mind boggling anxiety trying to prove they can do this – it becomes their sole obligation. At the same time, they’re consumed by maintaining an online presence of apparent effortlessness and success – but not too successful of course.
Don’t be fooled. Underneath the encouragement from friends and family and the pristine social media presence, their mind is unraveling. It tells a story which is comprised of lists of achievements that amount to nothing special – cloaked in phrases like “it’s mediocre” or “just a thing I’ve done” – even when they’re spectacular! The list is glistening with expectations still to be met. We call these unmet items potential and as their list of accomplishments grows longer so too does the list of expectations. Somehow, as they become more “qualified”, and subsequently feel less qualified, little by little the consideration of the associated hard work they’ve done to reach these numerous accolades dissipates. At some point, perfection becomes a burdensome, heavy expectation that weighs them down and occupies their mind. Soon, the means by with they achieve are less important and to the outside world it looks like they can do it all – and so they do and then some – whatever the cost. The conceptions that they work hard and overcome challenges or adversity are not entertained. The final product becomes the only objective – nobody is concerned about the process or the progress. It’s a dangerous, slippery slope that ends in fear and pent up, insidious, persistent feelings of inadequacy which are kept separate from the persona they put on each day to face the world. It feels like they must make it seem absolutely effortless because otherwise, they’d have to actually recognize THEMSELVES rather than their resume. They end up feeling defeated simultaneously wondering how they can maintain the facade and how it was created in the first place. They experience all this utter nonsense, instead of owning their successes and being proud. Social media only makes it worse. It’s never ending and mostly they want it to stop – even if just for a moment – so they can gain some perspective.