The rationality of imposter syndrome

6 September 2016

I’ve just started my fellowship at Data & Society, and I wanted to write about the feelings I had a few months ago when I found out about it. Long story short, I got the strongest case of ‘imposter syndrome’ I’ve ever had. As I’ve learned from smart friends, vulnerability is strength, so I tried to be open about how I was feeling.

People’s reactions to me telling them how I was feeling ranged from “There’s no need for you to feel like that” (which I agree with!) - to one that made me think, a lot.

“Oh Zara, that’s totally irrational.”

But… is it?

I started off by thinking that the rational part of my brain knew that I shouldn’t be panicking, and some totally irrational part of my brain was unnecessarily worrying. But that’s not quite true. In fact, that supposedly irrational part of my brain is reacting to years and years of feedback.

Feedback like reaching out to shake a lawyer’s hand in a meeting, and finding a 20 euro note in it and a barked order for me to get him an avocado sandwich. Or years of making a point at an event, only to be ignored, then have it repeated by someone else and recognised. Or standing at events to have the man next to me be approached and talked to, without even recognition that I’m standing there. (Seriously, do you have any idea how frustrating that is???)

Or being asked, as the only woman in a meeting, to take notes and get coffee. Or looking at conference line ups to see zero people who look like me recognised as outstanding members of a community. Or… okay, you get it. I could go on for an upsettingly long time.

Turns out, my brain isn’t being irrational - if anything, I’m actually being pretty logical. Surprise: millions of microaggressions telling me I’m not good enough, or I’m not in the right place, or I should just be quiet, have an effect. That’s not my fault, that’s patriarchal social structures at work. Putting it down to “irrationality” conveniently ignores all those factors that helped create it.

And almost the worst thing about all this is that I’m in a privileged position compared to most women who work in these kinds of spaces. I work with incredibly kind and thoughtful people on a daily basis, where this kind of thing very rarely happens. I’m lucky enough to surround myself with fun, smart and kind people generally. I dread to think what it must be like to face an onslaught of microaggressions on a daily basis in the work environment.

So no, irrationality won’t explain this one away, and it’s not very helpful either. But reassurance helps.

PS. I love (and read regularly) Christina’s post on blowhard syndrome which I think is just so, so, spot on.


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