About three weeks ago, I read a remarkable piece in the current New Yorker about impostor syndrome by one Leslie Jamison. It explained that two female academic psychologists from the pathbreaking Silent generation named Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in the mid-1970s. Both of them had been very successful in school and in their careers all their lives, and both suffered chronically from doubts that they really deserved it and fears of being "found out" at any moment. When they first published their account of the impostor phenomenon (as they still prefer to call it), they found that many thousands of other women had the same feelings. As good 1970s psychologists, they traced the problem to family dynamics. On the one hand, some daughters grew up in the shadow of a sibling whose parents, they felt, had defined as perfect, and impossible to equal. (Curiously enough, I recently discovered that in some families, the "perfect" older sibling doesn't see herself that way at all.) On the other hand, others got the message from their parents that they could do no wrong, and were shocked to discover that the rest of the world did not always agree. In any case, those who suffered from the impostor phenomenon felt chronically anxious about their performance and had great difficulty believing that they deserved any success that they had.
It's rule of the 2020s that intersectionality divides the human race into different species with different problems. Clance and Imes identified the impostor phenomenon as female, and Jamison followed their lead. Here is her only mention of men: "Although men do report feeling like impostors, the experience is primarily associated with women, and the word “impostor” has been granted special feminized forms—“impostrix,” “impostress”—since the sixteen-hundreds." I would like to suggest that leaving out half the population leads her to miss some very important points.
We have lived now for more than two hundred years in a society where success is largely a function of educational success, and that has become more and more true over the last century. From the age of 5 onward (and sometimes earlier among the affluent today) we get the message that our performance in school will determine our whole life. That inevitably creates terror and rage among those who do not succeed in school, and massive insecurity among many of those who do. Men had to put up with this before women did, and they developed numerous coping strategies, some of them unhealthy. Men may traditionally have had more trouble expressing their feelings because they had to suppress many of them to keep functioning in the wider world. Women began entering the professions in large numbers in the 1970s and discovered these emotional problems as well, and Clance and Imes researched them and gave them a name. I have known many male academics who clearly had impostor syndrome, and it comes up repeatedly in an autobiography of a distinguished academic that I have now read in manuscript. And I have read several interviews with professional athletes, whose achievements are a matter of record, who could never feel that they really belonged among their fellow competitors. I would suggest that we are not dealing with a female problem here, but rather with a problem of modern life, which leaves our fates in our own hands.
The omission of men from the article, moreover, is only the first step towards deconstructing what I believe is a pretty universal experience of modernity. Jamison describes a dinner at which she described her own impostor syndrome, which was serious enough to induce her to lie about what she had actually read in classes. Then she quotes "the only woman of color at the table." Let me quote parts of several paragraphs from the article.
"She graciously explained that she didn’t particularly identify with the experience. She hadn’t often felt like an impostor, because she had more frequently found herself in situations where her competence or intelligence had been underestimated than in ones where it was taken for granted.
"In the years since then, I’ve heard many women of color—friends, colleagues, students, and people I’ve interviewed on the subject—articulate some version of this sentiment. Lisa Factora-Borchers, a Filipinx American author and activist, told me, 'Whenever I’d hear white friends talk about impostor syndrome, I’d wonder, How can you think you’re an impostor when every mold was made for you? When you see mirror reflections of yourself everywhere, and versions of what your success might look like?'
"Adaira Landry, an emergency-medicine physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, told me about her first day at the U.C.L.A. med school. Landry, a first-generation college student from an African American family, met a fellow first-year student, a man, who was already wearing a white coat, although they hadn’t yet had their white-coat ceremony. His mother was in health care and his sister was in med school, and they’d informed him that if he wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon, which he did, it would be beneficial to start shadowing someone immediately. Landry went home that night feeling dispirited, as if she were already falling behind, and a classmate told her, 'Don’t worry, you just have impostor syndrome.'
