Intro to Women's Studies 2010

etsu: 2011-2014

The Impostor Syndrome

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I read some articles recently about a psychological phenomenon called the Impostor Syndrome, and I feel that some of what I found is relevant to what we discuss in this class. Essentially, individuals who suffer from this disorder tend to be very highly motivated and successful, yet seem incapable of ever actually feeling successful. Indeed, most frequently people with this describe themselves as feeling insincere, or “like an impostor.” They are constantly afraid that others will “find out” that they are not successful in their particular field, despite the fact that they actually are. For these individuals there is a pervasive feeling that they are not deserving of the success and praise that they have received. These feelings are most often attributed to the individual’s incapability to internalize success and worthiness. They will attribute their accomplishments to external forces such as luck, or discount the achievements entirely. For example, if they do exceptionally well in a class, instead of saying “I worked very hard and studied diligently and so I deserve this grade” they will likely brush it off, claiming they “got lucky” or that “it doesn’t count because the class was very easy.” Again, these individuals are most frequently high achievers and very intelligent, so such attribution of their success to these external forces makes very little sense in context. However, even when confronted with solid evidence of their worthiness, these individuals will continue to have feelings of inadequacy and insincerity.

The reason I feel this pertains to women’s studies is that when this syndrome was first identified by Imes and Clance in 1978, it was believed only women suffered from it. Much like the hysteria of its time, the Impostor Syndrome was deemed to be a “woman’s issue” that the weak-willed women lacking in self-confidence simply needed to deal with. If a woman felt like an impostor, or felt that her success in her chosen field was fraudulent, it was merely something that she needed to keep quiet about. Or, as was thought by many at the time, perhaps her feelings were accurate, and she had only reached her position through her “womanly wiles” and so it was appropriate for her to feel negative about herself. After all, a common characteristic of women with Impostor Syndrome is that they are quite charming, due to the fact that they feel the need to compensate for their perceived deficiencies.

However, more recent studies have shown that cases of the Impostor Syndrome is not restricted to the population of successful women. Indeed, it has actually been proven that populations of successful men have equal prevalence of this phenomenon. Despite this, however, it seems that the Impostor Syndrome is still considered a woman’s issue. Many studies still focus on populations of women more likely to suffer from this, as opposed to shifting the focus to populations of professionals and highly successful people. Why the disorder is still regarded this way is a question that puzzles me. Is it perhaps that this, much like breast cancer, has been considered to be an illness only found in women for so long that it is the norm to disregard its incidence in men, despite the fact that it can be just as damaging? And furthermore, is it also possible that it is disregarded in men because of its historical associations with women and femininity, and thus cannot be acknowledge because it would make the male population seem “weak?” Or is it somehow that we, as a society, subconsciously feel the need to acknowledge and validate a woman’s feelings when it is regarding her perceived failure to succeed in primarily male-dominated fields, whereas for a man in these fields these feelings of failure can be disregarded because we more readily recognize that they have ultimately have no foundation? I do not have answers to these questions, and I do not expect I ever will, but this class has at least gotten me so far that I now know enough to ask even them.

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