Impostor syndrome

By , May 9, 2011 10:57 am

I am in a funny phase of life where I am discovering thoughts/theories/beliefs that I have had for a long time are actually well-recognized phenomena or studies or disciplines. Along the lines of, “whoa, I always thought that but, I didn’t know it had a name and that other people have discovered it too.”

I found a post on a friend’s website a while back called, “How to Steal Like an Artist.” Today I looked at it again following some conversations with people who are the absolute most creative people I know not thinking that they are all that creative at all, or worrying that their ideas have already been done by others. I re-read it and followed a few links from it. (it is, after all, finals week. the most prime time for random distractions).

I discovered something I may have. It is called Impostor Syndrome, and I am sure many people who have never heard of it suffer from it. It is a phenomena where “proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.”

“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision” -Bertrand Russell

Wikipedia says that Impostor Syndrome was originally hypothesized to be found more in women, but that men have it in equal numbers. From my anecdotal experience I cannot concur, as I have found men to suffer far more from, the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

I’m not sure how Impostor Syndrome overlaps with what a therapist of mine, I believe, once called anti-entitlement. Anti-entitlement is sortof the extreme tendency to not want to inconvenience others combined with a compulsion to not stand up for yourself because you don’t want to make waves.

That’s the funny thing about me.

I think that most people would describe me as “confident,” or “bossy” or “assertive.” And, I don’t see it that way at all. I really hate telling other people what to do… especially if I think they see it another way. This is likely part Mormon-passive aggressive/anti-confrontationalist and part being a woman. Because, after all, if you do stick up for yourself as a woman, you are often labeled with negative words like “bossy” or “pushy” or worse. In fact, I can’t think of a single incident in my life where a man was described as “bossy.”

Can you?

Are they just assumed to be the boss? So if they are being “bossy” it’s just the way they are expected to act?

In some ways I think that this anti-entitlement tilt I’ve got going on is an asset.  I can recognize that other people are just as capable as I am. I don’t feel I deserve things that other people don’t. After living in NW DC with a very large crowd of the richest, whitest most entitled feeling (and absolutely the most unpleasant) group of people on earth, I certainly don’t want to be like them and assume I deserve more than others or that my time is more valuable than that of EVERYONE else.

But, I also tend to belittle my own accomplishments. For example, I kept calling the film I am making my “little film” and a professor of mine said, “stop calling it little. This is an amazing feat for a law student.”

Another example is that I didn’t attend my graduation from Undergrad. The main reason was that I just felt like I stuck around for a bunch of years. I didn’t feel I had actually accomplished anything.

Ok. I am making a promise to you internet dearest:

I will attend my law school graduation ceremony.*

*except in the unlikely event that Dick Cheney is asked to be the Commencement Speaker.

11 Responses to “Impostor syndrome”

  1. Jen says:

    One of the most revolutionary moments in my life was reading CS Lewis’ definition of real humility. It’s either in Screwtape Letters or Mere Christianity, and he says that the truly humble are able to recognize their own good qualities, admit that they have them, and then think nothing more about them. He points out the folly/dishonesty of pretending you are not good at something when you are really stellar at it. I love that.

    Also, on the bossy thing, I feel like society often listens to men more attentively. I don’t say it’s right, but I think men listen to men, and women listen to men more often than men listen to women and women listen to women. So the quality I would describe as “bossy” is a phenomenon that more commonly develops in women because they are tired of not being listened to as well as men are listened to. I may be at an understandingal disadvantage here due to my limited social experience right now, but my kids Always do what the dad says, and force me to be bossy before they do what I say. Actually, when I was in the workforce, I would have described my boss’s bossy qualities as “Jerk” qualities, where in a female, maybe bossy. I bet you’re right that it’s a feminine/masculine semantics thing.

  2. Kate says:


    I think you are right that women get tired of not being listened to/taken seriously. I hear what you said about your tots from a lot of young mothers.

    I think we need to get to the bottom of why kids (men, society) don’t listen. Where do they learn it from? How can we reverse the messages they are getting/ assert our own legitimacy?

    How can we teach ourselves to presume that what we have to say is valuable to the group/community?

  3. Tess says:

    Kate, I saw this “How to Steal like and Artist” post a few weeks ago, too. I loved it, especially this quote, which I emailed to Adam:
    “An artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference: hoarders collect indiscriminately, the artist collects selectively. They only collect things that they really love.”

  4. amy says:

    Kate, I walked on Friday and received my Master’s degree with the little guy strapped to me in a sling. We may have missed acknowledging ourselves in our early twenties, but I’m glad to see we learned a few things on our way to our early thirties.

    I’m glad your teacher called you out on the use of the diminutive “little”. My mom uses this word more than anyone I know and I’m always calling her out on it. We don’t have to be small!

    Your film is awesome, in the non-colloquial sense, and so are you.

    And, Tess, if you read this, I love that quote–it’s perfect for you! An Artist-Collector indeed :)

  5. Anne says:

    KATE. I am not making this up. I actually already have this exact link open in another tab RIGHT NOW: * . . . X Files Theme . . .*

    Great minds, and spooky synchronicity . . .

