The Audacity of ConfidenceIs It Imposter Syndrome or Is It Patriarchy?

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This article was published in Plastic Issue #91 | Summer 2021

IN 1978, as more than 100,000 demonstrators marched in Washington, D.C., in support of the still-lingering Equal Rights Amendment, psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes were identifying a phenomenon that could be experienced by anyone. They called it “imposter syndrome.” The two Georgia State University clinical researchers used the term to describe the “internal experience of intellectual phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable, or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” Those with imposter syndrome often see themselves as intellectual frauds or phonies in their professional lives, unqualified to be in their position and doubtful of their abilities despite their accomplishments. The syndrome isn’t rare: At least 70 percent of people are estimated to experience this profound sense of phrenic inadequacy at some point in their lives, resulting in anxiety, lack of self-confidence, depression, frustration, and more. But Clance and Imes initially believed that imposter syndrome occurred much more frequently in high-achieving women than in others—and that’s where the anomaly begins.

You might wonder: Why would an incredibly successful woman undermine her own abilities by brainwashing herself into thinking she couldn’t have earned her seat at the table? Clance and Imes’s short answer: the patriarchy. The (slightly) longer answer: the white male patriarchy. Per the researchers’ reasoning, society has lower professional expectations for women than it does for men—an unfortunate truth that manifests in sex-role stereotypes that position women as intellectually inferior and deficient in leadership. Given the prevalence of these stereotypes, women often internalize this sexism, creating a self-stereotype that embodies a lack of competence. Thus, when looking to explain their accomplishments, the thought was that these high-achieving women, unknowingly hyped-up on sexist tropes, bypass their own intelligence to buy into an imposter persona, attributing their success to luck or fraud on their part. For example, if an accomplished woman were suddenly promoted to a high-ranking role, she may believe her elevation stemmed from the generosity of leadership, lack of qualified candidates, or need for gender diversity in the executive ranks. She may think she’s a fraud—all while mediocre men make mistakes and still continue to fail up. At least, that was (and to some extent still is) the common take on imposter syndrome.

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In the decades since imposter syndrome was first conceptualized, researchers have found that high-achieving women don’t uniquely experience the phenomenon any more than others. Clance has also come to this realization, recognizing that women may simply be more likely (or more courageous) to speak openly about feelings of imposterism. Unfortunately, this conclusion could mean that women are also more inclined to project it. This is what Reshma Gopaldas, vice president of video programming for SHE Media, experienced. With more than 15 years of experience crafting eye-catching visual content and working with game-changing industry names, Gopaldas has rarely encountered imposter syndrome. But she’s had it projected onto her plenty—by other women. One experience in particular sticks with her: The night before Gopaldas had a coveted job interview with an illustrious women’s health organization, she was sitting at a dining table with a close female friend going over the job description, when her friend said to her, “Oh! This looks like a big job. I don’t know if you’re going to be able to do it.” The New York–based executive, who met all the prerequisites for the position and more, felt winded by the words of her friend. And she wasn’t feeling it. “Those little insecurities that women are taught when they’re younger tend to project on other people,” Gopaldas says. “It does make you question yourself for a moment. It puts you in a frame of mind that maybe you can’t do this.”

The usually confident Gopaldas went into the interview the next day feeling less self-assured. Though things ended well—the interviewer offered her the job on the spot—Gopaldas will never forget how another woman’s internalized inadequacies made her doubt herself in a decisive moment. Alas, such antics aren’t unusual. “Those women have been socialized to doubt themselves, so when another woman tries to rise up, they will try to pull her back down,” says Suzann Lawry, PhD, a clinical psychology professor at Georgia State University who conducts imposter syndrome research with Clance. “It’s important to realize that the locus is not the woman. The woman is pulling you down, yes; but the locus of the problem is the patriarchy.” Lawry reinforces this point, recognizing that women need not be further divided. Still, there is salience when another woman—a member of your own oppressed group—betrays you. However, that betrayal is arguably par for the course, as those with imposter syndrome are already betraying logic. “It’s illogical and makes no sense,” says Valerie Young, EdD, author of the 2011 bestselling book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. To ignore achievements bolstered by fact, only to believe oneself to be a fraud, is the antithesis of logic.

Nonetheless, Young says women shouldn’t feel ashamed for engaging in this irrational mental exercise. “We need to normalize imposter syndrome—less psychologizing and more contextualizing,” she says, explaining that there are plenty of logical reasons women develop the syndrome. For example, Young points out that, due to patriarchal programming, “women simply process things differently. When someone says, ‘Your report is inadequate,’ women hear ‘You’re inadequate.’” All that nonsense comes into play, resulting in unfounded doubts. To be a woman is to be constantly under attack. Young further notes how the syndrome—if not adequately addressed—can adversely impact women’s careers, especially by breaking their confidence. But don’t get it twisted: “Imposter syndrome is not a fancy term for low self-esteem,” she says. “People with imposter syndrome conflate confidence with competence. Lack of confidence holds women back more than anything.” 

