Your Imposter Syndrome is Environmental

I have imposter syndrome and it’s something that affects my professional life. At my institution, librarians are often tenure-track and full rank. They do research, teach classes, and act as “professors” on the campus. I had never intended to become a professor. My masters program, while innovative, was not academic focused. I wrote code. I managed clients. I ran usability tests. I like my job and there are many aspects of it which I think are important and engaging, so I have chosen to manage my imposter syndrome. One of the ways I manage it is that I acknowledge the ways my imposter syndrome is environmental.

Those who have not read the Wikipedia page, Impostor syndrome is a term coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes referring to high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as “fraud”. First observed among high-achieving women, it is also common among men. The part of the phenomenon which most stood out is this point: imposter syndrome is studied as a reaction to certain stimuli and events.

Not an ingrained personality trait, nor some sort of neurosis where I can’t see my own success, imposter syndrome is understood as a response to stimuli and is situational.

As I get older it becomes clear to me that my imposter syndrome is never going to go away entirely, because I haven’t changed the situation or my response to it. This makes sense because I never felt like an imposter in previous environments. My imposter syndrome is something I can overcome, as long as I don’t ignore it.

Below are some of the ways I manage my imposter syndrome through the management of environment.

  1. I acknowledge the ways environment may have led to my imposter syndrome. If you look at how psychologists examine imposter syndrome, it is not as “mental disorder” but as a “reaction to certain stimulus and events.” And yet people often talk about imposter syndrome in terms of their own feelings and not the environment that led to those feelings. So do think: when are you an imposter and why? In what situations do you feel most fake? Are people surprised when they meet you? Do they make comments that ask you about your personal story, such as where you are from, that may be hinting they are surprised at your rank or position? Do secretaries ask you to leave rooms so that meetings of professors can start? Do undergraduates ask you what your major is? In what ways do people expect you to do things you don’t actually know how to do, like operate SAP systems?
  2. I manage the environment to lessen impacts. Think about ways you can eliminate barriers to get your work done in the environment in which you work. Say No to things which don’t help you get work done and which make your imposter syndrome worse. If there’s a certain event or activity where you feel more like an imposter, then don’t go to that event. For me, it was events at the President’s house where I didn’t know people and there are no nametags with rank on them.
  3. I become part of the solution, not to the problem. I was in a meeting with another younger professor where an older professor commented about how great it was that the first professor looks so young. I called the professor out on this. Does that fix the whole environment? Not always. But we all need to weed our environments.
  4. I find mentors who believe in me. The thing about imposter syndrome is that most people with it can get along. It can be done, but you need advocates. Find mentors you trust, who believe in you. Accountability is a wonderful thing. Sometimes you can trust other people to call you out when you don’t give yourself enough credit, or you don’t take risks because you are afraid of being “uncovered”.

You deserve to be able to function in your environment. You are wonderful person who can benefit society greatly.