The Ubiquity of that Imposter Syndrome: “It Doesn’t Go Away”

When Michelle Obama was asked on her recent tour for her new book, Becoming, how it felt to be seen as a "symbol of hope," she told a room of students: "I still have a little impostor syndrome….It doesn't go away, that feeling that you shouldn't take me that seriously. What do I know?”

By openly raising the issue in her book and on tour, she’s again unmasking the common, nagging, dogged sense of doubt felt by anyone who was raised as member of a non-dominant, victimized group in a stratified society that raises its ugly head when that member rises “above” the limits that a culture teaches are inherent in their group. Though they thereby should be an example of the fact that those limits are artificially constructed and down-right discriminatory, the culturally-taught role lingers within.

Two psychologists labeled this phenomenon “imposter syndrome” in a 1978 paper that identified it in women who are expected to take on a victim role in a male-dominant culture but who instead break through glass ceilings to enter levels historically dominated by men.

"Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise," the psychologists wrote. "Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample objective evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief."

There are many who can’t be as open about the syndrome as Michelle Obama. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there in the depths not just of women but of anyone who was taught by their culture that their race, sexual orientation, gender, economic status, able-bodiedness, etc. is somehow lesser and not the “norm” of a culture that has thrived on oppression.

It’s installed in anyone who has experienced, or watched others of their group experience, being a victim of overt and covert discrimination on devluation on the basis of something inherent or crucial to them.

In a culture where a variety of oppressions exist and overlap, it’s not surprising then that researchers observed in a 2013 paper that as much as 70 percent of the population experiences what these psychologists call “The Imposter Phenomenon” - “intense feelings that their achievements are undeserved and worry that they are likely to be exposed as a fraud” – at some time in their lives.

No matter how much one has accomplished, how many books they’ve written, how high they’ve moved up on the economic ladder, how they’ve entered the board rooms of America, how much they’ve fought for justice, how they have achieved rights such as marriage equality, how many people look up to them or tell them, or how accomplished they are, there remains in their depths the sense that at some time, somewhere, somehow, someone will unmask them as not legitimately belonging to the privileged group.

Of course, these internalized messages are false and irrational. And that’s nice to know, given the misinformation everyone receives as part of the cultural conditioning regarding groups of people from the day they were born into our culture.

But the conditioning that installs these messages as a part of our culture’s intersection of oppressions, defining some groups as more worthy than others, isn’t installed intellectually. Its effectiveness and persistence are due to the emotional basis of conditioning, especially the feeling of fear that not to go along is to experience negative consequences.

In Scared Straight this is analyzed frankly, using classic oppression dynamics, as crucial to a “victim role” that those who are not in the dominant group of an oppression are expected to internalize and perform to keep the overall cultural hierarchies going. Those conditioned into any victim role are conditioned by the fearful means analyzed in the book to believe at a deep, emotional level that:

1.“the dominant role is the ideal that is preferred, natural, human, moral, healthy, pro-society, pro-human, pro-God;

2.people who live this dominant role are the ones who correctly define, and are most qualified to define: a) the oppressor and victim roles, b) what oppression and prejudice really are regarding the roles, and c) what values go with the roles;

3.those who are not a part of the dominant group should live to emulate that dominant role as closely as possible, no matter how difficult doing so might be for these outsiders;

4.there is something inferior about members of the non-dominant group that will make it impossible for them to actually succeed at the dominant role;

5.this inferiority consists of everything that makes members of the non-dominant group ‘inherently’ different from members of the dominant group who can easily act out their ‘inherent,’ better characteristics;

6.anything in the non-dominant group that does not match the dominant role should be hidden or “corrected” if possible because it is inferior, shameful, unnatural, immoral, inhuman, dirty, unhealthy, uncivilized, destructive of society, and anti-God;

7.the successful embracing of this victim role means that members of the non-dominant group should enforce the victim role on each other.”

None of this is inherent in the members of any group of human beings. It’s taught.

And what’s taught can be untaught. But that doesn’t mean that this phenomenon or “syndrome” won’t raise its irrational head at the most irrational times.

Those who experience it must then remind themselves with Michelle Obama of its untruth. But we must be clear that it’s not just an individual emotional problem (as if it's just something wrong with you that can be fixed by reading the right self-help book) but inherent in a hierarchical system.

They must think, act, and decide in the light of its falsity no matter how that might feel as if doing so is rejecting values of a the larger culture. Because the truth is that they are, and that they’re choosing courageously to thereby reject any lingering “imposter phenomenon.”

Michelle Obama told those young women who might feel as if they don’t really belong to "start by getting those demons out of your head." The reality of those in the dominant group, she said is different than how we might feel:

"I have been at probably every powerful table that you can think of, I have worked at non-profits, I have been at foundations, I have worked in corporations, served on corporate boards, I have been at G-summits, I have sat in at the U.N.; they are not that smart.”

© 2019 Robert N. Minor

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Robert N. Minor, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at the University of Kansas, is author of When Religion Is an Addiction; Scared Straight: Why It’s So Hard to Accept Gay People and Why It’s So Hard to Be Human; and Gay & Healthy in a Sick Society. Contact him at www.FairnessProject.org

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