Imposter Syndrome is a much-maligned phenomenon in Western culture. A quick scroll through social media memes tells you all you need to know. Pithy graphics advise us to “disrupt it,” “beat it,” or “avoid” it with three easy steps.
I often wonder about the militaristic language we use when encountering these feelings. When you step back and think about what’s beneath the surface of imposter feelings (worthlessness and shame), it seems almost criminal to design a relief strategy through the lens of conquest. Dare I call it violent?
I should probably back up and let you know that I come at this through the lens of Internal Family Systems. IFS is a therapeutic model built on the concept that the mind is a multiplicity of sub-personalities rather than a monolith. Each “part,” as we call it, has its own (limited) view of the world that shapes how it thinks and behaves.
Extreme parts that hold limiting beliefs and fear usually develop at a very early age. Sometimes they emerge as a coping strategy for significant trauma. But that isn’t always the case. Our upbringing, mean teachers, playground bullies, and our culture can produce adaptive patterns that help us make sense of the world and feel safer within it.
So, when we look at Imposter Syndrome through this lens, we can see that we learned that we aren’t worthy of our gifts and talents. It’s not just an ugly mental habit we developed out of the blue. Someone (or someones) drummed this message into us at an early age.
Perhaps you have an idea about the origins of your imposter parts. In my case, my 3rd-grade teacher, as my mom describes, really had it in for me. Aware that my mom was unsuccessful at getting me out of that classroom, I also internalized a deep mistrust in institutions. I saw that the administrators took the teacher’s side. The message I received was, “she’s right. I am fake.” As I grew up, I kept encountering the institutionalized misogyny of teachers (not all of them male, btw) who didn’t believe in the potential of girls. Outside of my family, very rarely did someone encourage me.
We shouldn’t beat up our parts for being afraid to take risks that would expose us to shame. Instead, we need to disrupt the cultural norms that perpetuate the message that historically marginalized people aren’t valuable or highly capable.
Imposter Syndrome was first described back in 1978 by Dr. Pauline Clancy and Dr. Suzanne Imes in the journal Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. They “discovered” this phenomenon after interviewing 150 high-achieving women. These women had risen to the highest ranks in their field, including earning degrees at impressive schools, achieving high scores on tests, and receiving awards for their work.
Yet, these women doubted their skills and talents. They attributed their credentials and accomplishments not to their intelligence but to luck or someone else’s support. Moreover, they reported feeling guilty and fearful that they’d eventually be outed as frauds.
Ongoing research into Imposter Syndrome has revealed that it’s not limited to high-achieving women. It affects all genders and socioeconomic levels but is particularly prevalent among historically marginalized groups
While many of us have bad actors in our history, this is also a systemic problem perpetuated by unconscious biases at best and outright hate at worst.
Given all of this, what do we do?
First and foremost, we need to continue to reshape our culture. As I approach my 50s, I have the privilege of hindsight. I can see that many things have improved since I was a girl and young woman. As the parent of a (so far) cis-gender female, I have a second-row seat to how she’s treated, how she sees herself, and what she imagines is possible for her future.
The situation for white women has greatly improved. But it’s still not that great, especially in academia. And we still have a lot of work to do to support BIPOC communities. There’s no such thing as trickle-down social justice. What can you, dear reader, do directly to lift up someone in the margins? Not in an icky savior-make-yourself-feel-better kind of way, but because it’s the human thing to do.
Secondly, for anyone suffering from Imposter Syndrome, instead of trying to banish your imposter parts (it doesn’t work anyway), befriend them.
I know this sounds out there. But this is the heart of IFS parts work.
Get to know these parts. Hear their stories. You’ll discover that these parts have been trying to keep you safe from humiliation all this time, that their intentions are pure.
As you learn more about them, let your natural compassion arise for these parts. After all, they’ve been fighting an uphill battle they can’t win. Despite that, they’ve never given up trying to keep you safe.
Eventually, you may learn why your parts adopted these protective strategies. You might meet the part that carries those weighted feelings of worthlessness. When this vulnerable part is fully witnessed, your imposter parts will relax so you can lean in and take leaps without an undercurrent of dread.
The wonderful thing about IFS is that you can do a lot of deep work on your own. Think of this as “self-therapy.”
Check out this episode of Skillful Means Podcast for a guided meditation on contacting and getting to know parts.
Hi! I’m Jennifer O’Sullivan (Sati Yoga). I write about yoga, meditation, Internal Family Systems (IFS), stress management, functional anatomy, and bit of this and that about living a happy life. I teach yoga classes, workshops, and trainings in the Washington, DC area. I’m also a Level 2 IFS Practitioner and enthusiastic booster of Parts Work. You can find me on Instagram and at www.sati.yoga. I also co-host Skillful Means Podcast, which covers spirituality and yoga.