Epistemology and impostor syndrome

Successful women often suffer from impostor syndrome. As wiredferret succinctly explains,

Imposter Syndrome is the pervasive feeling that whatever success or acclaim you might have, it’s all a cosmic accident, and other people really are much smarter and more successful than you.

Armchair psych follows, in which I massively mix descriptive and prescriptive:

The actor-observer bias and the related self-serving bias often cause a person to attribute her actions and their outcomes to certain kinds of causes, and attribute others’ actions, successes and failures to other kinds of causes. In other words, these bias lead me to believe that I caused my own successes and external events caused my failures, but others’ successes are due to luck and their failures are their own fault. Depressives’ biases run the other way; a clinically depressed person often believes that any good thing that happens to her is luck, she causes all her own failures, and her peers and role models and enemies get their deserved successes through their virtues. (Elliot Aronson’s book The Social Animal, chapter 4, “Social Cognition”)

It strikes me that Impostor Syndrome preys on the same epistemological problem as the biases I listed above. How do you know whether you belong, whether you deserve your success, whether your achievements even count as success?

Surprise!  You deserve to think of yourself as successful!

Surprise! You deserve to think of yourself as successful!

How would I know if another person, female or male, were succeeding or failing in my position? Would I judge them by number of emails sent per day, quality of relationships, apartment cleanliness, salary, credentials, orgasms per week, number of FLOSS commits?

Well, I could try to make a yardstick.  Consensus reality has an array of subjective and objective criteria for “is this person a success?” Proxies include money, influence, fame, respect from one’s community, and pride. I can use that data to try to fight the automatic negative thoughts. My bosses and colleagues praise my work unbidden. I’ve written articles I’m proud of. I can make strangers laugh at my jokes. I know so much about technology that my friends and acquaintances consistently ask me for tech advice. At one job I was earning more yearly than my dad ever did. I aimed to do foo and I did it.

“Does this person belong?” Belonging seems trickier, slippery and social. What’s the baseline? What’s a good metric for “does this group really accept and like me”? I can come up with plenty of falsifiable propositions to check whether they act as though they like me, perhaps even whether they are sending costly and hard-to-fake signals that they like me, but I can’t check their internal states.

And besides, it takes a lot of discipline and consciousness to address Impostor Syndrome with data. As long as I’m concentrating, I can believe I’m competent. But the data can be pretty handwavy.  And unless I use that data to change my permanent beliefs, sooner or later I’m subconsciously moving the goalposts on myself.  So at some point I have to just start acting as if I believe I’m good enough, stop believing — without proof! — that I’m a fraud, and allow my identity and beliefs to be fluid enough to catch up.

And we all have nonfalsifiable beliefs that undergird our behaviors. We all make assumptions to get through the day. Maybe you believe that men and women should have equal opportunities in the workplace, or that sunrises are beautiful, or that all humans should behave compassionately, or that God does, or does not, exist. Too many women refuse to add “I am a success” and “I deserve to be here” to their list of beliefs. If your excuse is that you can’t believe it because it’s not objectively provable, well, neither is “I am a failure” or “I don’t deserve this awesomeness” — let’s do some social construction to fit our blueprints for once.

What would I be like, if I were successful and deserved it? Well, I’ll try to act like that, then.

Other useful resources on Impostor Syndrome include Valerie Young’s Overcoming the Impostor Syndrome blog and Anna Fels’s great book Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives.

7 thoughts on “Epistemology and impostor syndrome

  1. Asad

    I’m not sure that definition of Impostor Syndrome makes sense, because

    a) chances are you (generic “you,” including me) really are where you are mostly because of a cosmic accident/Providence

    b) there probably really are people who are much smarter than you


    c) there probably really are people who are successfuller than you

    so having such a sense is quite justified for 99.9% of the human race.

    I think the right way to think about it is that if *you* are an impostor, then by the same measure, so are the vast majority of people who’ve received even a modicum of similar success. Including the really confident people. Actually, especially the really confident people.

    1. spz

      I have to agree. The way I see it “I’m only cooking with water”.
      But at least I use a pot. And water.
      Whereas all too many others don’t even manage -that- (and still get paid for their efforts). :7

  2. Liz

    So, Impostermology? 8-)

    I find that it is not really a once and for all “getting over it” but a continual struggle.

  3. Attie


    Sorry, having a random moment of self-revelation here. (While procrastinating from writing a paper because clearly, all my results are worthless and my work is absolutely ridiculously little for the time I spent on it.)

    1. Bene

      Oh, I agree entirely. So many things are ‘anybody could do that, I’m not that great’.

      This is a terribly useful post, actually; I’m glad the phenomenon’s been noticed.

  4. Marisa

    Seemingly absent here is the time factor. “I haven’t put enough time in at this job to be respected.” or “I don’t have enough job experiences in my past to be worthy of this job… it must be a fluke.” It seems to me that ‘men’ are more likely to accept getting a position based on flukes or friends, and ‘women’ are much more focused on getting the acknowledgement “for the right reasons.”

    1. Mackenzie

      hehe Yeah that sounds like me. “I’ve only been using Linux for 3 years. These other people have used Linux for 7-10 years and UNIX for 5 years before THAT! They’re all gonna think I’m a newb.”

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