Impostor Syndrome and the Paradox of Agency

Like many other young academics I remember feeling an acute sense of relief the first time I was told about impostor syndrome. Giving my underlying feelings of inadequacy a name and defining them as a syndrome made them manageable, made it slightly less likely that I was the only one who really didn’t know how to be a researcher.

If you put impostor syndrome into google you will find countless guides on how to overcome it. In the style of cognitive behavioural therapy we are encouraged to work on ourselves, in order to not let our erroneous beliefs limit us. I’m don’t necessarily disagree with this. impostor syndrome affects us individually and it therefore might be helpful for us to develop some strategies to deal with it on an individual level. But what troubles me about these approaches is that they tend to treat it as a matter of personal pathology and thereby individualising it. Impostor syndrome is something that is wrong about me.

Rather, we need to understand impostor syndrome as a form of social sufferingg, as a symptom, not of something wrong with us, but with the world we live and work in. In this short article I will explore impostor syndrome in terms of how it reflects on our sense of belonging and the conflicting values we are faced as academics and how it shows us the paradoxical nature of neoliberal agency.

Habitus and representation

In order to fit into academia you need a whole lot more than just brains. We’d like to think of universities as meritocracies, where our intelligence and hard work decide how well we do. In reality however universities reproduce inequality though complex social processes. One way that happens is through what Pierre Bourdieu called cultural capital or habitus. Habitus is a collection of dispositions, attitudes and behaviours which enable us to fit in. We intuitively judge others based on their habitus and are able to identify things like class from the way someone talks, moves or behaves socially.

How is that related to impostor syndrome? Well, it’s important to note that impostor syndrome does not affect everyone equally. In a study of impostor syndrome within academia Jessica L. Collet found that women were significantly more likely to “downshift” their career goals while doing a PhD and to name a lack of confidence in their own abilities as their main reason in doing so. There may be a very simple reason women are more likely to experience impostor syndrome than men (and people from minority backgrounds are more likely to experience it than white people). We do actually fit in less. Through what is known as the ‘leaky pipeline’ women are dramatically under-represented in academia when it comes to the higher positions. While we make up about 50% of lecturers that number drops to 20% when it comes to professors. For us as PhD students that means that if you’re a women that when we interact with academic staff we mostly interact with people who are not like us. This is even more true if you are from a minority and/or working class background. (And that’s not even taking into account the lack of representation of women and people of colour on most reading lists.)

It is important to understand the role that habitus plays in the reproduction of social inequality. It’s not about bullying or mistreatment, it’s not about being purposefully discriminated against. But the fact that when we look up we don’t see older versions of ourselves look back (or fewer versions, anyway) may translate into feelings of fraudulence.

Neoliberal Anomie

Another reason we might feel like impostors at times is that we’re not sure who it is we should be. If we fail like failures we need to ask ourselves what exactly we are failing at. As social scientists working within a university that is undergoing neoliberal reforms. There is nothing quite as absurd as teaching Marx to a group of undergraduates who are paying £9 000 a year while at the same time the whole university around us seems to revolve ever more about producing economic value rather than critical thinking adults.

The neoliberal reform of universities leads to what Emil Durkheim called Anomie. Anomie, loosely translated as normlessness, describes a breakdown of standards of behaviour. This happens in transitional periods, when we are suddenly not sure what it is that is expected of us. Neoliberalism puts us into a permanent conflict of goals. We are supposed to obey the monitoring procedures we are subject to. We are supposed to think critically and develop our own material but we are supposed to do so in a way that doesn’t conflict with university policy. These conflicting expectations make it hard to find our feet.

Sometimes we feel like an impostor or a failure because we are put in situations where different, conflicting expectations contradict each other. We measure success through student satisfaction surveys, while at the same time we are often only too aware that these measures are incredibly unreliable and often even do real harm. Importantly, there is a real question here whether our job should really be to have students be ‘satisfied’ with their course. For many of us the best way to get high satisfaction scores is not the same way we ensure the students learn most. Students may be more ‘satisfied’ by a class that gives them easy questions and funny lectures, but they might not learn the things they need to learn. By reducing the students to customer who ‘are always right’ and must be left satisfied we are not making room for different relationships, which may be challenging and difficult for students but will ultimately help them develop and grow. For those of us caught in the middle of these conflicting expectations the whole process can be disorienting and intimidating at the same time. We end up internalising the failures of this system and thinking that it is us who are failing.

