Imposter Syndrome: A Buzzword with Damaging Consequences
Like many racially minoritized faculty who engage in work for equity and social justice, we are no strangers to the daily manifestations of systems of oppression and oppressive behavior in academia. Recently during one of our conversations, the topic of imposter syndrome surfaced as we both processed some of our experiences. Dr. Wright-Mair and I talked about how we are frustrated with some people constantly using the term ‘imposter syndrome’ so casually. Imposter syndrome (Clance, 1985) is a common term used to describe thoughts and feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, often without considering the underlying reasons people feel like an imposter. Seldom have we observed people pausing and reflecting that imposter syndrome is a direct byproduct of systemic oppression (e.g., racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism), resulting from a system that fails certain individuals and not a failure of those individuals specifically. As we continue to witness people engaging with the term so lightly, we feel the need to problematize its use. Especially as the continuous embrace of ‘imposter syndrome’ helps sustain exclusionary and meritocratic ideals of academia that reinforce messaging that the individual lacks something, needs to rectify a problem within themselves, by extension- they cannot succeed.
Shortly after our conversation concluded, we encountered content on social media that further affirmed these ideas in an Instagram post by activist Blair Imani who wrote “Calling it ‘imposter syndrome’ hides the fact that oppressive systems teach many of us to actively suppress and hate ourselves. It’s not imposter syndrome, it is the consequences of oppression.” Imani’s message reaffirmed our ideas on the problematic nature of imposter syndrome as we recalled examples of this dynamic and how it operates in higher education, even in the most seemingly innocuous ways. Among these examples, we recount the detrimental ways that systemic failure can deeply impact and wound those who are made to feel that they need to be fixed, made to feel they do not belong.
In our faculty experiences, we have noticed some fellow academics reaffirm imposter syndrome in many ways with graduate students and faculty alike. Encounters that sustain imposter syndrome happen as the one who feels like an imposter speaks of their feelings of inadequacy per normative standards or question the legitimacy of their presence in academia. These feelings are then validated with comforting messaging that aims to make the person feel better while leaving imposter syndrome’s oppressive roots untouched. Below are several examples that we have noted in our experience.
Commonly, we notice graduate students with marginalized identities express feelings of imposter syndrome as they prepare to accomplish an unfamiliar yet seemingly challenging task. For example, students might share feeling nervous or insecure about engaging in scholarly writing as they have not published or doubt their ability to engage in research project tasks. In these cases, we have observed some academics rushing to let students know that what they are experiencing is termed ‘imposter syndrome’ and make known it is something they are supposed to encounter in graduate school. However, these conversations often end there, leading students to believe they are supposed to feel like imposters in academia, without explaining the oppressive structures that sustain these feelings. This problem and its consequences are enlarged when students hold multiple minoritized identities, as these students navigate multilayered difficulties while simultaneously encountering deficit perceptions that others have of their experiences.
We have also noted similar dynamics among academics, affirming that getting accolades should counter students’ imposter syndrome. For example, when a student receives an award and expresses that recognition helps them feel less of an imposter, some academics quickly agree with students that indeed- winning awards and being recognized challenges imposter syndrome. These events are particularly troubling as reinforcing students’ ‘imposter syndrome’ legitimizes and validates its existence, and consequently sustains notions of otherness for students. Even when the intention of such messaging might be benevolent, it serves only to perpetuate ideas that some students cannot succeed and do not belong in academe.
Not surprisingly, we have observed systems in higher education that sustain and legitimize imposter syndrome via policies, practices, and procedures in faculty tenure and promotion. Policies that privilege peer-reviewed publications in “top journals” as a condition to earn tenure heighten this conflict. These journals are traditionally ascribed higher value across higher education as they reflect a socially constructed, neoliberal definition of high impact. Framing in this way presents real consequences for and threatens the advancement of, pre-tenure colleagues, especially those with minoritized identities. For example, when a tenure and promotion committee recommends that pre-tenure faculty primarily publish in these top journals to earn tenure, and some faculty cannot situate their work in such outlets, this can lead to sustained feelings of inferiority. Often, these faculty berate their work, experience self-doubt about their prospects for tenure, and fear they will not meet the academy’s expectations unless they publish their work in these limited venues. Consequently, faculty can develop unrealistic expectations for their performance and overwork themselves to physical and mental strain. While the tenure and promotion committee does not explicitly call these faculty imposters, their recommendation threatens faculty wellbeing by upholding normative metrics for tenure that define suitability for tenure and legitimize imposter syndrome.
