This post is me reflecting on some thoughts around impostor syndrome and insecurity and the way society is structured and how we can work together to improve things.
People who know my work probably think I am very confident in what I do. I have three awards shelves at my house, a 24 page master CV of my work in the autism community and a bunch of other apparently impressive accomplishments. The funny thing is that I am not objective about my advocacy career. If I stop to think about it I have very little confidence in my capability. I often find myself wondering why I have been asked to participate in a committee or why people ask me for advice, My default thinking is ‘But I don’t know anything!’ I am quite surprised and relieved every time someone contacts me and asks for my input to something. As I imagine many of you know, I am not alone in this. Impostor syndrome is a very common occurrence.
It seems to me that people either have too low an opinion of their capability or too high – it is rare to find someone who is confident but realistic. I also think impostor syndrome is an intersectional issue. While avoiding generalisations, it does seem that people in a position of privilege are more likely to not experience impostor syndrome and those from intersectional groups are more likely to. I am a Queer, non-male autistic person with a serious mental illness and a history of poverty and homelessness. All of those elements of my experience seem to compound my lack or objectivity about my skills. Each of the groups that I belong to faces discrimination, bigotry and disadvantage. As such, my ability to be confident in my work seems to be diminished. Discrimination is all about making people think they don’t matter. If I don’t matter then presumably I think that my work isn’t important or good either. What would I know about anything? The other thing which has triggered impostor syndrome and insecurity for me is being bullied a lot in school. Pretty much every message I got from peers was negative and hostile. Those kinds of experiences in formative years can result in internalised messaging of insults and self-hatred.
Of course white, able-bodied cis gendered middle class straight men can also experience those feelings. However, seen in intersectional terms maybe insecurity can be seen as one element of oppression?
One of the things which people with impostor syndrome tend to experience is a need for reassurance. This is usually sought from others. When I joined the public service it took me many years to not have to check in regularly with my boss to make sure my work was a up to scratch. While it is great when people affirm us, it can become a bit of a trap if we need to seek external reassurance for everything we do – in my experience that takes away my power and makes it harder for me to develop an internal sense of affirmation.
And impostor syndrome can be seen as being about personal power. The ability to think ‘I am doing good job and people benefit from my work’ is incredibly empowering. A lot of the time I spend time with others whose impostor syndrome and insecurity are as bad as mine. Wouldn’t it be great if we worked to empower one another? One issue with insecurity is that it can lead people to compare themselves to others and that is usually a recipe for disaster and disappointment. When I am in the depths of lacking any confidence in my work I can find myself feeling intimidated by others and the good things they do. On occasion this has lead to me having uncharitable thoughts about that person and being jealous. I hate that feeling and it comes right out of that sense of insecurity and powerlessness. I know I am not alone in that. If this happens I try to think that the other person probably has their own issues and that being jealous of people who also face disadvantage isn’t very helpful, or nice! This thought usually enables me to move past that jealousy and appreciate the other person and their work. Doing that actually does give me some power back. I wish I had known about that in the past.
If impostor syndrome is about power then let’s empower each other. Let’s build each other up and celebrate all our achievements. And let us give genuine reassurance to our peers and colleagues. Pride and respect and addressing bigotry and disadvantage are great ways of taking back power – and empowering others. Imagine an empowered group of people working to make the word a better place for autistic people and Queer people and people with mental illness and those facing poverty and homelessness and every other thing which society deems ‘other’.