Imposter syndrome is real but so is overcoming it

The best of us live with self-doubt and it can be worked to our advantage

Former US First Lady Michelle Obama stands next to her official White House portrait during an unveiling ceremony in Washington, on September 7. Bloomberg
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Michelle Obama has talked openly about doubting herself. “I don’t know if the world should take me seriously”, said the lawyer, author and former first lady of the United States. In an interview with a magazine in 2018, she talked about imposter syndrome, saying: “I’m just Michelle Robinson, that little girl on the south side who went to public school.”

I feel like I know what she's talking about, having often felt like the outsider constantly doubting themselves and their right to be in a conversation. My first television appearance was on the BBC’s flagship news analysis programme Newsnight. The producer tried to persuade me to take part in a discussion. But I felt I was just an ordinary woman who wrote a small blog. What on earth could I have to say? Ultimately for me, the importance of what needed to be said trumped my lack of self belief and I did the interview.

I felt it again when faced with requests from people to write a book about my experiences. I’m not that interesting, I thought. I am not deserving of a platform. Who would want to read what I have to say? Four books and at least a hundred newspaper columns later, I still harbour doubts.

First described in 1978, "imposter syndrome" appeared in an article, The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women where the syndrome was described as "an internal experience of intellectual phoniness". Today the term has widespread currency and encompasses persistent doubts concerning ones abilities or accomplishments, and in particular, the fear of being exposed as something of a fraud, irrespective of talent or success.

It is when, for example, if you’re invited on a panel with other distinguished people, that you feel you don’t deserve to be there because you doubt you are not expert enough, even though you might be. It is that feeling that other people in the room deserve to be there but you don’t. That sense that everyone will discover your apparent incompetence or deception, and the fear that accompanies that. All these doubts discard the realities of your own accomplishments and achievements.

This week the first Black editor of British Vogue magazine, Edward Enninful, talked about it. “Impostor syndrome never leaves you,” he said, despite his sparkling credentials. He was appointed fashion director of a British fashion magazine at the age of 18, a position he held for more than two decades and subsequently going on to held other notable positions.

Despite the term having originated to describe some women’s experiences, the phenomenon has been recognised as being experienced by those from groups traditionally under-represented – or excluded, some might say – from the table, or not even being let in to the room. But does the responsibility of fixing those feelings lie with the person or the system?

This is also a tension that lies at the heart of current debates around impostor syndrome. For many people, merely discovering the term brings a sense of relief; finally a name to describe the feelings of anxiety and possibly eliminate some self-doubt. The term also allows a person a sense that they are not alone in feeling like imposters. A name for a problem brings with it the possibility of solving it.

For others, it locates the problem – and therefore the responsibility for solving it – in the wrong place. It is those causing the feeling of exclusion, the systems and cultures – those already in the room, so to speak – with whom the problem lies and where change must happen so that people feel more welcome, more comfortable and more valued.

Enninful says he uses the discomfort of impostor syndrome in another way. “That’s what pushes me. You know, when an issue comes out, it takes me a while to relax, I’m always looking for mistakes, just to get better.”

My own view is different still. The sense of being an outsider even now never quite leaves me. But like that first nerve-wracking interview, I prioritise the importance of what I believe needs to be said over my own internal doubts. Ensuring it is said – especially if I see no-one else is there to say it – trumps my fears.

For me, every platform to speak or write is a privilege and one that must be taken. I think of this as part of being an outsider-insider – that is, somehow in the bubble of those who hold influence and voice, but feeling like I never quite fit in. But instead of being paralysed by discomfort, I have learnt to see the "outsider-insider" position as a superpower. Once you are too embedded on the "inside" of the system, you could lose an ability to change it for the better.

If the eradication of impostor syndrome has to come from within a system, as some argue, then retaining the "outsider" view and harnessing discomfiting feelings is essential. After all, as most superhero narratives tell you, those who don’t quite fit in but embrace their discomfort are the ones who create great change.

Published: September 09, 2022, 9:00 AM