    And I know just what you mean on the feeling of discovering one’s TOTALLY LEGITIMATE idea to have been taken by someone else. I can’t even tell you how many times it’s happened to me, grr. Most recently: Say, let’s call the vegan cookbook “ExtraVEGANza” . . . oh wait. D’oh.

    Also, love Jen’s C.S. Lewis point, love him. And it’s true, that false modesty is so pervasive and yet really disingenuous and counterproductive. It’s so deeply ingrained in us, too, and hard to overcome, especially as women, and it’s taught to us at an early age. Think about how automatically we reject compliments, lest we be labeled ‘conceited’. What do you say to “Wow, you look so nice in that dress!” Answer: “Oh, this old thing? It’s nothing.”

    Anyway end tangent. Looking forward to cheering you on to Pomp & Circumstance!

  6. Kate says:

    Tess, I concur. You are the best artist-collector ever! Truly a person I would describe as one-of-a-kind.

    Amy, Hurrah for your graduation! I have learned some things, yes, plus law school is a hell of a lot harder than undergrad x 1 million. ;)

  7. Jill says:

    I’m on an anti-entitlement kick too, but it mostly has to do with single girls fantasizing about some fictitious man that they “deserve.” And also being surrounded by rich, self-aggrandizing people all the the time. I know so many people who don’t even feign interest in wheat other people have to say that I am oversensitive about not being like that. As you know, I am a talker, but I am in SO many conversation where I hardly say a word. Blah

    FWIW, I have never thought of you as bossy, not even once.

  8. momalicious kelly says:

    Just FYI if you’re reading this and you’re under 50 years old and female:

    Things used to be MUCH MUCH MUCH MUCH MUCH worse for women. When I was practicing law in the early 1980′s a judge frequently referred to me as “honey” or “sweetie” on the record. He also once stopped a jury trial and asked me in front of the jury at 3 p.m. if I needed to stop the trial to go home and make dinner for my family. I promise I am NOT making this up.

    Also, I saw this with my actual very own eyeballs: A federal judge in Salem, Oregon had a headless, armless and legless marble statue of a naked woman in his office and the little metal plate containing the title of the piece read “The Silent Woman.”

    We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!

  9. jer says:

    I suffered from impostor syndrome terribly during my time at Graduate School. Everyone around me seemed smarter, more put-together, more on top of their teaching, their writing, and they kept name-dropping theorists I’d never heard of in casual conversations. It got so bad in the first year that I set a meeting with my grad. advisor to tell him I was quitting. I was convinced that if my teachers and superiors REALLY knew me, they’d take away my classes, kick me out of the MA program, and only reluctantly serve as a reference for a job at McD’s.

    It’s actually really nice to that other people have had similar struggles.

    As for the gender thing: we’re working really hard with Maeby to encourage her to be proud of her accomplishments, her strengths, and her identity. She thinks being a girl is the most amazing thing ever – she constantly reminds me that I don’t have a uterus, so I’m not as awesome as her and mommy.

  10. Jonathan says:

    I am so sad that we didn’t talk about this when we were together in DC. Oh, the imposter syndrome. It definitely peaked in grad school, but I can’t say I’ve shaken it entirely. Things nearly fell apart at the very end of grad school in a mock interview with faculty from my department. They said they were preparing me for the job market, but they were really trying to crack an imposter. While I managed to survive that time, someone’s bound to find me out one of these days. . .

  11. Sandy says:

    Just want to chime in about the “not listening to Mom (women)” thing… as a Mom and woman I am allowed to say this, my husband is not allowed.
    The reason the children and the men don’t listen to us is because we talk too much and are far too bossy.

    Wait! Let me finish… it is true! I tell my husband it is for the survival of the species.
    “Don’t touch that pot!” “Don’t run into the street!” starts innocently enough but soon becomes.
    “Clean your room… pick up your socks.. you’re driving too fast… don’t get so close to that car’s bumper…” Sound familiar?
    Men don’t usually get wrapped up in whether or not there are socks on the floor or if you dripped chocolate on your shirt. They usually speak out on the “big stuff” and then, as my son James describes, there are “impact tremors” that come down the hall and your know you had better listen.

    I too thought men were sexist pigs (I grew up in the 70′s, what else would they be?). Then, a magical thing happened… I gave birth to two boys. Imagine my surprise when they were just like me! They cried when they fell down. They had hopes and dreams (some came true, some didn’t) but, they were forced to “suck it up” and learn that the buck did stop with them. That they had to find a job that could support a family and not run off to be an actor, singer, surfer, low paying teacher (insert any fulfilling job here).

    Perhaps women can look inside to find answers to relations between the sexes before assuming it is all the fault of men, they are such easy targets.

    Anyway, just my thoughts.

    Hope your invitation for people to come and visit you in Costa Rica includes old fuddy, duddy, aunts like me! Lindsay is actually listening while I to talk him about coming to see you!

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