Moreover, we have noted some faculty define their achievements solely by accolades received. For example, a clear manifestation of imposter syndrome is when a faculty member receives an award for their research, is surprised by this acknowledgment, and immediately thinks they must have been awarded recognition because there was little competition. Imposter syndrome as an oppressive system conditions some minoritized faculty to believe they are not worthy of standing out for their excellence. Consequently, when some receive praise and appreciation for their work, they question if they deserve it. We have both experienced these feelings of imposter syndrome to varying degrees in our careers as scholars. We know it exists and we detest feeling and thinking we are not enough, yet we continue to fall into this trap. Consequently, we believe it is important for those who understand imposter syndrome to commit to moving beyond simply acknowledging it and disrupt the oppressive structures that foster and maintain these thoughts and feelings.
Call to action
As both of us continue to grapple with the tensions associated with the presence and common use of imposter syndrome in higher education, we ask the broader Higher Education community to consider the following:
Stop using imposter syndrome as a buzzword
Understand that imposter syndrome stems from systemic oppression and is not an individual’s flaws, fault, or inadequacy. The system is broken, not the individuals tied to the system. When imposter syndrome is reaffirmed, it further marginalizes people and reinforces ideas that they are the problem, when they are not, the system is the problem. Imposter syndrome maintains ideas that only some are fit to exist within the bounds of higher education. Know this and challenge it.
Examine complicity and take action
Recognize and grapple with your privilege and examine whether you actively contribute to damaging colleagues and students for whom you reaffirm imposter syndrome. Validating inferiority can lead these individuals to continue seeing themselves as outsiders and not worthy of being present in academic spaces. In order to support minoritized communities, imposter syndrome should not be perpetuated. There are consequences for those who already feel like they do not belong because of systemic inequities. Those who experience imposter syndrome do not need to have these feelings reinforced; instead, they need people who advocate for disruption of systemic failure.
Disruption instead of legitimization
Shift your response when a student or colleague establishes a connection between academic rewards and their feelings of imposter, especially as a sign of relief that perhaps they are not as undeserving as they thought themselves to be. Instead of reaffirming the idea that they cannot succeed or are not worthy of recognition, respond in ways that validate and permit them to see their true value, power within, and contributions to academia and explain that imposter syndrome is an oppressive system created and perpetuated to sustain a broken system where some of us feel less than (and, thus, others more than). Disrupt the inherently privileged cycle.
Challenge problematic practices, policies and procedures
Lastly, identify and challenge seemingly harmless policies, practices, and procedures that perpetuate imposter syndrome in academia, particularly for graduate students and pre-tenured faculty. For example, if you participate in evaluation processes, you have a responsibility to interrogate and act upon the deeply layered and foundational causes of imposter syndrome tied to the evaluation process. True change requires going beyond one’s comfort zone and devoting time, energy, and resources to thinking and acting outside of the traditional (unequitable) ways most are conditioned to think and act in the academy.
Dr. Delma Ramos is an assistant professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Dr. Raquel Wright-Mair is an assistant professor of higher education at Rowan University.
Baez, B. (2000). Race-related service and faculty of color: Conceptualizing critical agency in academe. Higher Education, 39(3), 363-391.
Clance, P. R. (1985). The impostor phenomenon: Overcoming the fear that haunts your success. Peachtree Pub Limited.
Imani, B. [@blairimani] (2021, February, 11). “Imposter syndrome” is just the consequence of oppression. Systems of privilege and oppression dictate who should feel like they “belong” at the position they are. Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/CLKITOppz7S/.
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