Do you suffer from imposter syndrome?
Research indicates that likely the best tactic to reduce the impact of imposter syndrome is talking about it.
In the course of disrupting animal exploiting events, I’ve snuck my way into a fair number of venues. One of the most memorable was when I successfully got into the “Cochon 555” event at AT&T stadium in San Francisco, which involved getting past multiple sets of security guards, a metal detector, and even an ID check-point. When I finally found myself inside the venue, I had to wait until the time was right to disrupt. I was so nervous someone was going to figure out that I wasn’t supposed to be there. Maybe someone would recognize me, or realize I didn’t have the same badge as everyone, or just notice that I was alone and anxious. Maybe before I got to say my piece, the gig would be up and I would be exposed as an imposter. Every time I find my way into some place like this, I get these feelings. But ironically, the place where I have felt most nervous to be exposed as an imposter is within the animal rights movement and in my position as a leader.
Let me explain. I don’t mean that I’m secretly eating animals or against the idea of species equality. I’m talking about a phenomenon called imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is feeling that your accomplishments and successes are attributable to luck and circumstance, and not skills or abilities. Like other people who experience imposter syndrome, I’m terrified that, at some point, people are going to discover I'm not as strategic and capable as they think and that there’s no reason I should be DxE’s lead organizer. The world will realize that I’ve just been riding on the coattails of others, or happened to be in the right place at the right time, or somehow managed to get away with being incompetent for this long. I’ll be discovered, found out, and unmasked as a fraud.
Imposter syndrome was first named in the 1970s, when psychologists Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes studied groups of high achieving women who could not internalize their accomplishments and consistently doubted their abilities. Further research shows that imposter syndrome affects people of all demographics and backgrounds, though it is more prevalent amongst underrepresented or marginalized groups. Given the right set of circumstances, like a new job or relationship, up to 70% of people will experience feelings of imposter syndrome at some point in time, though for others, it is a more persistent experience.
My anecdotal experiences talking to others tell me that many women in the movement can relate very much to these experiences and these worries. I’ve heard from activists that they question their abilities constantly, despite ample evidence pointing to their competence. Who are they to try to lead a team or start a new project or take on an important role? Who are they to develop a campaign or think strategically or make decisions? In addition to just being anxiety-inducing, these feelings can prevent people from sharing ideas and stepping up into leadership roles.
So what do we do? Research indicates that likely the best tactic to reduce the impact of imposter syndrome is talking about it. That’s why I’m writing this! It turns out that we’re often wrong about what is going on in other people’s heads. We are under this false impression that everyone else is going about their day without doubts or worries, fully capable and confident in their abilities, and completing their work with ease. We fail to imagine how deeply flawed everyone else is, too. By normalizing this feeling and talking about it, we realize that we’re not just a lone fraud in a sea of experts. Also recommended is writing down a list of your accomplishments or skills in order to build a concrete list of evidence that you are, in fact, capable and successful.
On the other hand, we could spend less time thinking about how to “fix” imposter syndrome, and more time thinking about the circumstances and systems that lead people to feel this way in the first place. A recent Harvard Business Review article entitled “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome” pushes back on the idea that imposter syndrome is the reason women distrust their success. The authors put the onus instead on systemic racism, sexism, and other -isms, and the narrow way in which we view competence and leadership. This quote on confidence particularly stood out to me: “The same systems that reward confidence in male leaders, even if they’re incompetent, punish white women for lacking confidence, women of color for showing too much of it, and all women for demonstrating it in a way that’s deemed unacceptable.” Perhaps it’s the lack of role models or different leadership styles that lead women and people of color to question their abilities, or perhaps even deeper, it’s that (unconscious) bias still leads people to think we don’t truly belong in positions of power.
It’s up to us to create an organizing culture where different leadership styles are valued and where we consistently check and challenge our biases. And while one of DxE’s values is that we aim to do exceptional work for animals, we must also create space for failure. If the thought of failing brings about existential feelings of dread and incompetence, we will be too scared to take the big risks and make the bold moves we know we need to take to create revolutionary change for animals. But to be honest, I think even a perfectly unbiased and supportive environment will never leave me without these feelings of being an imposter. If you feel like that too, know that you are not alone, and don’t let it stop you from taking action. We’re in this together.