“The trouble with the world,” wrote Bertrand Russell, “is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” His words came back to me this week during a nocturnal phonecall to a friend who is struggling to adjust to his university course. It isn’t the work, really. It’s getting his head around the fact that he’s there. After years at night school, when he fitted his studies around his job, spending every weekend and holiday in the library, applying for grants, saving up… he has made it to one of the most respected universities in the world, to study full-time. His self-doubt is illogical (it’s quite hard to get into a globally recognised academic centre of excellence by accident), but imposter syndrome doesn’t have to make sense to be debilitating – and Bertrand Russell is quite right: the wrong people always seem to have it.
Imposter syndrome was identified in the 1970s by a pair of social scientists who were trying to understand why so many of the high-achieving women they were studying felt like frauds. There are male sufferers (including, apparently, Tom Hanks and Einstein), but the scientists who identified the phenomenon stated that it disproportionately affects women – and intelligent ones at that. My friend is in fabulous, largely feminine company – Tina Fey, Sheryl Sandberg, Maya Angelou, Emma Watson and Natalie Portman have all admitted to experiencing it.
Tina Fey, Sheryl Sandberg, Maya Angelou, Emma Watson and Natalie Portman have all admitted to experiencing imposter syndrome
Last month, Portman delivered this year’s Harvard commencement address, and imposter syndrome was her subject. When she was admitted to the university at 18, she said, “I was convinced I got in only because I was famous. This was how others saw me; it was how I saw myself.” She proceeded to go overboard on intense study, enrolling in subjects like advanced Hebrew literature and neurobiology to prove herself (the lecturer who taught her reported that she earned the highest grade in the class). Having never been the nervous type, I wouldn’t have pegged myself as prone to imposter syndrome, but Portman’s description of the lengths she went to to demonstrate her worth rang some uncomfortable bells.
Further reading revealed that imposter syndrome isn’t necessarily characterised by anxiety or neurosis. People who have it are often competitive, tenacious leaders in their workplace. They always go the extra mile, partly because they don’t believe they’re good enough not to. They tend to be more comfortable advocating for people who work in “subordinate” positions than for themselves, are happy to praise their team, but reluctant to accept acclaim themselves. It’s a reasonably accurate description of many women I know, myself included.
Can we, should we rid ourselves of imposter syndrome? Obviously, if it’s getting in the way of something important – like studying – you have to try. My friend assured me he would take the weekend off and chill out a bit. He went to stay with his mum. “What did you do?” I asked. “Oh, I just hung around, watched a bit of telly…” A pause. He cracked. “OK, OK, I watched a documentary about Foucault on my laptop.” That is an imposter syndrome self-help fail. I went in search of a better strategy. Here’s what I found.
Start by asking yourself, what’s the worst that can happen? If you try and fail, it’s unlikely to be as bad as you imagine. Furthermore, not trying doesn’t allow you to opt out of failing – it could make your failure even more profound. Back to Bertrand Russell for a moment. The quote at the beginning of the piece comes from his 1933 essay, The Triumph Of Stupidity, about Nazism in Germany and the threat – very real at the time – that “those elements of the population which are both brutal and stupid (and these two qualities usually go together)” were on the rise in Britain. Obviously, in this situation, intelligent people failing to act against the far right might have had severe consequences. If doubt paralyses you now, what are the potential consequences? You might think they would only be personally damaging, but that’s not true – imposter syndrome has a cumulative effect. In 2013, an American study affirmed that “imposterism” was causing women in the field of science to “downshift” their career goals. They missed out on professional achievements, but their timidity also robbed the rest of us of the collective benefit their work could have brought the world. So, if you can’t tackle your feelings on your own behalf, do it for the common good.
You’re probably not incompetent (people who are don’t experience imposter syndrome), but you are imperfect. So is everyone else
Most practical strategies to deal with imposter syndrome boil down to a combination of perspective and “faking it til you make it”. The perspective part is about acknowledging that you’re underestimating your own abilities and achievements, and overestimating those of other people. The reality is likely to be much less spectacular and somewhere in the middle. You’re probably not incompetent (people who are don’t experience imposter syndrome), but you are imperfect. So is everyone else. You may not be able to feel the truth of this, but seeing the logic is an important step.
The next thing is to take action. Anxiety thrives when you’re paralysed by it. Small, practical steps towards an achievable goal will help change your mindset and keep you moving forward. The bad news is you may have to fake it at this point. If you’ve been hanging back, waiting for some imagined day when you’ll be bursting with self-belief and feel magnetically drawn towards your moment of glory, rest assured, this day never comes for anyone, except unbearable egomaniacs nobody wants to be friends with. Everyone else is just rubbing along as best they can. You might as well join in. If you’re in need of further advice, this book contains some good ideas.
Finally, understand that your feelings aren’t necessarily all bad. As with all things, it’s a question of balance. A healthy dose of doubt keeps you humble, which makes you better company. Who wants to be the kind of charmless bore who spends the entire time honking about how great they are? That’s the kind of monologue nobody wants to hear (unless it’s a really amazing rap). Being conscious that your abilities have limits also keeps you accountable for your behaviour. This can be beneficial – we probably could have done with a bit more imposter syndrome in London’s financial district in 2007.
Personally, I’m happy to keep the benefits of my tendency to downplay my abilities. I like championing people who are junior to me at work and being part of a team. But I’ve decided to be wary of the potential downside. By devaluing my job, the effort I make or over-emphasising the importance of small mistakes, am I setting a good example or providing encouragement to women who might want to do what I do one day? Probably not. What if imperfection is not just inevitable, but useful? What if you had the chance to offer the world a practical demonstration that work is sometimes difficult, that it’s important to try at the risk of messing up and that it is possible to keep going when you fail? Would you take it? I’ve decided I will. Who am I not to?
Lauren Laverne is an English radio DJ, television presenter, author, singer and comedienne. She presents a radio show on BBC Radio 6 Music, and has presented television programmes including 10 O’Clock Live for Channel 4, and The Culture Show and coverage of the Glastonbury Festival for the BBC.