It affected Maya Angelou and Neil Gaiman. Before it was a well-known syndrome — and you and/or someone you know is likely affected by it — it was referred to as a phenomenon. What exactly are we talking about here? Why, it’s imposter syndrome, that feeling that you have nothing of real value to contribute, and that soon, you’ll slip up and your true status as a sham will be revealed to the world. At The New Yorker, Leslie Jamison discovers that imposter system could very well be rooted in childhood. Upon deeper investigation, she finds that since being coined 50 years ago, it’s become a term that deflects us from placing our attention on the arbitrary rules, barriers, and systems that cause us to feel inferior in the first place.
For both types of “impostors,” the crisis comes from the disjunction between the messages received from their parents and the messages received from the world. Are my parents right (that I’m inadequate), or is the world right (that I’m capable)? Or, conversely, are my parents right (that I’m perfect), or is the world right (that I’m failing)? This gap gives rise to a conviction that either the parent is wrong or the world is.
Imes asked if I got anxious before interviews like this—confessing that she always does—and soon I was talking about how shy I’d been in junior high school, and how I still worried that the wrong interview questions would expose how little I knew about the subject, or somehow reveal that I’m not a “real” journalist. Run-of-the-mill impostor feelings.
In 2020, almost fifty years after Clance and Imes collaborated on their article, another pair of women collaborated on an article about impostor syndrome—this one pushing back fiercely against the idea. In “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome,” published in the Harvard Business Review, in February, 2021, Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey argue that the label implies that women are suffering from a crisis of self-confidence and fails to recognize the real obstacles facing professional women, especially women of color—essentially, that it reframes systemic inequality as an individual pathology. As they put it, “Imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.”