The Anxiety Machine

There is one more politicisation of the impostor syndrome I would like to suggest, and that is that we are experiencing impostor syndrome because that is how we are supposed to feel. Impostor syndrome isn’t something we feel because we have difficulty adapting to academia, it is exactly our feelings of inadequacy that keep us docile and the university running. We can understand the  neoliberal university as an anxiety machine; the way higher education works is to make us feel like we are constantly failing, constantly not good enough. Through what Liz Morrish describes as ‘audit culture’ (See also here) we are constantly made to perform measurements which make us feel inadequate.

One thing that has always annoyed me more than it should is the time sheet that we have to fill in for the hours we worked as postgraduate tutors. The thing that annoys me about this form, apart from the fact that it is unnecessarily cumbersome, is that it forces me to lie. We get a set number of hours to prepare for our seminars (three if this is our first time teaching a topic, two if we’ve taught it before). On the time sheet we have to put the date on which we did that prep. Obviously  the time most of us put into preparing seminars goes far beyond those two or three hours and is often done over several days, especially if there a several long readings involved. It is an open secret that most academics do a very significant amount of unpaid over-time. The question that really fascinates me is why we are then given a form that forces us to pretend that we didn’t. Clearly, whoever made this form or decided that it was fit for use must have known that we would not be able to fill it in honestly. What is the purpose then to give us a form that forces us to pretend that we do less work than we actually do? I’m not sure what theoretical purpose knowing on which days we did our preparation could have for people in the finance office. The reason to make us fill in this date that I can think of is that the form itself is a disciplinary tool. By making me lie about how much preparation it is supposed to make me feel that it is me who is insufficiently efficient. Putting in that imaginary date on that form means I collude in my own exploitation. The time that I spend doing that extra preparation work cannot even be mentioned.

Impostor syndrome is maybe best understood as the psychologised version of a system which is meant to disempower us and make us compliant. We need to recognise that what we are experiencing are not simply individual difficulties adapting to a system that makes us feel inadequate. We are under attack and one form this attack is taking is to make us feel like we are not good enough. We’re being gas-lighted, we experience harsher working conditions with fewer resources at our disposal while at the same time the universities’ rhetoric keeps stressing how excellent everything is and how much more excellent everything should be.

It’s important to note that under these circumstances impostor syndrome becomes a positive attribute, something the specifically nurtured by universities.

The Paradox of Agency

On a more fundamental level impostor syndrome is symptom of the way the individualising power of neoliberalism damages our mental health. In an article written during the USS strike earlier this month I wrote about the way that the strike has enabled us to have some long overdue conversations about mental health and the way neoliberal university governance has affected us. Impostor syndrome has featured heavily in these discussions.

There has been many more articles like mine (excellent collections can be found here and here.) The overwhelming feeling coming from these articles is one of hope and exuberance, one that this strike has allowed us to think things that we previously thought were out of reach.

In particular the strike has brought attention to the marketisation of higher education and the way it has affected us as academics and as students. Mainly we have found a voice to express what exactly it is that is damaged when universities are run like businesses and to develop and alternative vision of what higher education should look like.

If impostor syndrome is the psychological measure that is supposed to keep us in our place then trying to defeat it through bettering ourselves is a futile exercise. Through the constant conflicting values we are confronted with and the constant measurements which make us feel we are falling behind our colleagues we are pitted against one another. We try to fit into our system that functions specifically through making us feel constantly inadequate. The only way to beat this game is by refusing to play it. One way we can start doing this is by remembering that we are not out metrics. We are not our grades and we are not our evaluation forms. We can do this by organising against the things that damage us,  that make us feel small and insufficient and by organising for the things we think are worth fighting for.

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