You don’t have impostor syndrome? You’re not doing it right

Women suffer with impostor syndrome more severely, on average, than men

The women were, on average, far better than they realised. Diligent, careful, and very (perhaps too) open to advice and criticism. Photograph: iStock

The women were, on average, far better than they realised. Diligent, careful, and very (perhaps too) open to advice and criticism. Photograph: iStock

 

If you don’t suffer with impostor syndrome, a pervading and frightening sense of inadequacy, failure, incompetence and being a fraud despite evidence to the contrary, there are three possible explanations. The first is that your self-confidence matches your competence and capacity for ruthlessly honest self-assessment in a precisely triangulated balance that is almost cosmic in its unwavering perfection; you know your own worth and capacity without cleaving to ego and peacocking all over those around you.

I have never met a living person who fits this description. The second possible explanation is that you are said peacock – a pompous and insufferably puffed-up inflater of your own ability who, for the good of society, could probably do with a touch of impostor syndrome, just for context. Women suffer with impostor syndrome more severely on average than men, in my experience, though many people have it. A couple of years of teaching undergraduates, and observing the mature students in the room, were enough to enlighten me in this respect.

The women were, on average, far better than they realised. Diligent, careful, and very (perhaps too) open to advice and criticism. They would shuffle in, thoroughly ashamed of themselves, and hand me careful work done to a high standard. The men in general, though of course there were many individuals who did not fit the mould, had the opposite problem. They would storm into the seminar room, see that a woman in her mid-20s was their tutor, and the tooth-gnashing would begin.

Well, actually

The standard of their work was generally lower than they thought, and their openness to advice and criticism was, well, absent. They would saunter up after classes with a smirk on their faces to “well, actually” me.

Of course, there were smug women and shy men, gifted men and not-so-gifted women, and vice versa. Let us observe the overall accuracy of the generalisation without making any claims about individuals, or writing me emails about generalisations being only general.

The third potential explanation for an absence of impostor syndrome in your life is that you are not sufficiently challenging yourself. Where there is no stretch beyond comfort, there is no self-doubt or fear of inability. You might be too comfortable, and could benefit from pushing yourself to explore your ability to develop new skills or handle a bit more stress. Comfort feels excellent, but does not create conditions for personal improvement. I know this in part from having taught both younger and mature students.

Coasting to success

School is a place where being clever is to an extent something you can coast upon to achieve success. At university, and later in the actual world (no, university is certainly not the actual world; I know three academics in their 40s who can read Latin and Greek but cannot tie their shoelaces, and regularly sport pre-tied or Velcro shoes as a result), will is what breeds success. I have seen this time and again, and felt deeply comforted by it.

It is not usually the smartest, or even the luckiest people who will do best, though sometimes of course they do. It is the people with will; an intractable refusal to shrink or be squashed, to give up or to take the easier route. It is the people who focus on themselves, and the variables that they can control, rather than those who finger-point, resent or diminish others, who become better in the classroom and outside it.

If you google “impostor syndrome”, you will find more articles than you can feel insecure about telling you how to overcome it. There is a wealth of psychological material on managing and getting past it. However, perhaps this is the wrong approach. Impostor syndrome is only bad if it has a debilitating or paralysing effect that prevents us from trying in the first place or enjoying our success.

Otherwise, it is merely another obstacle to force past; a ubiquitous reminder that what we have and what we want is worth earning, and that we should and can prove our lesser selves wrong.

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