In the age of Lean In and female breadwinners and the polysemy of the work stiletto, we are all thinking a lot about professional women. And professional women are thinking a lot about themselves: In Pacific Standard, Ann Friedman looks at impostor syndrome, the phenomenon by which high-achieving careerists feel unqualified for their jobs, regardless of the positive feedback they earn. Impostorism is “a nervous undercurrent that runs through your day-to-day experience, unacknowledged, only to crop up in salary negotiations or in small phrases like, 'It might just be me but….' or 'Not sure I know what I’m talking about,' ” Friedman writes. While it is prevalent in women, it occurs in men too, especially minorities who fear they owe their success to affirmative action.
A lot of columnists have taken on impostor syndrome, to the point where a template has emerged. The writer leads with a shocking example (World Health Organization chief Dr. Margaret Chan thinks she’s a fraud! So did Sheryl Sandberg! So do three-quarters of Harvard Business School students!) and then offers up some facts (the informal impostor syndrome diagnosis goes back to a 1978 paper by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who observed symptoms in more than 150 lady professionals). Questions are posed: What makes the modern workplace such a confidence desert? Are professional expectations unreasonably high? (“Wanted: a gifted communicator with fresh ideas, a stellar work ethic, mastery of all Microsoft and Internet technologies from 1970 until now, a pleasant demeanor, a proven track record in everything and anything, and no stinky lunches.”) Or do we all just suck at our jobs?
Friedman actually answers that last question, explaining that self-described “impostors” are in fact pretty good at their jobs. Her piece ends with a heartening quote from a sociology professor at Notre Dame: “Researchers find that impostorism is most often found among extremely talented and capable individuals, not people who are true impostors.” Those plagued by insecurity are paradoxically more likely to be high-achieving. Their doubt drives them to push themselves harder—and, conversely, their perfectionism makes them belittle themselves for doing entirely competent work. The more expertise you acquire, the more you feel like you have to learn.
Which brings us to women: While men can suffer from impostor syndrome too, writes Friedman, members of the fairer sex have more to prove after decades behind the stove. Many have “internalized messages about their lack of qualification.” Perfectionism becomes a way to ward off shame and failure—and yet it sets such a high standard for performance that the nitpicker still feels disappointed by her gleaming accomplishments.
The evidence of working women underselling themselves is everywhere. Studies show that female employees apologize more—not because they’re addicted to saying sorry, but because they have a lower threshold for thinking they’ve committed an offense. They give themselves duller performance reviews, even when their supervisors rate them more highly than their male peers. A 2012 survey of thousands of political candidates revealed that “men were 60% more likely [than women] to say they were ‘very qualified’ to run for office,” according to Forbes. The depressingly ironic part of all this niggling self-doubt is that most women don’t even apply for positions unless they’re certain they meet 100 percent of the prerequisites. (Men, meanwhile, tend to send in their resumes if they possess a mere 60 percent of the job qualifications.)
The classic impostor syndrome article has another feature: a confession. At some point, the writer explains that he or she has personal experience with feeling like a fake. He thinks that offer of tenure was an accident. She suspects she was first hired for her looks. I will conform to tradition here by acknowledging that Friedman’s descriptions of impostorism hit home. Like so many of my female friends, I often worry that my disguise will slip, exposing my utter incompetence to the world. This was not true when I was a kid or even a teenager at an all-girls high school in suburban Maryland, but the tentacles of doubt arrived in college and tightened their grip through my early 20s.
What happened? In one of the weirdest takes on the impostor syndrome I’ve seen, New York Times writer Benedict Carey proposes that these feelings and behaviors are actually an effective social strategy, rather than a personality tic. “Projecting oneself as an impostor can lower expectations for a performance and take pressure off a person,” he notes. The “phony phony” gets brownie points for being humble, even if she’s “secretly more confident than [she] lets on.” This made me wonder: Am I a fraud, or just a fraud at being a fraud? Maybe it doesn’t matter, because according to Carey, if one takes the self-deprecation too far, she starts to believe her own act. Could it be that women turn toward impostor syndrome as a presentation technique to cope with perfectionism (and—bonus—appear nice), only to get mentally sucked in?
Studies also show that women tend to attribute their successes to external factors—luck or outside help—while men chalk up their achievements to inner qualities like grit or talent. And women are more likely to blame their failures on internal deficits or a lack of effort, while men cite circumstances out of their control: personality conflict, bad stars, a glitch in the Matrix. My final theory is that ladies, long characterized as passive and valued for inert traits like beauty, are still expected to arrive at their victories effortlessly. Unlike men, they can’t let the world see them sweat or grind; so when they have to work to accomplish things (as one does), they are more likely to feel like phonies. In any case, thanks to some combination of these terrible puzzle pieces, the psyche of the professional woman sounds like something out of Hobbes: fragile, insecure, self-brutalizing, and anxious. Or, at least, I think it does. I’m not sure I know what I’m talking about.