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Confidence and Color Make a Difference

AFTER FIVE YEARS of studying Renaissance literature in a doctoral program and working as a teaching assistant, Victoria Duncan entered corporate America—and lost her confidence. “I’d always played to my strengths—my literacy skills, because I didn’t believe I had social skills like other kids who could navigate social situations smoothly,” she says. Duncan—who joined corporate life as an overeducated entry-level secretary—spent years languishing over a perceived inability to effectively communicate. This perceived inadequacy led the now 32-year-old Canadian native to overcompensate. “I would be a people pleaser,” she says. “I would overexplain. I would write these endless emails trying not to offend anyone.” It took an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis for Duncan to embrace the fact that she is an exceptional communicator in the corporate world just as she was in academia. A better understanding of herself and an appreciation of neurodiversity helped boost her confidence. “I have a whole analytic approach that communicators don’t traditionally have. You don’t get that in training,” Duncan says. Now, she’s confidently leveraging that strength in her position as the communications coordinator of a major bank in Alberta, Canada. As Duncan’s experience demonstrates, imposter syndrome can make people discount their hard professional skills as well as their soft skills. The result can be toxic, according to Young. 

Those with imposter syndrome intentionally or unintentionally engage in shady tactics such as self-sabotage when opportunities arise, failing to grow their business, overpreparing and overworking, and feeling they must work harder than others to make up for their perceived deficiencies. For businesses, this translates to lost human capital and wasted resources. For individuals, it’s a lost opportunity for professional growth and wasted time. In the words of Young, “Everyone loses when bright people play small.” Under the bright lights of New York City, public servant Lindsey Boylan, who sparked the recent movement to hold Governor Andrew Cuomo accountable for alleged workplace sexual harassment, has struggled with playing small for as long as she can remember. “Imposter syndrome is something that’s always been a part of my life,” she says. “I’ve always been trying to move in circles where something about me was not always accepted or welcomed.” The 36-year-old, who is running for Manhattan borough president, was raised in a tumultuous home that struggled with poverty, substance abuse, and mental health issues that led to child custody battles and years of shame. 

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Even after earning a graduate degree from an Ivy League school, spending more than a decade excelling in urban planning, and rubbing elbows with New York elites while uplifting top politicians, Boylan still can’t shake the feeling that she’s a fraud who shouldn’t be front and center in politics. But she fights back. Boylan is unwilling to allow these faux feelings of incompetence to interfere with her ability to successfully lead, to mentor others, and most importantly, to be a mother to her biracial 7-year-old child. “I can’t change the world fast enough to impact how the world is going to influence my daughter,” she says. Boylan is committed to consciously interrupting the racist and sexist messages her daughter is destined to receive. “As a white woman raising a child of color, I recognize that my learning will never end,” she explains. “I always will have to pause a little and think, How can I best support her and not project my experience as a white woman onto her?” As Boylan implies, imposter syndrome impacts women of color differently—and it hits harder, as researchers say we tend to experience it more often than white women. Kevin Cokley, PhD, professor at the University of Texas at Austin and director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis, attributes this prevalence of imposter syndrome to two factors: toxic racialized messaging and lack of positive representation. “It should not be any surprise to people that women of color are especially susceptible to imposterism feelings,” Cokley says, as their competence is often questioned and they’re often navigating demeaning racist stereotypes. Indeed, women of color are uniquely situated to experience both racism and sexism, in addition to racialized forms of sexism. 

This adverse intersectional impact can be doubly harmful to the psyche, particularly when it plays out on the public stage. “It has been made very clear over the past four years that if you’re not part of a particular group—if you’re not white, male, Christian, heterosexual—you’re not seen as being a legitimate American. Who did [Donald] Trump have the most issues with? I would submit to you that it was strong, accomplished women of color, particularly Black women,” Cokley says. Trump’s behavior toward women of color, Black women in particular, was a signal to other people that they too can disrespect these women. “If you’re a Black woman or woman of color, this would highlight potential feelings of imposterism as people are seeing this play out on a national stage.” Imposter syndrome doesn’t necessarily get better for Black women and other women of color in the spotlight: During a 2018 tour stop for her bestselling memoir, Becoming, Michelle Obama was asked what it’s like to be a “symbol of hope.” Though the former first lady is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School and an accomplished attorney, she responded, “I still have a little imposter syndrome…. It doesn’t go away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me that seriously.” Obama then explained her rationale for revealing such a vulnerable truth: “I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power, and what that power is. If I’m giving people hope, then that is a responsibility, so I have to make sure that I am accountable.” 

