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Confessions of an impostor
and the tenuous link between competence and confidence
When I was seven years old, I won my Montessori school spelling bee. The next round was the city private school bee and I was by far the youngest person on the stage. I managed my first word: bedstead. I missed my second word, misspelling it logically, but in a way I never would have written it: unpayed. I sat down, humiliated and silently crying until someone came to retrieve me from the stage.
This was likely the start of my impostorsyndrome. You’ve undoubtedly heard this term before, but if not, it’s simply the lack of confidence that besets a person who has been elevated to a position, perhaps on a stage or perhaps not, where she does not believe she deserves to be.
I have experienced this repeatedly throughout my life. Inducted into National Honor Society my senior year of high school? Just because I was the new girl in school. Admitted to Georgetown University? I was a declared linguistics major: rare, they’ll take anyone they can get! Landed that first teaching job? Nobody else applied, probably.
But the biggest wallop of impostor syndrome swooped in when I was named a state teacher of the year. After the initial shock, I had three months to think about it. When I finally met my classmates from across the country in January of 2014, I was flabbergasted that I had been deemed worthy of their company. They were the most impressive collection of human beings I’d ever met. Throughout that four-day conference, every time a program official approached me, I was sure it was to pull me aside with confession of a mistake in Helena, escort me to my room to pack, and send me to the airport. When nothing happened, I assumed the good folks back in Montana had accepted their error and decided they’d just put up with me the rest of the year. It sounds like I’m being funny but this is not an exaggeration or irony. It’s what I believed.
As I later learned, so many of the folks at that gathering had the same thoughts I did. Isn’t that the best, when you find out you’re not alone in your human-ness? But despite its ubiquity, impostor syndrome generates a lot of questions for me. Naturally, I started investigating by looking its origins up online. And let me state that I did not know what I should have known, which is that impostor syndrome was a thing first researched as it related to women.
High-achieving women often attributed their success to an external factor such as luck or a temporary cause that comes from themselves such as effort.
According to this 1978 report, which employs the term “impostor phenomenon,” high-achieving women often attributed their success to an external factor such as luck or a temporary cause that comes from themselves such as effort. Men, on the other hand, were more likely to attribute their success to permanent, inherent ability and intelligence. Granted, this report is based on interviews with about 165 middle- to upper-class White women, so who knows how the conclusions might differ if it had reviewed different demographics, SES, etc.
Women do, however, often try to efface themselves. It happens in the workplace when we are talked-over and allow it to pass, it happens in the home when we concede in order to not rock the boat, it happens on sidewalks when we sidestep in order to not let a man run into us, which they will do if we don’t move over for them. There is plenty of research about this, as well as anecdotes literally all of my female friends could tell.
Don’t men suffer from impostor syndrome too? Of course they do. You can look this stuff up, but the upshot is that men don’t experience it the same way. They are less apt to externalize their feelings, more likely to simply “push through,” though this strategy may be less effective in shedding the feelings of fraudulence than in disguising them.asserts that impostor syndrome isn’t really the problem. For women, anyway, and especially women of color, it boils down to systemic bias, and this includes sexism, racism, classism, and more. Some men may also be affected by these biases. The article offers telling insight regarding how impostor syndrome is perpetuated:
The truth of the matter is that pretty much anywhere in the world men tend to think that they are much smarter than women. Yet arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent — the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas in order to work for the common interest of the group.
Confidence doesn’t equal competence. The same systems that reward confidence in male leaders, even if they’re incompetent, punish white women for lacking confidence, women of color for showing too much of it, and all women for demonstrating it in a way that’s deemed unacceptable.
See above comments about effacing. Women are taught to erase themselves, to justify and conciliate, and not to take credit. So, if we don’t feel confident, we have impostor syndrome. If we do feel confident, we are too full of ourselves. If we act confident, we’re shrill and a threat.It’s easier to just shut up, which leads back to the starting point.
In her TED Talk “Fake It Till You Make It,” Amy Cuddy talks about mastering this: how even if our brains are wired a certain way, we can overcome fears, anxieties, and feelings of fraudulence such as impostor syndrome by consistently deploying a certain set of actions. You might think this is a bunch of self-help garbage, but I have always been moved by her story of losing her identity through a brain trauma, and having to regain that identity as well as her confidence.
Maybe actions like those she suggests can’t mitigate systemic biases in our world, but they might be able to help us address our own feelings about our shortcomings, and to remind us: we are enough.
All of this rationalizing does nothing to allay my own ongoing impostor syndrome, which may really just be a symptom of being a woman in this world, but anyway, to face my own fears, I recently entered an adult spelling bee at a local brewery.
The rules worked like this: anyone who wanted to enter, could. The caller pronounced 12 words and if you wrote something, anything, down for each word, you got a free beer token. Likely, most of the 150+ attendees were present simply to obtain that token. Eleven moderately challenging words plus Saccharomyces,which who the fuck even knows that word? The caller couldn’t pronounce it.
Nevertheless I felt proud to be one of the 10 called to the stage for a spell-off. It was my Amy Cuddy moment. In hindsight I had no business being on this stage with people who could knew, let alone could spell eleemosynary, tchotchke, and borborygmus, but I'll take credit for getting myself there.
I managed my first word: tenuous. I missed my second word, which I’d never heard uttered before and had no idea at all what it might be. In fact it was noisy enough in the brewery that I thought for a few moments that the word began with an R. Because my lifelong single-sided deafness has trained me to look at people’s mouths when they speak, I finally deduced the initial M in mostaccioli,but I made a mess of the word's final letters. Round two continues to be my kryptonite, but at least this time, I wasn't waiting for the giant hook to yank me away.
I was so worried about the spelling of this word for this newsletter that I looked it up. Both impostor and imposter are considered correct, but impostor is, according to one source, the more “proper” choice. And I am nothing if not proper.
written by a Black woman whose perspective here is invaluable.
See Hillary Clinton. Here’s a good article about the perception of women as shrill. It’s mostly about voice policing, but reminds me of the considerable obstacles female leaders must overcome.
It’s a fungus, if you must know.
This is a great freaking word. Look it up.
A kind of penne pasta. They couldn’t just give me “penne”?