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Understanding Impostor’s Phenomena From A Societal Perspective: Individuals Don’t Exist In A Social Vacuum

The feeling of an impostor manifests at an individual level, but one does not exist in a social vacuum and has a social-psychological perspective.

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In the year 1978, an article published ‘The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention’, introduced the word ‘Imposter Phenomena’. The credit of coining this term goes to Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. The initial definition given by them for the term was, “An internal experience of intellectual phoniness”. Their research was focused on women in higher education, arts and science. 

An individual who feels like an impostor has a constant feeling that they are “frauds” and that if they have achieved something and ended up in an esteemed role or position, it was not because of their talent but by mere luck or oversight. During the initial phase, when researchers were having a survey around the subject, among 100 women, one-third of them lacked the internal acknowledgement of their accomplishments.

An individual who feels like an impostor has a constant feeling that they are “frauds” and that if they have achieved something and ended up in an esteemed role or position, it was not because of their talent but by mere luck or oversight. During the initial phase, when researchers were having a survey around the subject, among 100 women, one-third of them lacked the internal acknowledgement of their accomplishments.

On the other hand, their colleagues confirmed their views about the achievement of the subject. To understand and conceptualise impostor feeling with reference to the previous experiences of the person, which leads them to such notions about self, we must begin by understanding their position in the social hierarchy. A person is an intersection of many identities. If due to any of the identities they belong to, they have faced discrimination and had a history of ancestral trauma/oppression, it shapes their journey of self and the trajectory of their emotional and physiological growth. 

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In an article published by Forbes, Laura Newinski, the woman who has experience in serving Fortune 500 companies and is credited with U.S. Firm strategy, admitted to feeling like an impostor. Nowinski is the U.S. Deputy Chair and COO of KPMG. Each year KPMG women’s leadership summit brings together leaders from media, politics, and business to help them grow, form networks, and all the more; they sponsor research to understand the issues specific to women in corporate America.

In India, academic spaces have been dominated by upper-caste cis-het men. They have been the ones who set the default idea and ethics of the profession. Anything which doesn’t look like that is not taken with that sincerity. This can be one of the reasons why others can feel a sense of non-belongingness and develop a feeling of an impostor. 

Nowinski quotes from the study conducted by KPMG to impostor syndrome as the “inability to believe your success is deserved as a result of your hard work.” This study found that 75% of executive women identified having impostor feeling at some point in their respective careers. This study also found out that 74% of executive women believe that their male counterparts don’t have the kind of self-doubt they have, or if they do, they prefer not to talk about it or cover it. 

Another article published in the BBC quotes Brian Daniel Norton, a psychotherapist, stating that “women, women of colour, especially black women, as well the LGBTQ community are most at risk.” The lack of role models from marginalised groups has a major impact on making them feel that they don’t belong in a particular profession.

“The cis-het upper-caste men from the media fraternity don’t recognise the labour. This sometimes happens in a very personal space as well, and I have to prove myself every day.” Ritika hails from Bihar. She also feels like her impostor feeling has a connection to her class status and her regional identity. “Working closely with feminist circles dominated by women who are upper class and regionally have the sense of belonging to metro cities, made me come into contact with elite women who look at me as if my experiences, and the problems I talk about are some alien issues.”

In every profession, how things have functioned before is seen as the default or normal way to be. People from marginalised identities, either on the basis of race, caste, colour, gender, sexuality, or region, working in a certain sector, often question their success. The reason being, the way they see themselves working to achieve something, their ethics, opinion about anything happening around them, and way of handling a given situation might be a unique phenomenon given the lack of visibility, representation, and the historical absence of the identity they belong to in that professional space. This makes them question if their way is the right way to be. Many times their way is not accepted as the ‘right’ way. 

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Let’s take an example. Most of the male professors in my M.A. course have a certain way of conduct in class that doesn’t include cracking self-derogatory jokes to make the class lighter. It seems as if professors are supposed to carry a certain body language. Contrarily, a female professor makes casual jokes about herself to make the class feel comfortable. 

However, the way a few male students ask questions in her class, their tone, gesture, the body language is not how the same male students conduct themselves during the lectures of male professors who stick to the ‘ideal image’ of the ‘(default/male)professor’; even if that includes not taking any question from the class, or snapping at them in response.

In India, academic spaces have been dominated by upper-caste cis-het men. They have been the ones who set the default idea and ethics of the profession. Anything which doesn’t look like that is not taken with that sincerity. This can be one of the reasons why others can feel a sense of non-belongingness and develop a feeling of an impostor. 

