I stared at the co-authors list for a while. My name did not belong among them. The thoughts of inadequacy that I tried my best to suppress inched closer and closer to the surface. My PI should not have added my name to the manuscript. My contributions were too small. I am a giant fraud. The new year was welcomed with my first ever co-authorship in a publication, but what should have been a celebratory moment for a young scientist was distorted into an exercise of self-scrutiny.
Impostor syndrome is characterized by a feeling of fraudulency in high-achieving individuals. Regardless of their objective success, people experiencing impostor syndrome have a hard time internalizing their accomplishments and fear that one day they will be discovered as frauds.1 Although the discussion of impostor syndrome holds value in empowering the people experiencing it, the term “syndrome” frames the phenomenon as a dysfunction within the individual. This overly individualistic framing is problematic when considering that social and institutional structures play a major role in shaping one’s idea of self. Contextualizing impostor “syndrome” as a cultural phenomenon might help explain why it appears to be more prevalent in marginalized groups like Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) and queer people.2
I first heard the term “impostor syndrome” in college while talking to the only other woman of color in my freshman chemistry class. We both felt as though our white peers overlooked our contributions to group discussions, and that we had to fight to occupy spaces that were clearly not designed for us. Instead of acknowledging that white supremacy and patriarchy played a role in the way we felt, I internalized those feelings as lack of confidence and intelligence. Even after being accepted to the pharmacology and molecular sciences Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins, I still felt like I was not smart enough to deserve my acceptance.
I was later diagnosed with a mood disorder, which only augmented my belief that something was inherently wrong with me; that my brain was broken and did not belong at a place like Johns Hopkins. I tried to practice gratitude, to look at my accomplishments objectively and feel ownership over them. I thought about the long days in lab and the endless nights of studying. It wasn’t until I acknowledged that so many of my thoughts of inadequacy were not arising from within but rather creeping in from the outside that I started to feel empowered.
The idea that impostor syndrome is the result of personal insecurities is a myth. There needs to be a paradigm shift in how we think about impostor syndrome from faulting the individual to examining the social and institutional structures that create those feelings within individuals. Once we broadly acknowledge that a lot of our institutions were designed to gatekeep women, BIPOC and queer people, we can start to address why some of us feel like the gatekeepers made a mistake when allowing us in.
- Feenstra S, Begeny CT, Ryan MK, Rink FA, Stoker JI, Jordan J. Contextualizing the impostor “syndrome”. Front Psychol. 2020 Nov 13;11:575024.
- Cueto-Villalobos D. Imposter Syndrome and the Limits of Diversity - There’s Research on That [Internet]. The Society Pages. [cited 2023 Jan 16]. Available from: https://thesocietypages.org/trot/2021/10/06/imposter-syndrome-and-the-limits-of-diversity/
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