Let's Talk About Imposter Syndrome

Leanna M.W. Lui, HBSc


January 04, 2022

Since the start of my graduate degree, I've been overwhelmed, feeling as though I don't belong. Whether I'm in a meeting, doing a presentation, or mentoring a student through the research process, I think to myself, What am I doing? Do I belong here? Who am I to be an authority figure on this matter? Someone could probably do this job better.

Put simply, I have imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is the persistent internalized experience of self-doubt. It's as straightforward as it sounds. Imagine being hired for a job but feeling as though you're not the right person for the role due to lack of training or skill. You feel as though you were offered the job due to sheer luck, even though you were hired on your own merit.

It has been proffered that imposter syndrome is founded on individualistic feelings. In other words, this phenomenon manifests as a result of negative and self-critical views often tied to certain attachment and personality styles (eg, perfectionist tendencies). Notwithstanding its individualistic basis, imposter syndrome is also thought to be a product of a broader social context. Society, culture, organizations, institutions, and even your interactions and relationships with others may play an important and significant role in the development of imposter syndrome. That is to say, imposter syndrome should not be thought of in an isolated bubble. 

To that effect, imposter syndrome is often reported among marginalized groups such as women and ethnic minorities. These groups tend to be subject to negative stereotyping. To put it into perspective, what are some traits that are essential when you think of a strong personality fit for leadership? Agentic. Assertive. Bold. These traits are typically characterized as "masculine" traits, traits that likely do not come to mind first when you think of "feminine" traits, which tend to be communal and warm. As a result of these stereotypes, women may feel greater insecurity in leadership positions, triggering "imposter syndrome."

Similarly, ethnic minorities also commonly experience imposter syndrome. Certain populations may be perceived as being unintelligent, lazy, or underachieving. It's not uncommon to see junior or underpaid positions overrepresented by individuals from marginalized groups. Effectively, this mentality initiates a feedback effect wherein the lack of representation in more prestigious roles elicits doubt for those wanting to fulfill distinguished positions. 

Imposter syndrome is a multifaceted phenomenon. Ultimately, the structures in place, and social interactions and behaviors, have a significant impact on self-worth, -esteem, and -confidence. As the saying goes, old habits die hard. Rather than reinforce dysfunctional behaviors and structures, we should look to celebrate a culture of inclusiveness.

In the past year, I've seen several posts on my social media accounts speaking on the topic of imposter syndrome. It's incredible to see how many people are openly discussing their challenges with imposter syndrome. It's also oddly comforting to know that behind the faces of many successful people are human beings. By openly discussing these challenges and confronting the behaviors that reinforce negative behaviors, we can prevent and address imposter syndrome. 

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About Leanna Lui
Leanna M.W. Lui, HBSc, completed an HBSc global health specialist degree at the University of Toronto, where she is now an MSc candidate. Her interests include mood disorders, health economics, public health, and applications of artificial intelligence. In her spare time, she is a fencer with the University of Toronto Varsity Fencing team and the Canadian Fencing Federation.


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