"For Landry, this was only the first of many instances of what she calls 'the misdiagnosis of impostor syndrome.' Landry understands now that what her classmate characterized as a crisis of self-doubt was simply an observation of an external truth—the concrete impact of connections and privilege. Eventually, Landry looked up Clance and Imes’s 1978 paper; she didn’t identify with the people described in it. 'They interviewed a set of primarily white women lacking confidence, despite being surrounded by an educational system and workforce that seemed to recognize their excellence,' she told me. 'As a Black woman, I was unable to find myself in that paper.'"
In the same way that Jamison decided arbitrarily that men's feelings don't count, these nonwhite women are saying, in words of one syllable, that white women have no right to feel impostor syndrome because the system is rigged in their favor. Now I know that some nonwhites would resent me questioning the feelings of anyone who isn't white on the grounds of my own supposed privilege, but I will go to my grave believing that the emotional similarities among human beings far outweigh demographic differences. I also believe that different groups--including straight white men--must feel free to express their opinions about individuals from other groups if we are going to live together. The responses of the women above, it seems to me, offer them relief from the insecurity bred by modern life, insofar as they put all the responsibility for any disappointments that they may experience on a racist society, not upon themselves. I don't think this is a healthy response, especially for them.
The Parkland Conference that I participated in last May featured an interview with the black commentator and one-time English professor Shelby Steele. Steele argued, as he has for a long time, that the civil rights acts of the 1960s removed most of the barriers to black advancement in the United States, but that some black people prefer to regard themselves as victims rather than to risk competition in the wider world that opened up to them. I introduced myself to him afterwards and suggested that competition within the wider world was terrifying for anyone, and that many people of all races and genders would be happy to seize on a convenient excuse that would absolve them of the responsibility for any failure. He agreed. I can't help noting, either, that many highly successful black people--and women--continue to insist that society is rigged against them. Isabel Wilkerson and Nikole Hannah-Jones worked for the New York Times, and Ta Na-hisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendhi have written best sellers and won MacArthur fellowships. To assume that the system is and always will be rigged against you relieves you of the burden of wondering whether you really deserve what you have secured for yourself or not, by submerging your personal fate within the fate of your demographic group. It makes it impossible for you to understand the problems that other kinds of people actually do experience. It also lifts the burden of recognizing the family dynamics which do so much to shape all our self-images.
I will close with two general observations. Our modern world is only a couple of centuries old and we may not yet appreciate its psychic costs fully. Almost four years ago I discussed the sociologist Liah Greenfeld's book Mind, Modernity, Madness, which argues that bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and severe depression are diseases of the modern world that did not exist in pre-modern cultures. She could be right. Our professoriate and commentariat consist of people who have been relatively successful and do not understand how much more severe its burdens are for those who are not. That may be why millions of less successful Americans vote for candidates the successful regard as beyond the pale. This is essentially what I said to Shelby Steele: that modern life is so frightening that almost anyone would be glad to find an excuse for opting out, emotionally if not in their daily lives, of the competition it demands. I regret that some black readers may be offended by this post. I can only ask them to recognize its real point: that we are all in fact in the same boat. And it is also clear from some of the comments on the Shelby Steele interview on youtube, and from dozens of comments on the podcasts of Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, and Coleman Hughes, that many black people agree with Steele in many ways.
More importantly, it seems to me, we can only manage the psychic costs of our competitive society if we take political and economic steps to reduce the stakes of the competition. The twentieth century showed, I think, that the lower economic half of the population will tolerate the wealthy and accept their own lot under certain specific conditions. First, they must be assured of a decent life that is actually getting better as the years go on. Secondly, they must feel part of a greater national enterprise that they can believe in. And lastly, we need severe limits on how wealthy and influential the rich can be. That was the society we built in the United States from the 1930s into the 1970s, and the one that we have moved away from since then. The difference between success and failure is so great that we are moving away from any serious attempt to identify the smartest people among us with standardized tests or even grades. It is no wonder that our new society is, in so many different ways, driving us mad.