In 2019, then-Senator Kamala Harris spoke with Imprint Culture Lab about experiencing imposter syndrome. Though she grew up with strong role models who looked like her—from her Indian-born mother to her grandmother—she was still often the only woman of color in rooms where her decisions had ripple effects. When it comes to combating imposter syndrome, Harris says, “It’s important to remember that you come with people. And you will never truly be in those situations alone. We are with you cheering you on.” Harris becoming the first woman, first Black person, and first person of South Asian heritage to serve as vice president of the United States may have a lasting impact on those suffering from imposter syndrome. “How many little girls of color suddenly have an expanded sense of possibility seeing Harris as vice president?” Cokley emphasizes. “As a psychologist, I can’t overstate the importance of being able to see someone you can identify with and aspire to be. It’s no longer just an abstraction. It’s a real possibility.”

I must go through that self-talk because of the stereotypes that someone like me isn’t capable of doing great things.

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Fighting the Imposter Funk 

SEEING INTELLIGENT Latinas on television or in prominent positions in society changed things for Carla Santiago, founder of STORi.Digital, who remembers seeing people like her being portrayed only as cleaning people, nannies, junkies, and drug dealers. This lack of representation was compounded by well-meaning microaggressions. “Growing up I’d hear, ‘You’re really smart for a Puerto Rican,’” she says. “It was as though being Puerto Rican equates to second-tier intelligence. Hearing that since the first grade, you take it with you and learn to doubt yourself.” The 40-year-old marketing and branding executive speaks five languages fluently, earned a graduate degree from Harvard University, and has changed the game for A-listers in Hollywood. In 2011, Santiago was the first person to sell influencer packages to celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez and Michelle Phan. “I’m just starting to recognize that I was a pioneer, because I thought it was a fluke,” Santiago says. Despite her many achievements, she can’t shake imposter syndrome to this very day, though she knows it’s illogical. “I have to remind myself it’s not a fluke,” Santiago says. “I must go through that self-talk because of the stereotypes that someone like me isn’t capable of doing great things.”

Santiago is experiencing what’s called stereotype threat, or when members of marginalized groups are aware that others may hold negative stereotypes about their race or ethnicity as it concerns intelligence and intellectual abilities. This often fuels anxiety that contributes to the dreaded self-doubt associated with imposter syndrome. Increasing representation isn’t the only way to kick imposter syndrome. According to Cokley, having access to and making connections with those who also hold your same salient identity can be an effective resource for women seeking to overcome imposterism, especially women of color. Cynthia Gomez, a talented tech start-up whiz, finally found community after she opened up about workplace experiences that left her doubting herself. The first-generation Peruvian hadn’t much dealt with imposter syndrome since she was a high-school senior headed to Stanford University. But now, in the professional arena where the stakes are higher and others appear more willing to project their insecurities onto the 37-year-old Angeleno, her self-doubt resurfaces at times. Most recently, it emerged when a male superior tried to push Gomez out of a job. “In being more open about it, I found that, in my circle of friends, at least 50 percent have gone through an experience like that, particularly if they were women in higher positions who had entered a challenging work environment,” Gomez says. “I’ve found it’s very helpful to break it down, talk about the emotions, talk about the experience, and try to look at it logically.”

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Even if you can’t see yourself represented in prominent women across the world or don’t have a solid circle of friends offering support, there are other ways to overcome imposter syndrome. Therese Mascardo, PsyD, founder of Exploring Therapy, helps her patients drop the internalized self-doubt by practicing what she calls externalizing your accomplishments. “Pretend that your skills, knowledge, and training are possessed by another human being and then ask yourself, ‘Is that person qualified?’ If they are qualified, then guess what—so are you,” Mascardo says. She also helps her patients practice receiving praise and acknowledging their achievements. This is among the approaches 39-year-old Marie Denee has taken to beat the imposterism that has silenced her successes at times. Over the past few years, the founder and editor in chief of the Curvy Fashionista has invested in therapy, specifically to unlearn the lies she had made her truth. For Denee, the results have been real. “Shifts I’ve taken in my own life are directly felt in my business,” she says. “I want to ensure that I can help educate and empower women with the right tools and resources so they can look and feel their best selves to achieve their own goals.” Denee, who lives on the outskirts of Atlanta and is a plus-size fashion expert, is committed to raising the bar in how shapely women are covered in the media. And, after years of struggling herself, she’s finally unapologetic about her purpose. “I have been in this game for 12 years. I am an og in this space. I can now say that with confidence.” Confidence doesn’t come easily to everyone, and even the most self-assured may have moments of uncertainty. When in doubt, remind yourself what a real imposter looks like. That’s what Mascardo does when imposter syndrome comes her way. 

The Berkeley-educated psychologist thinks about Billy McFarland, the convicted felon and fraud who brought us the epic fail of 2017 known as Fyre Festival. “As a woman of color and a daughter of immigrants, I was blown away by the sheer audacity and entitlement demonstrated by this man, a true impostor in every sense,” she says. Amazed that so many people cosigned onto McFarland’s failing concept simply because he exuded confidence, Mascardo encourages those struggling with imposterism to remember this: “If someone who’s so incapable of success can go so far, then how much better equipped are you to succeed if you have even a modicum of talent or skill?” 


by Adrienne Lawrence
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