Fear and (self)-loathing at the desktop: imposter syndrome in 2018

Late last year, I left my long-term job. My unemployment was initially self-imposed, deliberate—and blissful, oh so blissful! but soon exceeded its anticipated expiration date, pushing further into the year than planned. It was (and is—for I am still reeling) the closest I have come to economic hardship.

But to appropriate poverty is misdirected and misdirecting. My circumstances were a product of privileged choice, and in truth, I was not as close to destitution as my bank account would suggest. There was (for I was never really reeling) an invisible safety blanket around my shoulders.

After four and a half months, there came a necessary and apt reminder of my privilege: I landed a job. I say privilege because it was not something I had chased down or formally applied for and seemed to fall happily into my lap. But of course, serendipity is always more complex than this. Being able to afford taking time off allowed me to undertake an unpaid role—which, in turn, directly introduced me to my new employer.

My reason for writing this article is not, however, this experience of advantage; it is to understand the utter loss of confidence I have had since beginning this new role. It is the tangible anxiety before heading into the office. It is the feeling that I have bluffed my way through; that it’s all down to luck—and soon, the jig will be up. It is the constant second-guessing that the ways I have learnt to do things are completely invalid.

It is, in short, the overwhelming sense of what can only be described as imposter syndrome.

Now, this phenomenon is not new, nor unique to young folk. It was first described in 1978 by Pauline Clance and Suzannne Imes, researchers at Georgia State University in the US, based on their work with groups of high-achieving women. At the crux of the imposter experience is a basic conflict or incongruity between subjective feelings of incompetence and objective indicators to the contrary. And though the focus of investigations into the topic have since expanded, it is “generally believed to be a gender-based phenomenon more commonly affecting women”—particularly those that might be classified as high-achievers.

Much of the information out there is intimately and (sometimes disingenuously) bundled up with advice. Listicles abound: “The Five Types of Imposter Syndrome and How to Beat Them”, “How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome: 21 Proven Ways”, “10 Ways to Overcome Imposter Syndrome”.

The most recent study on the phenomenon was commissioned by UK-based career development agency Amazing If. The study found that over a third of UK’s millennials suffer from the syndrome at work. These numbers are significant, but the source of this research cannot be ignored; the phenomenon is profitable fodder for enterprising career coaches and commercial websites. Dr Valerie Young—prolific public speaker, academic, and author—is perhaps the most dazzling example. Her motto? “Everyone loses when bright people play small.”

Everyone loses? Play small? It seems that the (very branded) advice proffered by Dr Young extends the problem beyond the individual and situates it (quite rightly, albeit accidentally) in its broader neoliberal context. Her message points to a fact that is obvious when you think about it: profitability is undermined when your workers lack confidence.

I can’t help but notice, however, that much of the advice of this nature is targeted toward high-achieving, mid-career professionals. So, what does the help and advice aimed specifically at millennials look like?

Earlier this month, VICE launched a six-part video series that “aims to provide young people with useful mental tools for success”. The videos were produced in conjunction with Dentsu Aegis—a multinational media and digital marketing communication company—and sponsored by one of Nissan’s fleet, the QASHQAI. Nissan presumably backed the campaign because it is trying to market QASHQAI as the kind of car a young person would buy. The third episode? Lucy McRae, NASA collaborator and body architect (which, by the way is a job-title she invented) ‘On the Imposter Experience’.

The 1:25 minute video focuses on the potential for fear to be a motivating factor—but before I even had a chance to watch the video, I was confronted with VICE’s somewhat dismissive descriptor of the phenomenon: “not only does it make you feel bad, it could also be holding you back from doing the things you want to do.”

Now, total transparency: VICE isn’t my go-to resource, but I am fascinated by the message that this sleek advertorial sends. This nature of snappy, rich media is the medium of content that young people supposedly respond to—but as someone currently suffering from self-doubt, I found the tone of this piece (and its accompanying copy) unsettling at best, if not patronising. McCrae’s conception of the “imposter experience” as something that can be “a portal for discovery”—and VICE’s attempt to address the phenomenon—falls flat. Whilst I would love to be able to draw from my deep well of insecurity, it does not feel like a safe water source.

Another expert, Hugh Kearns, suggests that “one of the characteristics of imposter syndrome is that you can never admit it. Because, of course, if you put your hand up and say, ‘I feel like a fraud’, then there’s the possibility that someone will say, ‘ah yes, we were wondering about that, could you please leave now.’ So, it’s safer to say nothing.”

I am characteristically an over-sharer though, and my experience of imposter syndrome has been no exception. Almost as soon as I was able to give it a name, I was introducing it to my parents (who are compassionate to a tee), my friends (who are empathetic), my colleagues (who tell me, “Don’t stress”) ­and even in passing—my boss (who laughed).

Alas, according to Dr Young, the first step to overcoming imposter syndrome is understanding that “you can’t share your way out”. Talking about this feeling of inadequacy is an important and healthy first step, but it doesn’t break the cycle. To change the feeling, I have to change my thinking, and therein lies the challenge.

Tomorrow will mark the beginning of my second month at work. Doubts? I have a few.

Let’s hope I might soon find a way to channel my fear into something more positive. Apparently, says McCrae, that’s “where the magic happens”.

Anonymous is a Melbourne-based emerging editor & arts worker. She hopes to one day freelance from the countryside where she can tend to a garden and a small pack of rescue greyhounds.



Image at: unsplash.com/photos/wOHH-NUTvVc

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