The feeling of an impostor manifests at an individual level, but one does not exist in a social vacuum. Looking at it from a social-psychological perspective, the three main considerations can be society and culture at large, organisation and other institutions, everyday interactions and interpersonal relationships.

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These considerations are reflected in Ritika’s feeling of being an impostor. Ritika works as the Managing Editor at Feminism in India Hindi. She has been a journalist for the last five years, and she has been awarded the prestigious Laadli Media Awards and Breakthrough Reframe Media Awards for her gender-sensitive writing. Still, even today, she feels like she has to prove herself to her male colleagues and explain the nature of the work she does and its relevance even when she doesn’t want to or has to.”

The cis-het upper-caste men from the media fraternity don’t recognise the labour. This sometimes happens in a very personal space as well, and I have to prove myself every day.” Ritika hails from Bihar. She also feels like her impostor feeling has a connection to her class status and her regional identity. “Working closely with feminist circles dominated by women who are upper class and regionally have the sense of belonging to metro cities, made me come into contact with elite women who look at me as if my experiences and the problems I talk about are some alien issues.

Ritika’s dream to have graduated from Delhi university didn’t come to fruition. However, the pitiful but amazed gaze of others about the gender-based issues she addresses because of her link to the region she belongs to, are all the reasons which never make her feel belonged enough in these elite spaces.

Sometimes I feel like will the elite groups of Delhi who talk about gender-based issues ever be able to under the grassroots reality which is the everyday life of many people who hail from there,” Ritika says.

Dhara*, who has completed her Master’s degree in Gender Studies from AUD, Delhi, talks about experiencing a similar feeling in the academic space. She says, “I’m a Kashmiri pandit, and when I talk about caste, I find myself constantly thinking about my fear of men. This fear, I feel, is linked to how my upper-caste parents conditioned me and guarded my sexuality throughout the time I was in Jammu, and which they still try to.”

Dhara adds, “I think this has to do a lot with the class I come from I guess, which is the lower-middle class and the region I come from. My identity is bifurcated in terms of being a displaced Kashmiri in Jammu. To portray one’s self as a woman who isn’t scared of something and the fact that I’m studying gender studies makes it even tougher for me to honestly say that I’m still shit scared of men in general. I’m not scared in terms of interacting with them, but whenever I share spaces with them, I am usually always cautious. It’s just this constant inherent fear that lingers in my skin.

Dhara acknowledges that it does lead to work anxiety in terms of when she is working on her academic paper. “I think academia just triggers the issues because academia has a language it prefers. People who can’t excel at that language have to work harder to come into that ambit.

Such experiences are hardly understood and are expected as normal by the mainstream ethics of any profession. Social conditioning doesn’t allow one to feel at home, and negative stereotyping of marginalised identities plays a major role as well. This is why in leadership roles, certain people feel perceived as ‘they don’t fit’ or they experience an ‘unnatural/incomplete way of carrying the role’, making them feel like a ‘fraud’.

For example, certain ethnic minorities have been stereotyped as lazy, unintelligent, and underachieving. For example, the de-notified/nomadic tribes in India have been historically stereotyped as ‘evil/thief’. When students from such marginalised communities, get into a ‘good’ university, the system at the place makes them feel that it was an outcome of luck rather than of them deserving it.

This phenomenon can be seen in cases of students who get admissions/jobs by reservation, i.e., affirmative action. The lack of understanding and the “mainstream mockery” of caste-based reservation in India creates a false illusion of merit and often puts the ones who are at the receiving end, doubt themselves. The self-doubt is so internalised that some students/individuals make jokes derogatory to the self/community. Here, the triggering of feelings is not just an individualistic occurrence. 

Also read: First Generation Learners: The Struggles To Fit Into The Mainstream Imagination Of ‘Merit’ And Surviving In Academia

There have been discussions around why this impostor phenomenon cannot be called a ‘syndrome’ because then it looks like a mental illness. It must be referred to as ‘feeling like an impostor’ or ‘impostor phenomena’. People at an institutional, professional, and personal level, must be sensitised about this feeling, and it should not be tried to ‘cure’ with a misconception that the impostor phenomenon is context-independent. The system in place needs to change and not ridicule the individuals experiencing this phenomenon. 

Also read: Remembering B P Mandal: The Imperative Voice For The Cause Of OBCs


*Name changed to protect identity.

Featured image source: Cleveland Clinic Health Essentials

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